Peasant proudction and limits to labour Thyolo and Mzimba Districts in Malawi, mid-1930s to late-1970s

University dissertation from Department of Economic History, Lund University

Abstract: The persistence of a low productive peasant sector in sub-Saharan Africa is one of the enigmas of development research. This study approaches the question from a historical perspective by analysing the paths of agrarian change in two contrasting cases in Malawi from the mid-1930s to the late 1970s. The cases - Thyolo and Mzimba districts - with their overt differences in terms of population density, infrastructure and environmental contexts, are compared with a focus on changes in agricultural production and farming systems. A common way of addressing the failures of agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa is to focus on the role of national agricultural policies. The basic argument is that the poor-performing peasant sector is an outcome of policies that ? intentionally or not ? harm the sector by limiting peasants? access to productive resources and/or markets. This has also been the dominant approach in studies of Malawi. This study differs in that it takes its point of departure in the structure of peasant economies and contrasts these structures with possible strategies of increasing production per capita. Through an extensive use of archival and oral sources, the author shows that, given the technology level, the persistence of low production capacity is found in local structures and institutions that are similar in the two cases. Of crucial importance are the structures of partial integration that set limits to labour supply and flexibility, as are the property regimes that create institutional barriers to the profitable use of additional labour. In sum, peasant farms lack access to cheap and easily available labour. In the concluding chapter the historical findings are related to current trends of peasant agriculture in Malawi. The author argues that the limitations and barriers to increased production still prevail, and that any strategy to increase production per capita of peasant farms has to be based on the awareness that labour is not a low-cost and easily attainable factor of production.

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