Seeds and Subsidies: The Political Economy of Input Programmes in Malawi
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This paper provides a critical account of the cereal seed systems in Malawi both in a historical and contemporary context with particular reference to the three input support programmes implemented since the late 1990s to date. The main argument of this paper is that the centrality of the question of food security in the country’s electoral politics in a post liberalisation context has created a seed industry dominated by multinational seed companies, offering farmers a narrow range of products mainly hybrid maize, and in which alternative cereal seed systems such as millet and sorghum are at the verge of extinction. The commercial interests of the multinational seed companies are propped by donors who are obsessed with promoting a vibrant private sector input supply system as an engine of a sustainable green revolution through input support programmes. This has invariably privileged the genetic material supplied by the multinational seed companies at the expense of the national breeding programme whose main client are the local seed companies controlling only 10 percent of the seed market. The government’s fixation on food security has also contributed to privileging the genetic material from multinational seed companies since they are deemed to be high yielding even though at the expense of the seed supply variety to the farmer. The interests of seed companies, donors and government have, even though for different reasons, coincided to create a seed industry that has a very narrow product portfolio, distributes benefits to a very small proportion of the population through various forms of commercial ventures and schemes of political patronage buoyed by excessive weaknesses in the regulatory framework for the seed industry. This paper therefore demonstrates that policy processes are predominantly characterised by the clash of competing and conflicting interests and viewpoints rather than impartial, disinterested or objective search for correct solutions for policy issues. However, the voices and views of the dominant coalitions almost always shape the major policy directions. The major recommendations for revitalising the seed industry include: 1. improving the efficiency and implementation of regulatory frameworks; 2. enhancing public sector breeding and dissemination of improved varieties; and 3. creating an enabling environment to stimulate local seed enterprises that can deliver products with the needs of the smallholder farmer in mind.