Dairy farming in Malawi is said to be at an infant stage. In 2021 milk harvested was 57.6 million litres. Figures rose the following year to 65.263 million litres. But there’re fears that after Cyclone Freddy – the most severe tropical storm ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere; milk production would lower in 2023, apparently because dairy cows are starving after the cyclone washed away a large proportion of communal grassland – Tamanda Matebule reports.
For the recent past; in spite of Malawi’s dairy industry being young; figures indicate the industry has continued to display potential for development and growth.
From one year to the next; milk production has steadily improved.
The jump from 57.6 million litres produced in 2021 to 65.3 million litres produced a year later in 2022 as recorded by the Milk Producers’ Association of Malawi has been some news to cherish.
Consumption per capita too has constantly been on the rise.
From 5 litres per person per year in 2020 to 8 litres per person per year in 2021 to 10 litres per person per year in 2022 – a very encouraging trail towards the WHO benchmark of 100 litres per person per year.
Yet; in spite of such steady growth Malawi remains the lowest on milk intake index in Africa, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
With an estimated 82, 000 dairy cows in the country quoting the Department of Agriculture and Animal Health and a growing interest for the dairy industry there’s held a potential for further growth and development.
However, the recent wave of cyclones and Cyclone Freddy in particular has upset this narrative, disturbed this rhythmic growth and shaken this foundation.
For; when the storm landed rivers didn’t just break their banks.
As violent waters meandered; sweeping away villages and crushing homes; they did the same washing away over 204, 800 hectares of arable land according to the department of disaster management.
It’s emerging; that diary-farming has been disrupted. Milk production has not only dropped. Its’ also gone scarce on the shelf; in turn, threatening the nutritional gains being posted.
Wesly Ziponda a dairy farmer in Phalombe, a far south district bordering Mozambique observes milk harvest has lowered since Cyclone Freddy hit and washed away vast piece of arable land earlier in March this year.
A farmer of 102 dairy cows; he says, with climate change, dairy farming has now become a challenge as the cows are hardly coping with extreme climatic conditions either increased temperatures or storms.
With the emergence of cyclones and their subsequent impact, he says, pasture is hardly regenerating and cows are now starving.
“In turn, milk production has dwindled and traders are now importing the commodity to replenish their shelves to meet the consumer-demand. Sadly this has potential to affect the annual revenue mark of MK16.9 billion generated from this industry.
“This is because the majority of dairy farming, about 80% takes place in the southern region where Cyclone Freddy hit the hardest,” says Ziponda.
Dr. Bettie Kawonga, an animal scientist with the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources – Luanar says Cyclone Freddy has effectively struck a setback on diary-farming and milk production in general.
“It’s important to note that cyclones; resulting from climate change are impacting on food as well as nutritional security.
“For Malawi its’ been a double blow because most areas used for grazing livestock has been washed away and this has complicated the diary-farming experience.
“Due to the twine-issues of climate change and cyclones there’s been a reduction in terms of the land and grass available for grazing,” observes Dr. Kawonga.
She cites Blantyre and Shire-valley Agriculture Development Divisions whose dairy cow constitute over 80 % of the country’s diary sector as being heavily affected leading to this challenge.
On the other hand; Ronald Chilumpha, an agriculture-policy-influencer notes that farmers in these agriculture development divisions are walking long distances searching for green-grass to feed their livestock.
With this; he observes, other issues are now emerging including a rise in the cost of supplemental feeds particularly concentrates whose prices have now almost tripled after Cyclone Freddy.
“Effectively the cost of production has increased but the prices at which farmer are selling milk has remained the same.
“When you calculate the gross-margins to see if the farmers are making any profit you find that most of them are either breaking even or posting losses,” says Chilumpha.
Given this threat; Dr. Kawonga says dairy farmers are gradually exiting the dairy sector.
As a result, she says, there’s been a drop in milk being taken to processors and in turn; a drop in the volume of milk going to the market.
“As a matter of fact; we are at a stand-still because processors aren’t getting the desired volume … in turn; the market has been suffocated and consumers are being deprived of the commodity.
“This is potentially putting the nutritional outcomes and nutritional gains at risk,” she observes.
In the face of these emerging realities; Professor Ishmael Mphangwe-Kosamu – an environmental management scientist from the Malawi University of Business and Applied Science thinks it’s now time the country invested on post-disaster recovery.
Given these unpredictable occurrences resulting from climate change he suggests time has come to consider specific interventions towards safeguarding food and livestock security.
He says: “These cyclones are disturbing the natural balance of everything including the pastoral supply. In the end the country is now suffering from the provisioning availability ecosystem services that nature does provide to us.
“The animals cannot produce enough milk in the end us as humans who rely on the milk are affected. Already the country has low milk supply and intake and these cyclones are even compromising the situation even more.”
To balance the situation; Dr. Mangani Katundu, a nutritionist with the University of Malawi observes the need to invest more in storage technologies of green grass.
“This will be one of the surest ways of safeguarding the dairy sector because it will ensure farmers have adequate feed for their cattle even in times of natural disasters like,” he says.
So far, Dr. Katundu, says it’s also important that the country encourages farmers to produce the milk so the country continues to build on gains registered by local dairy farmers.
However, looking into the near future, Herbert Chagona, executive director of Milk Producers Association of Malawi fears milk would become scarce on the market.
Apparently, he prays, there should be an improvement in the misfortunes that have led to the drop in volumes of milk, which farmers are taking to off-takers for processing.
Thinking ahead of time; Chagona says it’s also high time the country did a deep rethink of its policies and invested purposefully in sustainable interventions that would keep the diary afloat with or without climatic shocks.