An image of the country's flag.

Malawi is a small country, heavily dependent on agriculture, with a rapidly growing population. At independence in 1964, Malawi’s land was designated as under private freehold, public, or customary ownership. The private land, often acquired in the colonial era through alienation of customary land, was used for large-scale production of export crops, such as tea and tobacco. These “estates” became the property of the Malawian elite, and throughout the 30-year tenure of Malawi’s first president, Kamuzu Banda, production continued much as it had under colonial rule. Given the importance of their production for national trade revenues, estates were favored in agricultural policy while Malawi’s smallholder farmers were restricted to producing crops for local consumption. A policy change in 1990 allowed smallholders to grow and market bey tobacco, by then the dominant export crop, but these farmers’ access to land remained constrained. By 2000, it was estimated that more than 55 % of small farm families had less than one cultivable hectare.

Following critical democratic elections in 1994, the government took the first steps toward addressing the increasingly inequitable land situation and established a Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Land Reform. The Commission was tasked with establishing the principles for a new land policy that would be more economically efficient, environmentally sustainable (as much of the estate land was not fully used, and overused small farms were experiencing land degradation), and socially equitable. The Commission’s findings were used to form a new land policy, but subsequent efforts to develop legislation and an enabling land administration have not yet come to fruition. A Community-Based Rural Land Development Programme was launched in 2004 with World Bank (and other donor) support to pilot the use of market mechanisms to help land-short farm households secure larger acreages by purchasing uncultivated and/or underutilized estate land (estimated at 600,000 hectares). While the pilot met its goals of resettling 15,000 farm households, it did not spark spontaneous expansion of the approach. The new settlers were dependent on the additional public financing provided to facilitate their relocation, and the political support of traditional leaders was not always achieved.

At the same time, Malawi’s President Mutharika has taken steps to increase smallholder production of maize, the country’s staple food, by subsidizing the provision of fertilizer to smallholders. This has been viewed as widely successful in increasing productivity (and total food production in the country) but many question whether this approach will compensate for the land resource access and management issues that remain unresolved for Malawi’s 1.8 million farm households. Donors to Malawi are, therefore, likely to continue to confront thorny issues of land access, tenure, and resource management as they support the country’s strategies to reduce poverty and increase food security.


  • Support Efforts to Increase Smallholders’ Access to Land, Including Through the Redistribution or Sale of Underutilized or Uncultivated Land. The lessons of the pilot Community-Based Rural Land Development Programme need to be reviewed to shape further initiatives for rural-rural resettlement, addressing issues of local governance, gender equity, the provision of complementary support services, and overall market development for agriculture. Development of laws and regulations on leasing of land might be another approach to improve land access. Donors will need to collaborate closely on these issues going forward, to ensure that solutions to problems that have emerged in the pilot program are well-designed and consistently applied.
  • Support Sustainable Intensification of Agricultural Production Within a Context of Open Markets. The Government of Malawi has focused in recent years on the provision of fertilizer at substantially subsidized prices to facilitate greater production of rainfed maize on smallholder farms. Early success has enhanced the government’s commitment to this intervention, in spite of the significant budgetary costs. Expansion of irrigation systems and diversification of production for both domestic and export markets, however, also offer options for greater intensification of production and income-earning opportunities for smallholder farmers. More sustainable exploitation of wetlands might be a particular area of focus. A more consistent, market-sensitive policy framework is needed to increase incentives and reduce risks for investors, service providers, and market agents as well as small farmers. Donors already provide significant support in the sector but further coordination on sector policy and approaches to greater market development would be helpful.
  • Continue to encourage translation of the 2002 National Land Policy into implementing legislation and land registration systems that will fully support the Government’s goals for economic growth and poverty reduction, while ensuring that the rights of rural women, especially those heading households, are fully recognized. Given the complexity and diversity of customary tenure systems in Malawi, detailed assessments may be necessary to ensure that systems unique to one area or population group are adequately addressed in broader legislation and that the role of local, traditional governance structures is clarified. Donors can support the analytical and consultative processes that could help to advance efforts to establish a system of property rights and resource governance that both promotes growth and protects individuals’ rights as guaranteed by the Malawian Constitution.


Malawi is a densely populated country with one of the lowest GDPs per capita in the world. Malawi’s population suffers from chronic food insecurity, land degradation and pervasive poverty. Land distribution is highly skewed. The vast majority of Malawi’s agricultural sector is made up of farmers cultivating small, rainfed plots to grow food for consumption. A relatively small number of large commercial estates on irrigated land grow high-value crops for export. Malawi has potential to increase the amount of irrigated land, and the Government of Malawi (GOM) has been investing in small-scale irrigation schemes to support expanded and increased production of food crops like rice.

In 1995, the GOM undertook ambitious efforts toward land reform that led to the passage of the National Land Policy in 2002. The policy calls for the redistribution of land from large estates to smallholders, formalization of customary tenure to address tenure insecurity, and creation of a commission to review and revise existing land legislation. Some elements of the land reform program have shown positive results in pilot programs, but a land law implementing the 2002 Land Policy has not yet been enacted and the pace of reform has been slower than hoped.

Deforestation is occurring at a rapid rate and is attributed to agricultural expansion, demand for fuelwood, charcoal production, and income-generation activities such as tobacco curing and brick burning. Implementation of the GOM’s progressive policy and guidelines for local management of forest resources has been limited to a handful of projects, which have shown some success. Lack of funding and institutional capacity-building have constrained the expansion and institutionalization of community-based programs.

Large reserves of coal and other mineral deposits have been identified in Malawi in the last decade, and the GOM has identified the mining sector as a priority area for growth. The GOM has drafted a new mining policy and law and is developing a comprehensive strategy to adopt and implement the new legal framework and create a sustainable regulatory environment to encourage responsible development of the sector. Civil society has proved to be an active force in enforcing obligations for environmental impact assessments and plans to rehabilitate mining sites.

Published / Updated: August 2010