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How effectively might agricultural input subsidies improve nutrition? A case study of Malawi’s Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP)


Agricultural input subsidy programmes (AISP) are often considered an important means of improving agricultural productivity and food security in developing countries. However, the impact of AISP on food choice and nutrition is unclear, not least because staple crops targeted tend to be calorie-dense but nutrient-poor. AISP targeting maize, for example, may increase maize production and consumption and reduce intake of nutrient-rich foods. Alternatively, a fall in maize prices may enable consumers to purchase other goods including other food items. Using mixed-methods approaches, this paper examines the impact of a prominent AISP, Malawi’s Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP), on overall food choice. Qualitative data were collected through semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions. Quantitative data were collected through household, individual and market surveys, and a discrete-choice experiment. Hypothesised impact pathways from AISP to food choice and dietary diversity, and prior literature, suggest Malawi’s FISP could be contributing to improved dietary diversity. However, analyses from our surveys, discrete-choice experiment, interviews, and focus group discussions do not suggest any significant FISP impact on food choices and dietary diversity. Our findings suggest this lack of impact could be due to how the FISP policy is designed and implemented – but that even with changes, as with the Affordable Inputs Programme which replaced the FISP in 2020, it may still be an inefficient means of addressing dietary diversity in rural Malawi. The results highlight issues needing consideration by policymakers and the agri-nutrition community to advance discussion and research for how best to design AISP and other public policy to address malnutrition in all its forms.

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Data availability

The data for the study are available upon request from the corresponding author.


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This research has been funded by the Drivers of Food Choice (DFC) Competitive Grants Programs, which is funded by the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and managed by the University of South Carolina, Arnold School of Public Health, USA; however, the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK Government's official policies.

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HL and DJ conceptualised the study. HW, DJ, MM and MQ undertook the analysis. All authors contributed to the interpretation of results. HW led the writing of the manuscript, with contribution from all authors.

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Correspondence to Helen Walls.

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Ethical approval was provided by Malawi’s National Committee on Research Ethics on Social Sciences and Humanities and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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Walls, H., Johnston, D., Matita, M. et al. How effectively might agricultural input subsidies improve nutrition? A case study of Malawi’s Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP). Food Sec. 15, 21–39 (2023).

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