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Re-evaluating the Malawian Farm Input Subsidy Programme

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 13 March 2017


The Malawian Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP) has received praise as a proactive policy that has transformed the nation's food security, yet irreconcilable differences exist between maize production estimates distributed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Malawi Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security (MoAFS) and the National Statistical Office (NSO) of Malawi. These differences illuminate yield-reporting deficiencies and the value that alternative, politically unbiased yield estimates could play in understanding policy impacts. We use net photosynthesis (PsnNet) as an objective source of evidence to evaluate production history and production potential under a fertilizer input scenario. Even with the most generous harvest index (HI) and area manipulation to match a reported error, we are unable to replicate post-FISP production gains. In addition, we show that the spatial delivery of FISP may have contributed to popular perception of widespread maize improvement. These triangulated lines of evidence suggest that FISP may not have been the success it was thought to be. Lastly, we assert that fertilizer subsidies may not be sufficient or sustainable strategies for production gains in Malawi.

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Figure 1: Agricultural yield trends across Malawi (2001–2014), measured using net primary productivity (NPP) and PsnNet.
Figure 2: District-level MoAFS maize production statistics before and after FISP.
Figure 3: Comparison between MoAFS maize estimates and FAO distributed data.
Figure 4: Comparison between the PsnNet-to-yield conversion, FAO distributed maize yield, MoAFS reported maize yield and NSO estimates.
Figure 5: District-level MoAFS maize yield statistics before and after FISP.
Figure 6: District-level maize PsnNet-to-yield statistics before and after FISP.


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We are grateful for the expertise and assistance provided by faculty and staff at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) and to those at Africa Rising for facilitating our research in the field. Special thanks to M.N. Kakwera of LUANAR and R. Chikowo of Africa Rising. Additional thanks to L. Liu for assistance with database construction. We also thank the reviewers of this manuscript for their many helpful comments. This work was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation under Grant OPP1076311 and through support of the United States Agency for International Development AID-OAA-A-13-00006. The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the US Agency for International Development or the US Government.

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J.P.M., B.G.P. and S.S.S. contributed equally to writing and researching this work.

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Correspondence to Joseph P. Messina.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Messina, J., Peter, B. & Snapp, S. Re-evaluating the Malawian Farm Input Subsidy Programme. Nature Plants 3, 17013 (2017).

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