How a Multi-faceted Approach is Paying Dividends in Malawi
What started out as a nutrition-focused project is bringing wider riches
This issue is an uplifting one and I hope you finish reading it with a big smile on your face, like me after meeting these amazing people. Also, next week, look out for my Q&A with Rachel Bezner Kerr, who’s featured in this issue! It’ll be the last issue before I take a summer break.
Sitting in the cool, shaded living room, where the large wooden sofas with blue and purple velvet upholstery take up most of the space, Jane Salanda couldn’t stop beaming.
“I bought these last year,” said the 54-year-old, referring to the sofas, as her hands rapidly cracked the groundnuts piled on a bamboo sieve on her lap. She then pointed to the ceiling, where a corrugated iron sheet gave us cover. “The roof used to be grass until 2015.”
The money for all these home improvements came from selling surplus groundnuts, soy beans, and many other crops from their three-acre farm in Mloyi Maona village just outside of Ekwendeni in northern Malawi.
The income has also allowed them to buy pigs and goats which they kept in a separate shed at the back of the house. The animals, in turn, provided them with meat for their family and school fees for their two younger children.
This was a far cry from 15 years ago when Jane and her husband were struggling subsistence farmers, doing backbreaking work for very little income. A big problem was that they didn’t have their own seeds and they also didn’t have the money to buy seeds or fertilisers.
“So in 2009, when Lizzie and her team came with seeds, I decided to join the program so I’d have seeds of my own to grow,” Jane said.
Before 2009, they used to harvest 50 kilograms of groundnuts a season. This year, they got 1,690 kilos. She also has a surplus of 500 kilos of maize.
The Lizzie that she speaks of is Lizzie Shumba, agriculture and nutrition manager at Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC), a Malawian non-profit originally set up to tackle malnutrition. It was established around 2000 by a formidable Malawian nurse and a researcher from Cornell University.
SFHC now supports 15,000 smallholder farmers in the north and more than 3,000 in the country’s centre. It has a board of trustees all made up of farmers and 31 staff, many of whom live and work in and around the villages they serve.
Its new office, a one-storey, U-shaped building with a beautiful, lush courtyard in the middle, was opened in 2017 and doubles up as a training centre and a demonstration farm. There’s a dining hall and kitchen to test recipes with indigenous crops.
Headed by Esther Lupafya, the former nurse, SFHC says it works directly with farmers to test different crops and methods to determine what works best for them. It encourages farmers to share seeds and care for the soil, the animals, the trees, and each other.
As Jane showed us around, Lizzie, standing next to me, was smiling quietly. I asked her what she was thinking.
“I’m very excited because I could see her life changing since we started.”
At The Beginning
In the 1980s and 1990s, when Esther was working as a nurse at the Ekwendeni hospital, Malawi was struggling with staggering levels of malnutrition. About 1 in 4 children under five was underweight and nearly half were stunted, according to the 1992 Malawi and Demographic Health Survey.
Stunting is when a child is too short for their age. It is caused by malnutrition in infancy and affects a child’s mental and physical development. Experts say the effects are largely irreversible and stunted children generally complete fewer years of schooling and earn less as adults.
Malnourished children also tended to become malnourished mothers, which then perpetuate a vicious cycle.
In an interview, Esther said she saw many children who turned up at the hospital suffering from malnutrition and discovered they were heavily reliant on a single crop - mainly maize - for their diet. The parents were struggling with low yields as a result of depleted soils but could not afford fertilisers.
Rachel Bezner Kerr came to Ekwendeni around 1997, researching soil science and the use of manure in vegetable gardens for her Masters. She was getting frustrated at not being able to speak to struggling women farmers because she kept being introduced to male farmers who were relatively better off.
You know where this story is going right? Rachel was introduced to Esther, who introduced her to women farmers as well as the parents of severely malnourished children who were seeking treatment at the hospital.
Pretty soon, they realised it wouldn’t be enough to provide them with access to manure or improve soil fertility. There were other interconnected challenges: gender inequality and diet quality are two examples.
So they brainstormed and came up with SFHC as a small project attached to the hospital.
They thought intercropping - sowing two or more crops in proximity - using legumes that could be rotated with maize would help. There are multiple benefits to this approach. Legumes are great alternatives to synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. They are also nutritious. Besdes, growing a diverse range of crops acts as an insurance in the case when one crop fails.
“That was my first interaction with thinking about a holistic approach to food systems because we were hearing these stories that weren't just about soils or a lack of crop diversity. They were multifaceted,” Rachel told me.
“I was also scientifically curious, like, how could we go about solving this problem? And I really wanted to do it in a participatory way to draw on local knowledge and local resources.”
Jane was matter-of-fact about how problems in her household extended beyond the lack of seeds, fertilisers, and technical skills.
“Before this project, it was very difficult for my husband to participate in growing groundnuts. He was leaving it all to me,” she said. “But the training provided the possibility for a change. Nowadays we work together.”
A key part of SFHC’s work was “gender transformative training”, an intensive, nine-month course that involved multiple discussions - within the same gender and across the different genders - and community theatre scenarios. They tackled a pervasive culture where the division of labour, the control of land and resources, and the decision-making process were unequal.
Gender-based violence was common, and so were early and forced, marriages. Do check out The Ants and The Grasshopper, Raj Patel’s moving documentary, if you want to know more, both about what it used to be like and how the training helped.
Things are much calmer at Jane’s home now. In fact, her husband seems very proud of their farm.
He smiled broadly as we checked a room overflowing with harvested groundnuts and sacks of orange maize. He then rummaged through a mound of maize being dried outside to show me the beautiful auburn hue of the orange maize.
This indigenous variety is rich in carotenoids - nutrients named after carrots which can convert into vitamin A after consumption - and gives a lovely golden tint to nsima, a porridge prepared with maize flour that is so thick it’s shaped into patties. It is a staple in many Malawian households.
Rachel, who has continued to support SFHC and has done many different research projects with them over the past 20+ years, said the results have been very clear, if hard to summarise in a few words.
“Our participatory research has shown that farming households who use agroecological practices, when combined with community-based educational activities, have improved livelihoods, household food security, nutrition and well-being.”
“There is also evidence of more sustainable land management practices such as improved soil fertility, wild biodiversity (such as pollinators) and natural forest regeneration. Some of our research has also shown improved gender relations, with a more equitable division of labour and household decision-making, particularly with regards to farming and food decisions.”
“The findings suggest that even under low-resource conditions, farmers can successfully use agroecological methods to improve their livelihoods, food and nutrition security while supporting sustainable land use, which we know from other research, helps build resilience and adaptation to climate change.”
In this video, farmers are singing praises - literally - about the benefits of legumes. They say, "Let's grow soy beans and groundnuts. They enrich the soil and nourish the children."
Agroecology in Action
Rachel used the term “agroecology” in these answers but she told me she didn’t use it at the beginning and wasn’t even thinking about it. After learning about it, however, she realised it was “highly applicable” to what they were doing.
I’ve written about agroecology before (see below) and I’ve described it as “applying ecological principles to agriculture by shunning synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and by placing greater weight on social values and local knowledge”. Rachel has a better and snappier way of describing it, which I’ll share in next week’s issue.
Most of the half dozen farmers I spoke to that afternoon in multiple villages near Ekwendeni also didn’t use the term agroecology, but they all spoke of the diversity of crops, the caring for the soil and the environment, the division of labour in the household and farm, and the benefits they see.
Take for example Mercy Tembo, who is harvesting groundnuts and pigeon peas this year on the same spot she grew maize last year. She was sitting snugly on the ground, sifting through the groundnuts, with her finished lunch next to her, when we turned up.
“As soon as I’ve finished harvesting, I’m going to incorporate the residues in the soil. They will act as fertiliser and improve the soil. When I do this, the germination is very good,” she said.
The extra income has allowed her to upgrade her house - an iron sheet for the roof and cement for walls - and buy goats and pigs. Five years ago, with the help of SFHC, she started planting trees among the crops on her seven-acre farm.
This is a practice known as agroforestry which proponents say provides shade, timber, erosion control, and soil and microclimate improvement, and has the potential to significantly improve hunger levels in Africa.
“My daughter is now at nursing school. I did this with the money I get from farming. During holidays she comes back and helps us,” said Mercy’s friend and neighbour Margaret Thawi. Both of them joined SFHC’s program in 2010.
The farmers also told me they’re noticing the rains have become unpredictable. But with a diverse set of crops and soils that are recovering, they are doing well so far.
I came away from the trip with a big smile on my face.
Look, I’m under no illusion - this is still hard, backbreaking work. I watched Jacob and his wife using hoes to dig up the groundnuts under the blazing sun and while they made it look easy, I’m sure it was anything but.
But it is also a very honest day’s work and what they’re doing is good for them, but ultimately also good for their communities, their country, and the world.
They are clearly proud of what they’ve achieved and I will support, loudly and unashamedly, the adoption of environmentally-friendly farming practices and holistic projects that allow people to live with dignity.
I just hope I get to spend more time with the farmers the next time I visit Ekwendeni.
Three Good Reads
Rebooting Food Systems and Accelerating Climate Action Must Go Hand-in-Hand - Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)
Self-promotion alert! This is a commentary I wrote for Italian think-tank IAI as part of the Nexus25–Shaping Multilateralism project.
I used my favourite quote about the relationship between agriculture and climate change and argue why we need to tackle them together.
Iceland’s Quest to Use 100 Percent of Its Fish Waste - Hakai
This article by Lela Nargi is about the fascinating results from “100% Fish - a project spurred by the incubator Iceland Ocean Cluster in collaboration with research institutes and private companies to determine how to repurpose byproducts from the country’s US $2-billion seafood sector”.
Former Unilever-ceo fronts lobby for pesticide industry - Follow The Money
Journalists Salsabil Fayed and Lise Witteman wrote about Paul Polman who is helping the pesticide industry’s attempt to evade measures aimed at reducing pesticide use through the promotion of “regenerative agriculture”
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