New Internationalist

Defying The Drought

Issue 229

new internationalist
issue 229 - March 1992

Defying the drought
Botswana fights back even as hunger bites deep into
the rest of Africa. Colleen Lowe Morna explains how.

[image, unknown]
BRUCE PATON / PANOS

Matama Maphane is an elderly widow who cares for her five grandchildren in a small village in Botswana. She is also a farmer, though she is not strong enough to tend more than one acre of land, which yielded less than one bag of grain a year during the drought between 1981 and 1987 and has only yielded slightly more in the last three seasons.

Matama survives by helping to build homes for teachers as part of the Government's drought-relief programme. This provides her with money to buy extra food. Without it, she says, she would have become an urban refugee; her grandchildren would probably not have survived.

The vast, semi-arid country Matama lives in seldom produces half its food requirements - even in a good year. Yet it has won high praise as one of the few African countries to have won freedom from famine. Its achievement lies not so much in its agricultural performance, but in handling the worst drought in the country's history in a way that made it possible for people like Matama to survive.

Thanks to a drought-relief programme and an early-warning system which ensured that food was distributed well, not a single person in Botswana died of starvation - and this at a time when some African countries were suffering massive famines. The country emerged from the drought with less malnutrition than before. Suddenly it seemed possible that it could become the first country on the continent to end hunger.

It was the discovery of diamonds in the desert which made this possible. Throughout the 1980s Botswanas economy had the fastest growth rate in Africa - indeed one of the fastest in the world. And today, while most African countries face vast debts and foreign-currency shortages, Botswana has enough money stashed in its central bank for three years' worth of food imports.

But having the means to import and distribute food is no guarantee that a country will feed its people: in mineral-rich Zaire, leaders have salted away resources while their people have continued to go hungry.

Botswana, however, is one of a handful of African countries to have enjoyed democratic government ever since its independence in 1966. Although the ruling Botswana Congress Party has yet to be ousted, it has gone faithfully to the polls every five years. And since most people in Botswana live in rural areas, drought is a serious political issue. The ruling party could never have stayed in power without taking the battle against hunger seriously.

The drought-relief programme had five main prongs. First, all vulnerable groups in rural areas - such as children under five and pregnant women - received supplementary feeding. Second, an extra 60,000 jobs were created in rural areas, equivalent to the number lost in the drought. Third, a special fund helped cattle owners to buy fodder and vaccinations, and bought up ailing cattle to reduce pressure on pastures. Fourth, poor arable farmers were given a huge discount on draft power, a simple plough and fencing. Fifth, farmers were paid to plough more land - and then to destump and plant it.

This programme did not come cheap, but Botswana has reaped huge benefits. While most drought-ridden African countries have seen increasing child deaths, Botswana's infant mortality rate has plunged to 72 per thousand - the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa.

More rain over the past three seasons has enabled Botswana to produce on average half its own food needs, compared with only 10 per cent during the drought years. The Government has scaled down agricultural subsidies every year since the last drought in order not to create dependency; and today only the sick and needy receive supplementary feeding. Thoughts are turning to how agriculture might support the country's one million people in the long term.

The key to the future may lie with small farmers like Makani and Baratani Majaya. Before 1972 Makani, like many Botswana men, worked in the mines of South Africa. But, as unemployment mounted there, he was made redundant and returned home.

'While I was working in the mines, I had no time for the family plot,' Makani recalls. 'It was a tired piece of land. But I decided to see if we could improve the soil.'

Initially the Majayas tried chemical fertilizers but these damaged the soil. So they experimented with manure until they found a mix that worked - and ploughed in a way that took best advantage of the rains.

As a result the Majayas have grown enough food even during the drought years. In the last three years they have produced enough of a surplus to grow vegetables for the Francistown market. Coupled with the Government's far-sightedness, innovations like theirs give Botswana hope.

Colleen Lowe Mama is a writer who has worked in Southern Africa for many years.

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