A lush climate and rich soil make Malawi well suited for agriculture, which is central to the country's economy and national life, occupying 86 percent of its workforce, and making up 38 percent of its GDP and 90 percent of its export earnings.
The main staple crop is maize, grown by smallholder farmers mostly at the subsistence level. Production varies, and depending on climate conditions, maize may be imported or exported. Sorghum, millet, pulses, root crops, and fruit are also grown. Another staple, as well as an important source of protein, is fish from Lake Malawi. The fishing industry accounts for about 200,000 jobs, but problems with pollution and over-fishing threaten to reduce yields.
Malawi's commercial farming sector is concentrated on large estates in the south and around Lilongwe. Its main product is tobacco, which typically accounts for between 50 percent and 70 percent of Malawi's export earnings. Formerly held back by government price controls and grower regulations, the liberalization of the industry in the 1990s has seen steady increases in profits for growers and a sharp rise in smallholder tobacco production, making Malawi one of the leading tobacco producers in the world. Nevertheless, the industry as a whole has been hard hit by the drop in world tobacco prices, which has cut tobacco export revenues from US$332 million in 1998 to US$218 million in 2000. As a consequence, Malawi's growers are being encouraged to concentrate on other traditional cash crops, such as tea and sugar, or diversify into new crops, such as paprika, macadamia, citrus fruits, vegetables, and cut flowers. Tea is Malawi's second most important cash crop, and Malawi is Africa's second largest producer of it. In 2000 tea accounted for about 10 percent of exports, or about US$44 million. Sugar is also significant, and made up about 6 percent of exports, or US$27 million.