Can Malawi manage its population growth?

by ACT

  • Posted on July 13, 2018

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… World Population Day

This week the international community marked World Population Day. We at the African Child Trust are focussing this month on Malawi so we decided to look at population issues in the country. For more information on Malawi please have a look at last week’s blog on Independence Day and the country profile on our website.

Global population is rapidly expanding. In fact it took humanity until about 1800 for our numbers to exceed 1 billion. By 1930 the population had doubled to 2 billion and by 1960 it was 3 billion. Today the global population stands at 7.6 billion.  Should this be a course for concern?


Two different perspectives

In an academic context two main theories persist when speaking about population. The first is well known and often attributed to the 18th century economist Thomas Robert Malthus. Malthus theorised that as populations grow, we as a species would reach a point where our ability to produce enough resources to survive would be exceeded resulting in mass starvation and conflict over resources. Only disease or a drop in the birth rate could prevent such a catastrophe. At first glance this seems like common sense to many people and has fed anti-immigration arguments for years. ‘Resources are finite, we need to protect what we have’, is what such people say. Later on and with the benefit of better scientific research a different vision of the future that was not so apocalyptic began to be developed.

The Danish economist Esther Boserup (1910 – 1999) had long studied the effects of population growth on agricultural production in developing countries. In her 1965 paper ‘The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The economics of agrarian change under population pressure’ she argued that contrary to Malthusian theory, humanity’s ability to adapt and evolve meant that in practice the production of resources does and will always develop to suit the demands of the day. So rather than starvation being a consequence of population growth, new methods and technologies will be developed, which will allow us to meet the needs of our species. When you look at the world today it seems Boserup was right. It is common knowledge that we produce enough food to feed the planet several times over, yet some starve, so the issue is distribution and not productive capacity.


So what challenges does a developing country like Malawi face in adapting and evolving and can it be done without outside help?

Malawi is in many ways an African success story, improvements in nutrition and healthcare since the 1950s have seen the population grow from 4 million in 1966, to 14.8 million in 2012 and the UN predicts there will be 23 million Malawians by 2025. The government of Malawi has attempted to slow the rate of population growth by improving access to contraception, yet there are more than 400,000 new citizens every year (this despite a high rate of HIV (11%). At this current moment in time Malawi’s resources are stretched and the government believes reducing population growth is the only answer.


Malawi has made great strides in tackling various development issues, and has identified key priorities to improve its growth and development. Critical for building on and sustaining these achievements is slowing population growth.”  (Department of Population and Development)




This seems ominous and is unlikely to achieve much success as one of the reasons people have large families in developing countries like Malawi, is because they need more labour to work the land.  In Malawi about 85% of the population live in rural areas and are engaged in agriculture – farming is not mechanised. So what should Malawi focus on instead of slowing population growth?

1) Modernise the workforce

Women do almost all of the agricultural work in Malawi. This means that if 85% of the population is dependent on agriculture to survive then the male half of the population is being under-utilised. Men must begin to farm to the same extent as women. In addition traditional structures for the ownership and inheritance of land should be reformed with the aim of maximising production.  This will not only increase production for the nation but will also help generate a surplus for export. Malawi has a low population density and there is plenty of arable land to be exploited.

2) Farming Practices must improve

The low-tech labour-intensive systems of farming in Malawi produce small yields but these can be improved. Through improved education and access to the necessary seeds the harvests of Malawian small-holders can be diversified and increased. Drought resistant and yearlong plants can be introduced. Initially this may be difficult; the farmers have been growing the same crops for generations, but in other countries (especially in Asia) when people see the benefits of switching to less traditional crops they soon get on board. Improved land management must also be taught to local farmers. Yields can be greatly improved by; crop rotation; mixed cropping, more efficient use of natural fertilisers and better water management.  In addition, governmental and non-governmental actors should promote co-operative ownership or rental of the machinery necessary to clear larger tracts of land and dig irrigation ditches (for example).


3) Education and Infrastructure

Development is not possible without education and investment in infrastructure, health and transport links. This a major challenge in for Malawi. The percentage of children completing their education, even at primary school is low. Less than thirty percent go on to secondary school.  The statistic is worse for girls.  However with more people educated there will also be increased urbanisation. Malawi’s urban growth rate is already among the highest in Africa at 5.2 percent. This urban population needs to be utilised. They need to be educated in the very systems and ideas that will allow Malawi to meet its needs and create employment opportunities. This is not going to be easy, but with optimism, cooperation and good governance, Malawi’s future is bright.

To find out more about ACT Projects in Malawi click here.

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