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Land tenure systems and agricultural production in Malawi

D.W. Nothale
Rural Development Department, University of Malawi, Lilongwe, Malawi


The population of Malawi at the September 1977 census was 5,571,567. The average population density on a land area of 94,079 square kilometres was 59 persons per square kilometre. About 91 per cent of the population lived in rural areas, the remaining percentage in urban areas.

Malawi is predominantly an agricultural country. In 1977, agriculture contributed more than 47 per cent to the total gross domestic product, while agricultural produce accounted for more than 95 per cent of total exports.

Systems of Tenure and Agricultural Production

Land tenure is the system of legal rights and obligations governing the holding, acquisition, use, and disposal of land. It is an important factor affecting the present utilization of land in the world and it also serves as a legal instrument through which land reforms can be started or assisted. In many parts of the world, the sale of traditional land rights has not been sufficiently guarded and restricted by law and this has resulted in many problems of unrest and low productivity because of changes in tenure systems which have subjected the peasantry to exploitation by landlords or moneylenders.

The main objectives of this short paper are:

  1. to outline the major systems of land tenure found in Malawi;
  2. to review agricultural production levels associated with these tenure forms over the years; and
  3. to examine whether these land tenure arrangements promote the desired rate of economic development.

Land Tenure in Malawi

In Malawi, three major categories for controlling land can be distinguished: customary land, public land, and private land. Before the 1965 Land Act, land in Malawi was classified in the same way except that what is now called customary land was referred to as African trust land. The customary system of land tenure has the traditional concept of considering land in a village as belonging to the community although the individual in the community has the right to cultivate it and uses the land as though he were the owner.

This question of ownership is misinterpreted by many writers who think that village headmen, chiefs, or tribes own the land. The individual in the community uses the land, and has the right to dispose of it although within the limits set up by the customary law of the tribe or clan. In this case, therefore, the individual does own the land. The chiefs, sub-chiefs, and village headmen are there to protect the customary land against outsiders, and this is what is often misinterpreted to mean that the land belongs to them.

Public land refers to land occupied, used, or acquired by the Government or any other land which is neither customary nor private. Private land refers to land owned, held, used, or occupied under a freehold title, a leasehold title, or a certificate of claim which is registered as private land. Customary land is by far the most common form of tenure in Malawi. In 1978, it was estimated that about 80 per cent of the land was under customary tenure. From 1964 to 1978 there has been very little change in the total areas of land under the various tenure systems. In general, leasehold land and public land has increased at the expense of freehold land and customary land, as can be seen in table 1.

TABLE 1. Land area and tenure of Malawi 1964-1978 (million hectares)

Year Private land Public land Customary land Total
  Freehold Leasehold      
1964 0.2 0.1 1.1 8.0 9.4
1965 0.2 0.1 1.1 8.0 9.4
1966 0.2 0.1 1.2 7.9 9.4
1967 0.2 0.1 1.2 7.9 9.4
1968 0.2 0.1 1.3 7.8 9.4
1969 0.1 0.1 1.5 7.7 9.4
1970 0.1 0.1 1.5 7.7 9.4
1971 0.1 0.1 1.5 7.7 9.4
1972 0.1 0.1 1.6 7.6 9.4
1973 0.1 0.1 1.6 7.6 9.4
1974 b 0.2 1.6 7.6 9.4
1975 b 0.2 1.6 7.5 9.4
1976 b 0.2 1.7 7.5 9.4
1977 b 0.2 1.7 7.5 9.4
1978 b 0.2 1.7 7.5 9.4

Source: Malawi Statistical Year Book 1979
a. Excludes water area.
b. Less than 0.05 million hectares.

TABLE 2. Population density 1966 and 1977


Persons per square kilometre

1966 1977
Malawi 43 59
Northern Region 18 24
Central Region 41 60
Southern Region 65 87

Source: Malawi Statistical Year Book /9 79

TABLE 3. Principal crops and hectarages under cultivation 1968/1969 ('000 hectares)

Type of crop Hectarage under cultivation
Maize 1,608.1
Groundnuts 449.2
Pulses 841.1
Cassava 298.6
Millet and sorghum 496.2
Potatoes 180.5
Rice 48.2
Cotton 36.8
Tobacco 34.7
Total cultivated hectarage 1,361.4

Source: Malawi Statistical Year Book 19 79

Agricultural Production in Relation to Systems of Tenure

Malawian agriculture, in common with many less developed countries, is bimodal: estates producing chiefly cash crops for exports and smallholders producing for subsistence requirements plus surplus and other cash crops for sale. The majority of the population living in rural areas are under the customary form of land tenure and are referred to as smallholders with small and fragmented holdings. The fragmentation of their holdings has progressed over the years owing to a rise in population density in Malawi (see table 2). The high population density is only exceeded in a few countries in Africa. One of the contributing factors to this high population density is the high fertility rate of about 7, which is among the highest in the world.

As compared to estate agriculture, smallholder agriculture has always been associated with low productivity, although the customary form of land tenure itself does not appear to have restrained the introduction of improved technology or new methods of production. The smallholder on customary land is free to use the land as he likes, without restriction. In 1 965, for example, the average yield of fire-cured tobacco on customary land was 172 kg/ha as compared with 374 kg/ha on estates. Five years later, the yield on customary land slightly increased to an average yield of 214 kg/ha while that on estates doubled to 704 kg/ha. In 1977, an average yield of 538 kg/ha was attained for this type of tobacco on customary land. The average yields for cotton showed a similar trend.

The low productivity on customary land is partly due to the type of technology employed by these smallholders. The typical farmer does not use a lot of inputs. For example, very few farmers used fertilizers on their tobacco and very few farmers, if any, sprayed their cotton. Another cause for low productivity is that, apart from these cash crops, the smallholder is charged with the responsibility of producing enough food for the family, that is, attaining self-sufficiency. Much of his time may be devoted to laying this role and very little time would be left to manage these very demanding cash crops. The empirical evidence presented to support the view that average productivity on customary land is generally low was been based on cash crops so far. These take up just about 5 per cent of the hectarage under cultivation. The rest of the customary land under cultivation is put to food crops, with maize, the staple food, taking up the largest portion. Table 3 shows the principal crops grown in Malawi on customary land and the corresponding hectarages under each crop in 1968 and 1969.

Although it is not possible to measure smallholder agricultural productivity with accuracy due to data limitations, the levels of productivity for the food crops were again low in the early stages of agricultural development in Malawi. Maize yields, for example, in the 1950s and the early 1960s were estimated in the range of 270 kg/ha to 550 kg/ha. The typical family in Malawi required 900 to 1,100 kg of maize per year to meet its basic food requirements. A family, therefore needs, allowing for unusual conditions, 1.2 to 2 hectares just for maize. With population pressure on land, mainly in the densely populated areas in the Southern and Central regions, very few families have such hectarages at their disposal. To obtain the annual food requirements, therefore, better methods of farming intensifying land use had to be devised. The introduction of chemical fertilizers and improved seed has raised the average productivity over the years. Farmers can obtain up to 3,000 kg/ha yield by using fertilizer and improved seed. This not only satisfies the family's food requirements but leaves a surplus for sale and at the same time some land is released for other crops. Average productivity on customary land has increased tremendously over the years due to new methods of production, which are mainly the introduction of improved inputs and improved cultivation practices. These average yields obtained on customary land are quite comparable to those on estates and commercial farms.

It has been pointed out earlier that estates in Malawi are established on private land which is either held under a freehold title or released from the Government or private individuals. Most of the estates in Malawi are concentrated in the Central Region of Malawi and were initially established for the production of flue-cured tobacco and burley tobacco, although most of the estates at the moment grow other crops such as maize and some of them have plans to go into the production of groundnuts. The estate sector has been a leader in development and its expansion has been at the expense of customary land. It appears that the estate sector will continue to be a source of growing output, foreign exchange earnings, and employment, although its expansion might be expected to be slower than in the past. Tobacco expansion, for example, might be constrained by fuelwood shortages and a shortage of experienced managers, which has led some of the estates to become insolvent despite favourable prices offered on the auction floors. Estate agriculture is, therefore, likely to grow at a much slower average rate as compared with the 1960s and 1970s. For the tea estates in the Southern Region, potential still exists for substantial improvements in the quality of tea as well as productivity. The main constraint is the limited availability of suitable land. The growth of tea production is, therefore, unlikely to exceed the potential for yield increases, which could be in the range of 2 to 4 per cent per annum.

Land Reorganization and Transformation

The Government of Malawi, apart from encouraging farmers to use improved methods of production, has tried to make use of the "transformation" approach and settlement schemes in an attempt to increase production to keep pace with population growth.

Land Consolidation

The "transformation" approach dates back to the preindependence period in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. The Government at that time thought that, apart from encouraging techniques to raise yields per hectare with the aim of enabling a family to get all basic food from a small area, a series of land improvement schemes or village reorganization schemes would increase agricultural productivity. The project basically involved the reorganization of the land-holding pattern of an area in such a way that each household ended up with one consolidated plot equal in size and quality to the total area of its former collection of pieces and fragments (McLoughlin 1972). The entire village was then geared to an overall land utilization plan: the area was first laid out on sound conservation lines and the land used for each main exploitation pattern was clearly demarcated (arable, grazing, forest, etc.). This approach was experimented with and proved to be highly feasible. By 1959, there were 30 areas which were re-organized, covering some 81,000 hectares. Each area had its own conservation system, improved water supplies, and roads and each family on its own individual holding had a farm plan and an agreed rotation of crops (McLoughlin 1972). It was hoped here that the introduction of these more technical and physical conditions would encourage an increasing number of individuals to become better farmers. However, this project hardly lasted a year. By 1960, the project had collapsed and the farmers involved had reverted to their old ways of farming. The causes for the failure, some of which are unclear, are attributed to a number of reasons:

  1. The scheme was based on the principle of persuasion. The whole village had to agree before the programme could be implemented and, therefore, in areas where the chiefs were willing and had more control, it was easier to convince the people to accept the scheme.
  2. The Government's initial insistence on a fixed rotation was a cause for discontent. A fixed rotational system was too sophisticated for the average cultivator and the fact that such a rotation required one-fifth of the land to be fallowed made matters even worse. Some of the farmers experienced a reduction in food production. Although the Government relaxed this fallow rule after some time, people were unwilling to accept the idea of consolidation.
  3. Livestock management was another area of discontent. The re-organized village had its grazing area reserved in the swampier bottom lands (dambo) or in areas of poorer soils. This resulted in overgrazing problems.
  4. The number of men in off-farm wage employment contributed to the failure of the programme. Although the consolidation left the amount of cultivated land approximately the same, the new cultivation and management techniques insisted upon by extension personnel created work peaks that could not sufficiently be accommodated by women.
  5. There was a lack of adequate supervision due to the availability of only a few inadequately trained extension workers who could not themselves understand the new farming systems.
  6. A satisfactory crop which could be sold for cash was not found in most of the areas, although in some areas cash output for tobacco and groundouts was increased.

The main lesson that can be learnt from the failure of this ambitious project (which was estimated at the cost of 4.5 million kwacha) is that projects should not be launched at a rather premature stage; the felt needs of the people in these areas were not well recognized and there was no adequate knowledge of the manpower requirements for the scheme.

Several years later, the Government of Malawi found the outlook on land consolidation to be sufficiently promising and applied to the World Bank for a loan to rationalize this consolidation effort in the Lilongwe area of Central Malawi. This signalled the birth of the Lilongwe Land Development Programme in early 1968. The main aim of the programme was to raise agricultural productivity by increasing the yields of the area's major crops through the adoption of improved agricultural practices (Malawi 1972). The project was designed to follow an integrated approach and among the needs identified in this approach was the need to re-organize land tenure systems from usufruct to consolidated holdings under a registered deed of freehold title, thus making land preservation and improvement worthwhile to the individual.

The programme, therefore, set up a land allocation unit which, in brief, was concerned with the introduction of this new system of individual ownership of land under a customary land right. Areas were demarcated and registered according to their ownership and use and the consolidation of land holdings was stressed. The programme appears to have experienced a considerable amount of success: by 1973, 48,394 hectares were already registered and a further 27,653 hectares were demarcated for registration in 1974 (Malawi 1975).

Although this scheme has only been applied within the Lilongwe Land Development Programme, it still shows that a scheme similar to this one, which failed, may be successful if a more suitable approach is adopted. Agricultural productivity in the area has increased as a result of this project.

Settlement Schemes

In addition to development projects being undertaken in the country, the Government, in its efforts to further promote agricultural productivity, has set up a settlement scheme programme. Four main aims can be isolated in this programme (Miliczek 1977):

  1. reclamation and utilization of underutilized land to:
  1. settlement of underemployed rural people to provide them with a decent income and livelihood;
  2. promotion of cash production for export purposes; and
  3. settlement of Malawi Young Pioneers to provide opportunities for their gainful employment.

The responsibility for planning and executing these projects is vested with the settlement branch of the Ministry of Agriculture, although settlement schemes located within the major rural development projects are planned independently, mostly by the foreign agencies financing the project. Settlement schemes have been established on public land as well as on land which was originally customary or private.

After a scheme has been completed, it is declared public land and becomes the property of the Government; in turn, all settlers are given licences to cultivate the land allocated to them for an initial period of five years. Stipulated conditions on land use have to be observed, and if a settler does not perform the required tasks, he can be asked to leave the scheme. The conditions are to ensure that the plots are used to their full extent. There are basically two types of settlement schemes: irrigated and non-irrigated (dryland). An average settler on a dryland settlement scheme in 1976, for example, earned a net cash income of K135, which compared relatively well with the income of unskilled workers, who earned K 0.25 per day, amounting to K85 per year (Miliczek 1977, 65). The average yields for cotton, maize, and sorghum were 750, 1,500, and 900 kg/ha respectively, which compares relatively well with those on good land. For the irrigated rice schemes, maximum incomes of K1,000 per hectare have been realized at Domasi for farmers who practice double cropping.

The settlement scheme programme can be considered successful. Table 4 shows settlement schemes which were established between 1964 and 1976.

Between 1964 and 1976, 32 settlement schemes were established, settling about 8,000 families. Although some of these settlement schemes have been closed or taken over by some other organizations, the schemes that are still existing are very productive. The main problem encountered with the programme is that, although up to 1976 8,000 families were settled, the number of applicants who were accepted and moved into settlements is much higher. Most of them left the scheme because of one or more of the following reasons:

  1. some of the settlers were too young, especially the Malawi Young Pioneer settlers;
  2. most of them lacked farming experience;
  3. they were not aware of the difficult living and working conditions on the schemes.

TABLE 4. Settlement schemes established between 1964 and 1976

Region Scheme Main cash crop No. of settlers
North Hara Rice 379
Limphasa Rice 271
Kaporo Rice 55
Nkhozo Tobacco 111
Wovwe Rice 288
Lufilia Rice 446
Thulwe Tobacco 57
Mubangwe Tobacco 90
Banga Rice 180
Mwenitete Rice 129
Central Chitala Cotton 207
Namitete Tobacco 186
Mpamantha Rice 29
Kaombe/Thiwi Rice 277
Dwangwa (Bua) Rice 42
Rusa Tobacco 137
South Rivi-rivi Cotton 125
Likangala Rice 757
Mulomba Maize 80
Mlolo Rice 109
Khanda Rice 117
Ngapani Tobacco 188
Domasi Rice 1,374
Njala Rice 349
Gola Cotton 72
Kasinthula Rice 465
Muona Rice 500
Chikonje Cotton 13
Mthawira Maize 8
Ndekwera Cotton 1,058
Katapwito Fish 12
Kachulu Fish 11
Total     8,122

Source: Ministry of Agriculture

The main advantage of the settlement programme is the low cost in establishing a settler unit. It also features a notable difference from the land consolidation approach in that on settlement schemes prople do not have to belong to the area and this may relieve population pressure from the areas they come from.


The systems of tenure in Malawi offer a very wide scope for agricultural production and development. The problems facing agriculture are not primarily those to do with the tenure systems. The producer has access to land in one way or another. For example, on the smallholder side, everybody has got access to land, in theory, and is free to use the land as he likes without restriction. The main problems are higher productivity per unit of land to produce enough food for the ever-growing population while at the same time releasing some land for cash crops and other export crops. The low incomes of smallholder farmers had a bearing on the slow development of smallholder agriculture over the past decades. Before development projects were introduced, farmers could not realize an increase in agricultural output because of the costs that were associated with improved inputs. The introduction of development projects has generally increased the yield per unit of land due to the introduction of improved techniques through credit packages.

The Government's successful attempt in introducing the land re-organization programme in one of the project areas and the settlement schemes programme is an indication of the degree of flexibility in the tenure system arrangement. Improved smallholder performance remains a key element in the development strategy for the next decade. Selfsufficiency in basic foodstuffs, especially maize, has been stressed together with the generation of export surpluses and the improvement of rural incomes. While, in the past, growth in the agriculture industry resulted from the expansion of cultivable areas, the shortage of land will force increased focus on measures which improve yield (e.g. use of fertilizers and pesticides, and improved varieties of seed). It would be reasonable to assume that the Government's investment programme for the next five years will be devoted to agriculture.


McLoughlin, P.F.M. 1972. "Land Reorganisation in Malawi, 1950-60: Its Pertinence to Current Development." In S.P. Schatz, ea., South of the Sahara: Development in African Economics. Macmillan, London.

Malawi. 1972. The Lilongwe Land Development Programme. Extension Aids Branch, Zomba.

________. 1975. 19 74 l Highlights: Ten Years of Progress. Extension Aids Branch, Lilongwe.

Miliczek, H. 1977. "Land Settlement in Malawi." Land Settlement, Land Reform and Cooperatives 1:55-68.

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