HomeCategoryRussia's fertilizer gift to Malawi has a downside

Russia’s fertilizer gift to Malawi has a downside

Charm offensive: women shell corn in the village of Malembo in the district of Lilongwe. By delivering fertilizer to Malawi, the Russian ambassador suggested an alliance. Photo: Amos Gumulira/Getty Images

PThe maize crop at Ether Chapola in the central district of Malawi is almost ready for harvest. But his family is hungry and has started eating green honey. It will still be weeks before they can dry the maize to make flour, the staple food in Malawi.

The season just before harvest is called the lean season for a reason. Food is scarce in an agrarian society. And agriculture accounts for about 80% of all jobs and 30% of Malawi’s economy, according to the World Bank.

It was only last week that Chapola received a bag of fertilizer from the government as part of his program to support the poor and vulnerable with agricultural resources.

“It’s too late,” he says. “I’ll save it and maybe use it next year.”

Farmers like Chapola could also sell the fertilizer to get through the lean season, only to have to buy more fertilizer later, at a higher price.

For Malawi, the fertilizer shortage began before the Russian invasion. The government had begun cracking down on fertilizer cartels, according to Betchane Tcherene, an economist at the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences. “While they were doing that, the war in Ukraine disrupted supply chains.”

With export cuts from Ukraine and sanctions from Russia, Malawi was unprepared and in recent years the cost of fertilizers has more than doubled.

And the world is facing a shortage of phosphorus, which threatens global food security, due to excessive use of phosphate fertilizer. Phosphate, along with wastewater, reaches bodies of water and causes algae blooms that threaten aquatic life. Moreover, phosphorus in large quantities is found only in a few countries: Morocco and Western Sahara, China, and then Algeria.

Moscow saw an opportunity for a diplomatic charm offensive. Malawi received 20,000 tons of fertilizer this week. A total of 260,000 tons will be distributed throughout the African continent.

Delivering the fertilizer in Lilongwe, Russian Ambassador Nikolai Krasilnikov made it clear that the gift came with expectations.

Lamenting the sanctions on his country, Krasilnikov said: “We are very confident that it is time for us to stop the blockade on Russian products and fertilizers. We are ready to support developing countries with agricultural products, but we need your voice to support us.”

He suggested that countries should help Russia “for the benefit of building strategic alliances” in Africa.

He also announced that President Vladimir Putin has invited the President of Malawi to the Russia-Africa summit to be held in Saint Petersburg. He said Russian health professionals were also ready to help Malawi fight its cholera outbreak.

However, Malawi has been remarkably outspoken in its condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and in its vote in favor of United Nations resolutions condemning Putin’s belligerence. Russia also has no real history with Malawi, which sided with the West during the Cold War.

And on a macro level, the free fertilizer on offer is little more than a small change.

Nic Cheeseman of the Democracy in Africa think tank said the power play “will work up to a point” but then countries will see how much money it represents.

“Russia seems to have limited resources, so it cannot support fertilizer with further investment in other areas.

“It will not displace the United States and China as the most influential international partners in Africa.”

Malawi also remains highly dependent on support from foreign donors; World Bank data shows this amounted to $1 billion in 2020, with the economy generating $7 billion. Western donor money is crucial for services such as education, health, energy supply and others.

Fertilizer from Russia comes too late for this season and too little to fuel hopes of a new friendship.

This article first appeared on The continentthe pan-African weekly produced in collaboration with the mail and guardian. It is designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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