Diminishing Choices: Gender, Small Bags of Fertilizer, and Household Food Security Decisions in Malawi

by Robert P. Uttaro

Abstract

This paper examines two decisions farmers in southern Malawi make every planting season: whether or not to acquire increasingly expensive chemical fertilizers and whether or not to buy and plant equally expensive hybrid maize seed.   Both choices are interrelated.  Maize is the staple food crop in Malawi and the key to food security; and traditionally, 95 percent of the total land area cultivated in maize has been planted to local open-pollinated varieties instead of the newer semi-flint hybrids.  Local maize is very popular with smallholder subsistence farmers as is hybrid maize, that when fertilized, intensifies production improving food security at both household and national levels.  In the current economic environment, however, planting hybrid maize has two drawbacks.  The first is the high price of seed and the second is its high requirements of fertilizer. With fertilizer unaffordable to many farmers, especially to women farmers of poorer female-headed households, planting hybrid maize is impractical.  This paper disaggregates Malawi’s farmers into subgroups of men, married women, and female headed households, describes the decision processes they make, and examines whether small bags of fertilizer will make any difference to the dilemma they now face.

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Robert P. Uttaro is a graduate student at the University of Florida finishing up a PhD in political science.  He spent 16 months in Malawi between 1996 and 1998.