Lilongwe — Malawi has tightened its border controls to stop profiteers smuggling much-needed maize out of the country in search of higher prices. Months of drought have left more than a third of the population reliant on food aid, and last month the government invoked the Special Crops Act, which bans the export of some crops.

The government deployed soldiers to seal its porous borders with Tanzania and Zambia, and impounded trucks that are smuggling out the staple crop in pursuit of more profit. Malawi police have also been searching vehicles on roads that lead to the borders.

The size of the trucks stopped by the police suggests that large-scale traders may be involved. "Over a period of two days, we impounded 26 trucks loaded with white maize as they were heading to Chitipa [a district bordering Zambia and Tanzania]," said Enock Livasoni, a police spokesman in Karonga district which borders Tanzania. Police in Chitipa detained at least 17 similar trucks carrying white maize last month, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Severe floods in 2015, followed by major drought in 2016, left 6.7-million of the 17-million Malawians in need of food aid, according to UN agencies. This year’s harvest recently began and has eased the situation, although the World Food Programme says updated hunger figures are not yet available. Its emergency food-aid operations ended last month, as planned.

Chasing the money

International aid agencies in Malawi say maize smuggling has increased as traders seek the higher prices paid in Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Severe drought in Kenya has left some 2.6-million people in need of food aid, and a protracted crisis in war-torn Congo means about 6.7-million rely on food aid there.

Local groups question whether corrupt police officers have been involved in the smuggling, particularly in Chitipa and Karonga districts. "The way things are happening is as though the police are complicit in this act," said Grecian Mbewe, district co-ordinator for Chitipa and Karonga at the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, a non-governmental organisation.

Deputy spokesman for the northern region police headquarters, Maurice Chapola, denied the corruption claims. "If those making the allegations have evidence, let them come forward with names of the corrupt officers and we shall forthwith investigate and prosecute these officers," he said in a phone interview.

Dwindling supplies

Malawian farmers are required to sell their surplus to local vendors and traders. Traders resell it across the country or to the National Food Reserve Agency, which stores maize and releases it mainly in response to humanitarian crises. Traders can only export maize, the country’s main staple crop, if they have special clearance from the government. Such clearance has not been granted since 2008 when Malawi started experiencing a downturn in its harvests.

Maize smuggled to Zambia and Tanzania — from where it can be sold to other countries — fetches higher prices than at home.

A 50kg bag of white maize sells on average for 11,000 Malawian kwacha ($15) in towns and cities in Malawi. Journalists in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania say the same amount fetches the equivalent of 17,000 kwacha ($23). "If such smuggling continues, local [maize] supplies will continue to dwindle," said Mbewe. "As a result, the poor will not be able to afford the price of [maize], which will rise with any increase in demand."

Reuters/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Please sign in or register to comment.