EDITOR'S NOTE: Stephanie Gosk and Yuka Tachibana's report airs tonight on the broadcast. It is part of a series this week "Against the Grain," focusing on food crises around the world.
By Yuka Tachibana, NBC News Producer
KASUNGU, Malawi – Beads of sweat trickled down Emilie Chawala's forehead. She was working in her cornfield where the temperature had reached 90 F – October is the hottest month of the year in Malawi.
But Emilie had no complaints. She knew it was well worth the long and painstaking days she has invested. Her corn crop should be ready for harvest in a few more weeks.
This year's harvest is expected to be a far cry from what Malawians call the "crisis." In 2002 and again in 2005, the country was hit by bouts of severe drought which culminated in catastrophic food shortages and deadly hunger. Nearly a third of the population was left severely malnourished. Dozens of villages reported people dying of starvation. The government was forced to import expensive corn and appeal to neighboring countries for food.
"Those were sad times," Chawala said. "We only ate once a day. The children couldn't go to school because we all had to forage for food. We ate a lot of banana roots. Many people died, it was only chance that God spared us."
After the "crisis" of 2005, the Malawian government launched a bold and costly program which aimed to rid the country of the vicious cycle of drought and hunger.
No more empty stomachs
The government began a subsidy program for small-scale farmers, providing them with fertilizers and high-tech seeds at roughly 15 percent of the market cost – the fertilizers and seeds were required for a more productive and resilient crop. The scheme cost the Malawian government $60 million, a huge amount for one of the poorest countries in the world where the average annual income is only $250.
Malawi's major donors, including the World Bank, European Union and the United States balked and warned Malawi to reconsider. They claimed that such large-scale subsidies would cripple the economy. But the government went ahead.
"We knew it was right," Dr. Jeff Luhanga, who oversees the subsidy program at Malawi's Ministry of Agriculture told us. "They were wrong, and we had seen the suffering. You look at hungry 67faces and it's not comforting. And food aid is very disempowering. Food aid is, if you need it yes, you do, but yes, it's humiliating. I wouldn't want to wake up every morning looking for food for my children. It creates a culture of dependence which should not be."
When the subsidy program was launched, Chawala received a small share of fertilizer and seeds, enough to cultivate her small plot. When harvest time came, she had a bumper crop, and it provided her with more than enough corn to feed her family of 10. Her children no longer had to forage for food, so they were able to go back to school.
"We don't have to go to sleep with empty stomachs anymore," she said.
'Proud to be a self-sustained country'
Like Chawala, farmers across the country took advantage of the subsidy program. Also aided with a healthy dose of rain, Malawi's corn yields soared to a record high. The culture of hunger and dependence was transformed into one of pride for its self-sustainable farming.
"I feel so proud to be a self-sustained country," Dinna Kapiza, a shop owner told us.
Not only did the bumper crop fill people's stomachs, it had a direct effect on Malawi's economy.
Once farmers sold their surplus crop for cash, they were able to buy new clothes and cell phones, or fertilizers and seeds at market value and expand their farming.
Kapiza's shop, in the small and dusty town of Mplonena, was buzzing with farmers who had come to purchase supplies. Rain will start falling in early November, and that's when the next planting season begins. The government's subsidy vouchers haven't been circulated yet, but farmers in Kapiza's shop had enough money to buy seeds and fertilizers at market value.
Kapiza is an "agro dealer" – meaning that she sells farm supplies to poor farmers in remote areas. A non-governmental organization called Citizen's Network for Foreign Affairs (CNFA) helped her open her store by facilitating and providing partial credit guarantees for fertilizers through local aid orgnaizations.
They also trained her in some of the technical aspects of the supplies she sells, so that Kapiza could pass on the knowledge to the farmers who frequent her shop. She briefed one of the farmers who had just bought a bag of corn seeds on the merits of planting hybrid seeds.
Before Kapiza's shop opened, farmers had to trek over 40 miles to buy simple supplies. She is happy not only because her business is thriving now, but also because she can give farmers helpful and valuable advice.
"Most people are preferring to buy their commodities from Agro dealers, because we are able to help them," Kapiza explained. "Some have built new houses, people are sending their children to school."
She said government subsidies acted as a real kick start for the farmers. "Since they have been empowered through the subsidy program people now have food and are able to work," she said.
"You know, a hungry person is an angry man. So when you have food in the house, your dignity is preserved. But when you don't have food, you don't have money – then you are a useless creature. And even for that matter the country is useless. And if you empower a small farmer at a grassroots level, then the government will be economically stable. That's the way I look at it."
Lunchtime for everyone
Back at Chawala's cornfield, it was lunchtime for her family. There wasn't enough time to go home for lunch, so she cooked her meal in a shady and breezy spot underneath a spreading tree.
Today's menu: cooked greens and tomatoes, some fried eggs, and the Malawian staple, a sticky porridge made of cornmeal and water.
By the time the porridge was ready, her elderly mother, sons, daughters and grandchildren had gathered under the tree.
There are now about 12 hungry mouths to feed. No sweat for Chawala – there was plenty to go around.
"Happy, happy, happy", she said. "I am very happy now, I can even look after two orphans. I have enough food and I am ready to take in more orphans."