Malawi Land Reform and Rural Transformation Overview

Malawi Land Reform and Rural Transformation Overview

The land issue has taken primacy in Malawi’s economic growth and development strategy. The country’s economy is largely dependent on agriculture[1]. Hence recent government efforts to support development focus on rationalising and adapting land tenure arrangements towards inclusivity and transformation[2]. Malawi is currently challenged with addressing colonial and post-independence land disparities under Kamuzu Banda. Land tenure insecurities have affected opportunities for economic structural transformation for small-scale and rural farmers. A quarter of all Malawians live in extreme poverty and the situation is worse in rural areas where 84% of rural households experienced food insecurity in 2013[3].

Malawi was colonised by Britain and went through systemic dispossession of land. The logic of land dispossession was aimed at creating a reservoir of labour by alienating the Africans from the land and reinforced by insisting on new land-related taxes which subsequently forced African subsistence farmers to seek out paid employment in order to meet tax obligations. Secondly, all the prime land was reserved for large-scale commercial farming.

For an extended period of time after obtaining independence in 1964, Malawi operated without a comprehensive policy on land governance. The current land governance system is influenced by colonial history, social activism and traditional settlement patterns[4]. Before colonialism land was held communally and commonly owned in Malawi, known as cognatic ownership or passed down from one generation to the next. During colonialism, the colonial regime embarked on a structured dispossession of land from the indigenous black Malawians. After independence, the government of Malawi spoke of reversing the colonial land laws and at the same time being cognisant of the fact that the pre-colonial landholding system would not be viable in the new dispensation.[5]

In practice, the Kamuzu Banda regime did little to reverse colonial land laws and instead created conditions that enabled the ruling elite to take advantage of the unfair land laws for personal gain.  The government embarked on a peace-meal approach to land redistribution which left the colonial land arrangement largely intact despite the Malawi Land Act of 1965. At the same time, the new class of political elites acquired large tracts of land for themselves from a white commercial farmer who wanted to leave the country and dispose of powerless peasants. As a result, Malawi maintained a dual system of land holding which reflected the English land acts and the local land acts.[6]

The dual system of land governance proved to be unsustainable. The bulk of the poor Malawians did not have enough land to engage in viable farming which threatened food security. Citizen dissatisfaction resulted in various social movements and civil society organisations calling for a radical transformation of land reform and the political economy status of the land question. The pressure resulted in the establishment of Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Land Reform in 1996 with the mandate of finding an equitable and sustainable resolution of the land question in Malawi. The Inquiry on Land Reform concluded that inequitable land distribution was the central challenges; and recommended that the government increase smallholder production of maize, the country’s staple food, through subsidising the provision of fertiliser to smallholders. This, however, had little effect on resolving the land resource access and management issues that remained unresolved.[7]

In 2002 the National Land Policy was adopted by the cabinet. The policy was designed to support a comprehensive reform of land governance in Malawi[8].  The policy also sought to align various pieces of legislation that at times contradict each other with regards to land. For example, the Customary Land Development Act enabled the permanence holding of the land, as well as sustainable use of land whilst the Local Land Board Act, required the adoption of the market mechanisms to help land-short farm household’s secure larger acres of land through purchasing uncultivated and/or underutilised estate land[9]

In 2016 the government enacted various laws related to land governance to deal with issues such as compensation, regularisation of unequal landholding arrangements and fostering food security through increased production from small-scale farming activities. There were critical concerns over the government’s capacity to implement the reforms and to coordinate various efforts aimed at raising awareness at the community level on proper agriculture practices and land use planning. There was little confidence that the government would be able to effectively deliver on the promises of the National Land Policy and the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy IIMGDSII.

Recently the government of Malawi embarked on a process of digitalising its land registry and all land related transactions under the Digital Malawi Project (DMP) and the Resettlement Policy Framework (RPF) in partnership with the World Bank. The initiatives are geared towards alleviating administrative and implementation challenges that were experienced in Malawi, such as lack of proper record keeping in terms of the deeds registration, double allocation of land and improper land entry[10]. These challenges accentuated the plight of the rural communities who would be given conflicting messages about their land tenure status which destabilised rural livelihoods.

The government is caught trying to pursue foreign direct investment (FDI) and on the other facilitating real structural change in land ownership. Previous land transfers negotiations with local communities have not been fair due to unbalanced power relations between communities and the government. The legacy of former President Banda’s era exposed the indigenous black Malawians to “market forces” by government expropriating customary land for commercial investors making them vulnerable[11]. This diminishes entrepreneurial spirit and limits rural citizen’s ability to access financing due to uncertain land tenure.

The main challenge of rural transformation in Malawi is the prevailing legal framework which does not adequately protect the smallholders’ land rights or safeguard the interests of customary land users (mainly rural citizens) in the face of growing pressures towards agricultural commercialisation.

Faced with the reality of land tenure insecurities and falling agricultural productivity among smallholder farmers, the government of Malawi has put in place various initiatives to support nonfarm rural livelihoods. Projects such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) projects received a capital injection of USD 350 million for 2018 in order to increase generation to over 420 MW of power by 2020[12]. Other initiatives supporting alternative rural livelihoods include agro-processing which contributes approximately 50% of value added in the manufacturing sector and rural manufacturing which constitutes a much smaller proportion of the economy, contributing approximately 9% to the GDP[13].

In 2009 the government of Malawi launched the Green Belt Initiative to utilise water from lakes and perennial rivers towards enhancing the country’s production of a variety of crops and livestock[14]. Large tracts of land have been made available to large-scale investment in farming and fisheries and other income-generating activities. Urban proximity plays a key role in the development of rural areas in Malawi because of the rural poor earn incomes from servicing the urban centres [15]. The comparative advantage of peri-urban areas lies primarily in their proximity to and ability to service urban markets for higher-value processed foods, leisure activities, and transport services[16] . This means that smallholder farmers or subsistence farmers need to be located closer to urban areas in order to benefit from agriculture. Rural producers in areas that are further away from urban markets have less potential to sell to them, not least because they have to compete with nearer producers with lower transportation costs and faster delivery times, but generally because they have limited access to inputs and the necessary infrastructure.

Economic policy contradictions, limited implementation capacity and poor follow-through on agreed land reform policy direction are the main challenges to Malawian rural transformation. Economic transformation and poverty alleviation needs to focus on structural impediments to rural transformation. At present evidence suggests that smallholder farming and rural livelihoods are easily sacrificed in order to support large-scale commercial agriculture investments.


[1] IMF 2017. Malawi Economic Development Document, International Monetary Fund: Washington, D.C. Available At: [Last Accessed: 27 May 2018].
[2] WB 2017. Malawi – Reinforcing Economic Growth through Inclusive Land Development, on the World Bank Website, viewed on 14 February 2018, from
[3] IMF 2017. Malawi Economic Development Document, ibid.
[4] MoL 2002. Malawi National Land Policy, Ministry of Lands: Lilongwe. Available At: [Last Accessed: 27 May 2018].
[5] WB 2017. Malawi – Reinforcing Economic Growth through Inclusive Land Development, ibid.
[6] Jere, P. 2012. Improving Land Sector Governance in Malawi, World Bank: Washington, D.C. Available At: [Last Accessed: 27 May 2018].
[7] WB 2010. Project Information Document: Malawi Mining Growth and Government Project. Report, World Bank: Washington, D.C. Available At: [Last Accessed: 27 May 2018].
[8] MoL 2002. Malawi National Land Policy, ibid.
[9] Rasmussen, P.E. 2018. African Economic Outlook: Malawi, African Development Bank: Abidjan. Available At: [Last Accessed: 27 May 2018].
[10] WB 2017. Malawi – Reinforcing Economic Growth through Inclusive Land Development, ibid.
[11] WB 2017. Malawi – Reinforcing Economic Growth through Inclusive Land Development, ibid.
[12] IMF 2017. Malawi Economic Development Document, ibid.
[13] WB 2017. Malawi – Reinforcing Economic Growth through Inclusive Land Development, ibid.
[14] IMF 2017. Malawi Economic Development Document, ibid.
[15] IMF 2017. Malawi Economic Development Document, ibid.
[16] IMF 2017. Malawi Economic Development Document, ibid.




Ringisai Chikohomero

Former Regional Analyst

Nobuhle Sibanda

Former Junior Regional Analyst

Add comment


Follow PESA Online

Follow PESA Online

Follow us on some of your favourite social media.

Contact Us

Please complete the General Enquiry form and submit it to us for a response. Please use the subject “Media” for all media-related requests.