Infrastructure, droughts, floods, and food security: Field research in Malawi

Infrastructure, droughts, floods, and food security: Field research in Malawi

Setting off to southern Malawi

ZEF researcher Henry Kankwamba with Malawi children

The sun scorched us mercilessly as we got out of the Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series. The water that we had just bought from the nearest town 30 kilometers away was as hot as our morning coffee. It was an October morning in Nsanje, the most southern located district of Malawi. In the not so far distance, as ghosts appearing from the late morning mirage, a group of children was running after our field research vehicle. As the children approached the vehicle, their tooth-pick thin legs, forced smiles of innocence and the darker shades of their eyes exuded something rather unsettling. They had obviously not had anything resembling food since the previous one or two nights. We neither had the food nor the resources to change their circumstances. We just smiled back and continued to our focus-group discussions.

Talking about food with hungry people

The topic of our discussion was how these villagers coped with vagaries of climate change to ensure that they have food throughout the year. Evidently, the armchair-analyzed and desk-reviewed topic was ill- conceived as the villagers were hunger-stricken. We still had to talk about food and weather, though. After some time-wasting platitudes, we got to the gist of why we went to their village.

A tall, dark, middle-aged man with sparsely dispersed grey hair motioned his hand and spoke, “Bwana,” – mister as it loosely translates – “truth be told, in this village, as you can see, people are suffering. See, we do not have an all-weather road. We know that you had to travel about 30 kilometers to get here because there is no bridge over the nearby river. When we, ourselves, try to cross the river to the other side, we are frequently attacked by crocodiles. In similar tragic circumstances, just last week we lost two children who tried to traverse the river to school – their teachers always complain that our children are perpetual late-comers and absentees. The school is eight kilometers across the river on the other side of the hill.”

The villagers hummed in unison signaling agreement. Another villager stood up, this time an elderly man with a shaky voice and added, “In this community, most of our children die before they reach five years old. People say we practice witchcraft such that we eat them while young but it is not true Bwana. In fact, when they get sick, situations get dire on our way to the clinic. In most cases we lose them. Further, our women usually give birth from home for the fear and shame of delivering on the long way to the hospital – which is 50 kilometers away.”

I started realizing that the discomfort in my friends’ countenance was coming from neither the heat nor the fact that these villagers seemed to be veering off-topic but rather that their stories were too excruciatingly true to be brushed off for the sake of being topical. We decided to give in and listen to them:

“Ages ago, the district commissioner visited us and established a market in our community. Nevertheless, as we submit to you, the market is not functional. They say that we are too poor to buy things and there is no road for vendors to reach us. The sad faces that you are seeing are because, during the last rainy season, floods washed away our crops and although we tried to grow extra crops in winter, it is costly to carry our produce to the main market in town. In fact, due to lack of transport, we carry the produce on our heads to the market. However, we often meet bandits on the way and should we get lucky to reach the market, they often buy our produce for a song. The people in town tell us that we village folk do not know how things get done in town.” a young man explained.

After a couple of similar stories, we decided to let the men go to their respective activities and we were left with women, who, as they unanimously agreed, took care of the homes in terms of food. One thing though was clear, everyone talked about how they missed the presence and smell of nsima – a thick porridge made from either maize, sorghum or millet often eaten with vegetables, pulses or rarely meat as a side dish in this community. One young lady reported, “We haven’t had nsima for the last three days in our house…so we are only living on some herbs and banana stems.” I was bewildered. “When we have nsima, we usually eat it with local vegetables.”

“What about meat?” One of my colleagues asked. “Bwana, we only taste meat or its soup during Christmas, distant weddings or when the chief dies” an elderly woman with a dry sense of humor retorted.

Integrating real-life stories into research questions

These stories prompted a desire in me to ascertain the impact of idiosyncratic and covariate shocks on food security. Specifically, I asked the question, how much infrastructural investments mitigate impacts of seasonal weather shocks on food security. I used panel data from Malawi that was collected by the National Statistics Office of Malawi (NSO) with support from the World Bank’s Living Standards Measurement Surveys and Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS – ISA). In addition, I used data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to get weather data and night -time pictures of lights that come from electricity to indicate availability of some infrastructure to supplement the information that came from the survey.

After a battery of econometric tests, I found that food security is negatively affected by extreme weather events as the villagers explained. However, if you provide some form of infrastructure such as a road, a clinic, electricity etc. there is usually a significant turnaround in the effects. Food security increases with infrastructure and impacts of shocks are reduced.

Therefore, in order to make meaningful strides to end hunger by 2030, it is expedient to invest in infrastructure. The study shows that infrastructure can generate meaningful welfare changes as indicated by food security.

This research has been published as a ZEF Discussion Paper:  Kankwamba, H. and Kornher L. (2019). How much do infrastructural investments mitigate impacts of seasonal shocks on food security?
ZEF-Discussion Papers on Development Policy No. 289.
Downloadable here:

This blog post was written by Henry Kankwamba, junior researcher in ZEF’s Department of Economic and Technological Change.

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