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Malawi: Land Reform for wealth creation

Last Updated: August 2009
 Land Reform for wealth creation


Malawi is a small, landlocked, southern African country, and its citizens are among the world’s poorest. Agriculture is overwhelming important: accounting for about 36 percent of national income, employing 85 percent of the workforce, and generating 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings. But this sector is facing severe challenges. Severe droughts in 2001 and 2005 devastated production of rain-fed maize, the primary crop of the country’s 1.8 million small-scale farmers. Their productivity is further hampered because nearly 60 percent of them cultivate less than one hectare each; and more than 10 percent are basically landless. Only 13 percent cultivate more than two hectares each; and most of these farmers are in the North, where population density is still very low. Inequitable access to arable land (of which 30 percent is estimated to be underutilized), combined with insecure tenure, unsustainable farming practices that erode soils and deplete them of nutrients, and intense competition for resources results in chronically low incomes and persistent poverty.


The Community Based Rural Land Development Project was launched in 2004 to generate greater opportunities for the poorest of Malawi’s rural poor. The goal was to increase the incomes of about 15,000 families through community-based, voluntary land reform in four pilot districts in southern Malawi, where land pressure is especially extreme, with some holdings as small as 0.1 hectare. The project would allow groups of 10 to 35 landless or land-poor households to select and purchase plots from fallow estates and resettle there. The groups would receive training and technical assistance to negotiate these acquisitions, to manage funds for needed agricultural inputs and to grow crops sustainably. Secure ownership titles to the new land would be provided to create incentives for future household investments. These objectives were in alignment with the country's agricultural development agenda of improving smallholder productivity and family food security.


Land for purchase was concentrated in two of the four districts, where large tobacco estates were willing to shed hectares in light of sagging global demand for their crops. This created separate dynamics for beneficiaries, with those from the local area who were familiar with the best plots and who knew local markets and had intact social support networks faring best. Those who moved in from outside are still gaining their footing, By March 2009, a total of more than 12,600 beneficiaries—or 84 percent of the project target—had been relocated to larger and more-productive plots of land. Average gross margins per hectare have risen tenfold for maize from the pre-relocation baseline. A survey shows that cash cropping of tobacco has taken hold, with local households leading the way.

-A survey shows that project beneficiaries are 26 percent more likely to think that their welfare has improved during the previous two years than are demographically similar members of a control group who did not participate.
-Production has generally increased, resulting in additional months of reserve food in times of plenty when respondents say it is now common for their households to have three meals a day. Food security during the lean season, however, remains tenuous.
-Project administrators report that children’s consumption in particular has increased vastly, with good breakfasts fueling greater school attendance.
-Although very few program beneficiaries exercised the opportunity to acquire individual land titles, all received communal titles that are commonly believed to confer similar value.
-Although production of maize and cassava and other crops has jumped, yields generally have not, suggesting that the gains have come from putting idle land to work rather than from enhanced techniques. Several factors may be at work—including relocations to new land after the growing season, requiring families to divert resources from agricultural inputs to buy food to tide them over, and the need for settlers from outside districts to acclimate to local econiches and markets.
-Female-headed households, who made up a quarter of baseline sample beneficiaries, increased their production and consumption assets significantly.
-Surrounding communities have also profited by supplying labor to clear fields, or selling goods and services to new customers. Some have also gained access to water points installed by the newly arrived settlers.


IDA contributed a grant of US$27 million to support all project activities. The government—through local authorities, the Malawi Social Action Fund, or directly—contributed land, personnel, and some funding for project investments. The project design was informed by experiences from other IDA-funded land reform programs in countries such as Brazil.


Impetus for land reform in Malawi began with the 1996 Presidential Commission on land policy, which culminated in the adoption of a new policy in 2003 and the draft Land Law that is awaiting approval by Parliament. The Bank has been a key supporter in this process along with other development partners such as the European Commission and the U.K. Department for International Development. The EC actively supports a capacity-strengthening program that complements the Bank’s backing for the sector through the Community-Based Rural Land Development Project (CBRLDP) and the Business Environment Strengthening Technical Assistance Project (BESTAP).

Next Steps

To build on their initial success, settler families need to continue to integrate with local communities, seek out stronger business relationships with extension agents and markets, and look to plow some of their newfound earnings back into farm inputs and equipment. There is demand to extend the project nationally, but the pilots are still developing and no follow-on project has yet launched. Currently, the Bank is processing the request from the Government of Malawi for additional financing to resettle the remaining 2,500 households to meet the initial target of 15,000. The funding will also be used to strengthen land administration, which has been a major constraint in project implementation.

Learn More

Malawi Community-Based Rural Land Development Project (2004–09)
Project Documents

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