The agricultural sector is drought-prone and experienced severe droughts in 1979–81, 1992, and 1994. About 77% of the total land area of Malawi is under customary tenure—that is, subject to land allocation by village headmen based on traditional rights of succession by descent. Estate farming occupies about 23% of the cultivated land and provides about 90% of export earnings. In all, about 21% of Malawi's total land area is arable. Malawi is self-sufficient in food production (except during droughts), but the population increased more rapidly than the food supply in the 1980s.
Tobacco was first grown in 1889 near Blantyre in southern Malawi. Today, most production comes from the central region (around Lilongwe). Tobacco production was estimated at a record 160,014 tons in 1996 but fell to 113,000 tons in 1999. Malawi exports more than 95% of the tobacco it produces, which generates some 70% of all foreign earnings. Malawi's tobacco sector is in transition away from a rigid government-controlled system to a more market-oriented system that includes smallholder tobacco growers.
Tea, a major export crop, is produced mostly on estates; about 16,000 ha (40,000 acres) are in tea plantations, mainly in the Mulanje and Thyolo districts. Production in 2000 was 84,200 tons. Sugarcane production was about 1,900,000 tons in 1999; the output of refined sugar reached 233,000 tons. Other cash crops produced in 1999 include peanuts, 100,000 tons, and seed cotton, 38,000 tons.
Although subsistence farmers participate in the production of export crops more extensively now than in the preindependence period, much customary agriculture is still devoted to cereal production. Pressure of population on the land is mounting and, in a few areas, expansion of acreage under export crops has been discouraged in favor of food production. Corn is the staple food crop; about 2,480,000 tons were produced in 1999. Late rains, floods, and an increasing Mozambican refugee population kept corn production from meeting domestic demand during the mid-1990s. Other food crops, with 1999 estimated production figures, include cassava, 200,000 tons; potatoes, 385,000 tons; pulses, 289,000 tons; sorghum, 60,000 tons; plantains, 205,000 tons; bananas, 95,000 tons; and paddy rice, 93,000 tons.