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Analyzing the nutritional impact of policies in Malawi
October 2009

Acknowledgements: FANRPAN acknowledges The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) as the source of this document


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Reducing malnutrition, including undernutrition (insufficient calorie intake) and micronutrient deficiencies (insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals) is a high priority for Malawi and many developing country governments, closely linked to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. However, effective policy intervention requires knowing what causes malnutrition and how different development policies affect the nutritional status of the population. This brief summarizes results of a recent study by Olivier Ecker which examined the nutritional impacts of income and price policies in Malawi, using household survey data and a food demand system model.


Undernutrition and Micronutrition Deficiency are Prevalent in Malawi

Based on Ecker’s research, many Malawi households are not getting the required calories and micronutrients recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Ecker used nationally representative household survey data from Malawi’s Integrated Household Survey (IHS2) for 2004-05 to determine the prevalence of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. Focusing on five basic food groups, subdivided into 23 food products, he estimated household consumption of calories, protein, and ten essential micronutrients from the consumption information reported by household members in the survey sample. He found that over one-third (34 percent) of households do not consume enough calories, and many households are below FAO and WHO nutrition requirements in vitamin B12 (84 percent of households), vitamin A (65 percent), zinc (53 percent), iron (46 percent), folate (37 percent), vitamin C (33 percent), and riboflavin (32 percent).

Household Income and Food Prices Affect Food Consumption

Because there is widespread food insecurity in Malawi, increases in household income are spent mainly on additional food. Results of the model show that “income elasticity” for food in Malawi, or increased demand for food when incomes rise, is 0.87 (see box). In other words, a one percent increase in household income is associated with a 0.87 percent increase in food consumption. However, this relationship differs among the five food groups studied, reflecting preferences for different foods. Animal products and meal complements, such as oil, sugar, and beverages, along with starchy foods, are most in demand when household incomes rise. In contrast, fruits and vegetables are less in demand when incomes rise, indicating that these products are less desirable to consumers. Overall, as the income of a typical Malawian household increases, the dietary share of animal products, meal complements, and starchy foods increases, while the dietary share of fruits and vegetables declines.

High income elasticity for starchy foods, especially maize, translates into high demand for calories as well as protein, iron, zinc, and B vitamins. Protein and vitamin B12, which are abundant in animal products, are more in demand than calories. The lower demand for fruits and vegetables means lower intake of Vitamins A and C. Thus, as household incomes rise, consumption of protein and vitamin B12 increases faster than calories, and consumption of vitamins A and C increases more slowly.

Results of the study show consumption of food in Malawi is also highly responsive to food prices. Households respond to food price changes primarily by substituting different foods, depending on availability. When prices rise moderately and temporarily, households maintain their nutritional status by adjusting their food consumption patterns. Due to these substitutions, consumption of nutrients is relatively unaffected by changes in food prices. Vitamins A, B12, and C are notable exceptions because they come from food products for which there are few substitutes in Malawi. As prices of foods rich in these three vitamins rise, their consumption falls substantially.

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