Journal Issue

Lilongwe: A Quiet Revolution

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
June 1971
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Thomas A. Blinhhorn

It was early morning when we left Lilongwe and already the sun drilled the land like a blowtorch. Three days earlier the southeast trades, sweeping across Mozambique from the Indian Ocean as they do late every year, had blown in a thick clump of rain clouds. The drenching, though just a hint of things to come, was enough to drive slender green maize shoots through the crusty earth in a few spots. Still, the vast bulk of Malawi’s central plain stood in hostage, waiting for the rains to revive again the ancient cycle of nourishment and growth.

J. M. Ligomeka is not one to wait much. He is living proof that small farmers are not necessarily the impervious enemies of change that some detractors make them out to be. For much of his 65 years, he struggled to wrest a bare existence from Malawi’s stubborn soils. Only recently he learned that by using new seed, a bit of fertilizer, a few different planting techniques, he could win a decisive edge in his combat with the land. He could grow more and better maize. This discovery has had a startling impact; Mr. Ligomeka is a confirmed agent of change, a delighted revolutionary convinced that he is now more a master of his environment. Conviction of this sort inspires a certain confidence. And this perhaps explains why this aging African farmer bends low in the broiling sun, racing the clock to get in his seeds before the rains arrive.

“This is my garden,” he announces proudly, right hand sketching an imaginary loop around a large, reddish brown stretch of property. Neatly spaced rows curve off in either direction. In the distance, two men working with a string, a stick, and two hoes, create new ridges, each emerging in mathematical precision, each flowing with the contour of the land.

The old man, talking through an interpreter, continues working. He flicks a tiny kernel into a shallow pocket at the top of the ridge, flings in some fertilizer, pushes soil over the mixture. Then he moves a step and repeats the process.

“Here,” he beckons, holding out a handful of seed, “you try.” Soon all of us are moving along the ridges, planting maize seeds, chatting about growing seasons, increased yields, and those blessed clouds billowing on the horizon.

Beginning the Transformation

There are scores of farmers like J.M. Ligomeka working the Lilongwe plain. They are central figures in a dramatic agricultural transformation. A naturally optimistic observer, struck by the pace of change here, must constantly remind himself that any transformation of this sort can be troublesome, even painful. Lilongwe isn’t without travail. On balance, however, what has occurred to date is an impressive and promising marriage between new technology and traditional agriculture—a symbiosis that, if it continues to thrive as planned by the Malawian Government and the International Development Association (IDA), will benefit nearly 60,000 smallholder families in this small east African nation.

Malawi is a sliver of a nation clinging to the western shores of Lake Malawi. It is wedged between Mozambique and Tanzania on the east, and Zambia on the west. Its land area is a little less than that of Greece, a little more than that of Guatemala. On July 6, 1907, the country, then a British Protectorate, officially became Nyasaland, after “Nyanja Nyenyezi” the name given to the lake by people of the area. On the same day, 57 years later, the independent nation of Malawi was born—Malawi (“bright haze” or “reflected light”) being the name of a much older African nation that existed before the Europeans came.

By any economic reckoning, Malawi is an extremely poor country, with a per capita income of $52 a year. Its total population, more than 4 million at last official count, increases by an estimated 3 per cent or more annually. Each square mile of land, on the average, holds 122 or more Malawians (good agricultural areas such as Lilongwe are populated by more than 250 persons per square mile).

Agriculture—subsistence agriculture primarily—is the mainstay of the nation, involving more than 90 per cent of the population. Obviously, then, it was the agricultural sector that became the all important focus of government development efforts after independence. An early drive to bring unused land into cultivation has paid off in increased production, especially of cash crops such as groundnuts and tobacco. But it quickly became apparent that this strategy alone would not suffice. With a rapidly expanding population and a fixed land area, Malawi simply had to make better use of its agriculturally suitable land. There was no other realistic choice. But how to do it?

A Pilot Scheme

A small pilot scheme financed by the British in 1965 provided a good clue. Centered south of Lilongwe in one of the most densely populated but agriculturally promising regions, it demonstrated that a closely coordinated system of new inputs and improvements—fertilizers, soil conservation, extension services, roads, etc.—could significantly spur agricultural productivity.

Convincing signs of success came quickly. A synthetic maize variety, responding quickly to fertilizer, performed well in research trials, yielding considerably more than unimproved varieties and promising as much as 50 or even 100 per cent gains with timely planting, proper spacing, and thorough weeding. In a competition held in June 1969 farmers working fully developed land reported average yields of 3,000 pounds of maize an acre. This compares with 900 to 1,000 pounds an acre before the project began. Most important, smallholders immediately saw the potential and displayed a surprising willingness to give the new system a try. Many are now using hybrid seeds.

This experience reinforced the determination of government officials to seek financial assistance from the International Development Association. The aim: to overhaul the agricultural patterns of a much larger area around Lilongwe, which, incidentally, was picked as the new capital of the nation because of its strategic location. Plans were formulated, proposals drawn up, negotiations begun. In February 1968, a $6 million IDA credit was approved by the Executive Directors of the World Bank. This would cover 86 per cent of the project’s total cost; Malawi would provide the rest. The Lilongwe agricultural development project was under way.

An Extended Program

It is important to note that this first step actually represents an initial four-year phase (1968-1972) of a long-range program involving, in the original plan, 500,000 acres. Original plans called for 168,000 of those acres to be affected in the first four-year phase. Subsequently, that target was expanded to 281,000 acres and the Government is now planning a development program embracing more than 1 million acres—twice the original size.

The overall objective, it should be stressed, is to coax more bounty from the land so that Malawians can feed themselves better and, in addition, accelerate the transition from a subsistence to a market economy. The strategy is not to introduce sweeping change through technically advanced, capital-intensive projects. Rather (and this was something different from many Bank/IDA agricultural projects), it is to initiate an integrated development program, combining technical assistance with a package of simple investments in infrastructure and productive working capital. Farmers continue to use hoes, not tractors. They plant familiar crops—maize, for instance—not new ones. They are fully informed, in advance, about the dimensions of the project. Through demonstration efforts, they get a practical, visual illustration of the peculiar magic that new seed, fertilizer, and straight, weeded ridges built to contour can create.

Targets for the long-range effort include:

• Detailed land-use plans for each drainage section of the entire program area; hundreds of miles of roads; new boreholes with simple hand pumps to tap the good reservoir of underground water 100 feet beneath the surface; an elaborate network of storm drains and drainage ditches to retard and prevent damaging soil erosion; marker ridges at short intervals to guide farmers in ridging their fields by hand; strategically placed government marketing centers throughout the project area (none more than three miles from any one farmer) to serve as focal points for extension and credit work, distribution of seed and fertilizers, collection and purchase of crops; provision of an intensive extension effort—one extension worker to every 200 farm families at first, eventually one worker to every 600-800 families.

• Development of idle but agriculturally suitable land and better use of fallow acres. This will help maintain the existing ratio of cropped land to farm families for at least 15 years despite rapid population growth.

• Development of a 161,000-acre ranch to provide annually, at full development, 200 tons of beef in addition to animals for program area farmers.

• Provision for the survey, demarcation, and reorganization of land, plus voluntary registration of title. This step represents a rather abrupt departure from the traditional system of no firmly established ownership framework; thus the decision not to force registration but to allow it to occur at a natural rate. The basic rationale here is to encourage the farmer to regard his land as a productive asset to be maintained and improved rather than merely a plot of soil to be exploited before moving on to another plot. With population growing so rapidly, “moving on” becomes increasingly difficult.

• A tenfold increase in the marketable surplus of maize, a doubling of groundnut production, and a doubling or more of the production of fat cattle. These increases, especially in a basic subsistence crop such as maize, will be extremely important for a country that has been forced, in years of poor weather and crop failure, to import maize. Increased production in Lilongwe will help cushion the country against future shortages and in time Malawi is expected to increase its exports of maize, and groundnuts as well, thus strengthening the supply of foreign exchange.

Administrative responsibility for the Lilongwe program—in fact for all of Malawi’s agricultural development—now rests with a special unit in the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources. In the project area itself, however, a program manager, with his own staff, runs the operation. The man on the firing line in this instance is an enthusiastic British expatriate, Andrew Mercer, who brings to the task a broad background of agricultural development and farm management experience. He is a member of the Bank’s Agricultural Development Service (ADS), established in 1966. This unit, based in Nairobi, was formed to help meet the growing need in eastern Africa for highly qualified and experienced agricultural managers. The scarce supply of such talent is being lost or underutilized because African countries are often unable to offer career prospects to expatriate officers. The ADS helps fill the gap, at least until African nations can train their own managers. The service also helps prepare projects. The Lilongwe project, for instance, was prepared for the Malawian Government by specialists from the ADS and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with financial assistance from the United Nations Development Program.

This, briefly, is the background and general design of the Lilongwe project. How is it doing, after about three years of operation?

Performance to Date

To begin with, the original target of 168,000 acres to be developed with roads and conservation works in Phase I is already met—a year ahead of schedule. In fact, infrastructure development has already begun on an additional 100,000 acres. Extension, training, and credit programs are moving ahead well. More than 100 wells have been bored and equipped. About 1,400 miles of drainage channel is finished along with 165 miles of crop extraction roads. Construction of the new marketing-service centers is on schedule. More and more farmers are using hybrid maize seed and fertilizers and reporting greatly increased yields. In a maize growing competition last year, involving 46 farmers, the winner registered a yield of 6,800 pounds an acre, using hybrid seeds and fertilizers. Competitors’ yields generally ranged between 3,000 to 3,600 pounds an acre. At full development the program is expected to increase yields from the present 1,000 pounds an acre to 2,000 pounds an acre. Even greater increases are anticipated for groundnut production. Recent experiments have produced yields of up to 2,000 pounds an acre, compared with the average last year of 575 pounds an acre by farmers not benefiting from project activities.

And the problems? Despite the existence of a good training center—the Colby School of Agriculture near Lilongwe—the supply of Malawian nationals equipped to assume administrative and technical posts in the program has not grown as rapidly as desired. Credit arrangements and the distribution of seeds, fertilizers, and other inputs could use some tighter, more efficient organization. Until recently, potential credit users were identified by extension officers and referred to local village committees for final approval. This process is slow, however, and is found to be unnecessary as farmers become more familiar with credit procedures. One indication of this growing familiarity is the fact that those farmers who have obtained seeds and other inputs on credit have compiled a very good repayment record—97 per cent.

The land allocation and registration effort has hit some expected snags—mainly in trying to decide exactly who owns what—and is proceeding slowly, as anticipated. Storage methods also are poor, and losses from pests and other causes average 20 per cent of total grain stored. To combat this, project extension officers are introducing improved corn storage cribs and are encouraging the use of pesticides. A big, long-range question mark is the rapid population growth.

Perhaps the key to sustained success of the Lilongwe effort rests ultimately on the attitudes of the small-holder farmers themselves, on their willingness to change traditional approaches to working the land and to adopt new methods. To get an assessment of this crucial factor we talked with the village chiefs, leaders who, despite intrusions of the twentieth century, remain the real centers of authority and leadership in rural Malawi.

Some Reactions

The common reaction of the chiefs was perhaps best expressed by a slight, soft-spoken man of 26—Chief Kalolo, who presides over 133 villages containing some 51,000 people. A graduate of the University of Malawi, he speaks in slow, precise English:

“My very presence here indicates one aspect of the change in our society,” he began. “Traditionally, we have had a matrilineal form of tribal succession; in fact, most cultivation rights are still held by women. My mother was chief for 40 years. I became chief a year ago.

“This project offers our people a chance to improve themselves. That is the real contribution. Already we see the effects, not only in greater yields but in other ways. The people organize their gardens better than they ever did. They come together more to discuss their mutual problems. The introduction of new techniques naturally creates some apprehension. But it has the effect of drawing people closer together. They share their experience and ideas.”

One startling change is the impact on the traditional festival season, the period from July through September when, after harvest, the majority of dances, weddings, and celebrations of all sorts are held. The revelry still goes on but increasingly more farmers use that period to get their lands in shape for future planting.

Planting schedules also are undergoing radical changes. It used to be that very few gardens were seeded before the rains came. Lately, however, there has been a dramatic shift toward pre-rain cultivation. This reflects the growing recognition that timely planting can perhaps do more to increase yields than perhaps any other single factor. Some village chiefs and leadership committees are even said to be so insistent on this timing factor that they have severely restricted the more leisurely activities of certain prominent imbibers.

Financially, the average farmer stands to gain substantially from the Lilongwe project. Many important “ifs” have to be appended to any such prediction, of course—the continued success of new techniques, the resolution, or at least alleviation, of certain problems, and general market prospects. Nonetheless, recognizing all this, the people who have put the scheme together still calculate that expected higher productivity could, on the average, increase family net cash income from 80 Malawi kwacha (roughly $96 at predevelopment) to about 142 kwacha ($170.40) at full development. Then there are other, perhaps equally important, potential benefits: the protection of agricultural land for generations ahead; development of a growing coterie of Malawian agriculturalists and administrators who could apply the lessons of Lilongwe to other areas. Also, the Lilongwe maize production should eventually be sufficient to allow farmers in other regions, where maize is less efficient, to switch their production to more profitable crops, such as cotton. A cotton project is under way, in fact, in Malawi’s Shire Valley, financed in part by IDA.

Make no mistake: El Dorado is not being created on the dusty Lilongwe plain. The measure of progress that seems to have been generated there may appear puny indeed against the thick agenda of unfinished business in the developing world. But the Lilongwe experience already suggests that a carefully integrated approach to agricultural development does work, that peasant farmers will respond to incentives, that the crucial transition from subsistence to cash farming can be encouraged and accelerated. This is extremely important for the small farmers of Lilongwe and for the continued development of a poor nation like Malawi. It is also important for other developing countries—in Africa and elsewhere—for the Lilongwe effort is now widely regarded as a model for successful agricultural improvement.

World Bank Staff Occasional Papers


by A. A. Walters

In this study. Professor Walters, who was employed by the World Bank as a consultant during parts of 1967 and 1968, examines the problems of determining proper user charges and tax and investment policies for roads. The solution he suggests is some form of marginal cost pricing and use of consumer surplus criteria. He discusses the various reasons advanced for the view that road users should cover the costs of the roads and examines the efficacy of alternative types of road user taxes. Finally, the study considers related issues of budgetary control of road expenditure and user taxes, and their re-distributional and macro economic effects.

243 pages/$5.00 paperback

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