Tag Archives: food security

“Meating” halfway – The growing importance of soy in Malawi

Skewered meat sizzles on kickstand grills along the main M1 highway, a whole pig is slaughtered in an open-air butcher’s market shack, a farmer herds wealth-representative cattle down a maize-sidled byway and a “road runner” free range chicken dodges potholes and traffic – in a culture where cows have long symbolized status, slaughtered to honour guests and in the north traded as a dowry to marry off daughters, making the conscious choice to live a vegetarian lifestyle in Malawi is about as rare as an order of steak tartare.

But a Development Aid from People to People in Malawi (DAPP in Malawi) program is working to change the mindset and the menu.  In 2007, with support from the United States Department of Agriculture, the American Soya Bean Association and the World Initiative for Soy in Human Health, DAPP in Malawi began training Total Control of the Epidemic (TCE) field officers to promote soy in communities affected by HIV/AIDS.  Today over 100 of their HIV/AIDS support groups have been trained to cultivate and cook with soy in the preparation of other local foods.

Recipes promoted through the DAPP – TCE soya program include banana and soy sausage, masamba a soya (soy vegetables), khofi wa soya (soy coffee), and mkaka wa soya (soy milk), and are made available on print paper with easy-to-follow directions; “Boil 3 cups water, wash (1 cup of) soya in cold water, don’t put the soya into the hot water all at once but little by little like you do with rice,” begins the soy milk instructions.

Goliyati Village resident Mary Bilila serves up a selection of newly-mastered soy recipes during a DAPP - TCE HIV/AIDS support group meeting. Photo by Karissa Gall.

Based on the nutritional value of 1 cup of boiled soybeans, the DAPP – TCE soy milk recipe would provide about 300 calories, 28 grams of protein, 10 grams of fiber, and 20 grams of fat.  The soy milk would also provide essential vitamins and minerals, with 1 cup of boiled soybeans providing 50 percent of the recommended daily intake of iron, 40 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D-balancing phosphorus, and 4 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C.

According to DAPP in Malawi Partnership Officer Nozipho Tembo, the nutritional benefits of soy foods could make a substantial difference in the fight against HIV/AIDS.  The disease is known for causing micronutrient deficiencies – vitamin A, vitamin B12, vitamin C, vitamin D, carotenoids, selenium, and iron in the blood – which in turn speed the progress of the infection, and in 2006 a study conducted by Médecins sans Frontières in Malawi found that patients with mild malnutrition were twice as likely to die in the first three months of treatment, and patients with severe malnutrition were six times as likely to die as patients with a healthy body weight.

“Over the years we have learnt that soya is high in proteins which can be substituted for meat, cheese and fish, of which some people in rural areas can’t afford to have on their daily meal,” said Tembo, adding that 1 kg of soya costs MK200 (CAD0.80) compared to MK800 (CAD3.00) for 1 kg of meat.  “The DAPP – TCE project teaches the communities to adhere to a well-balanced diet and this is one way for people in rural areas to get proteins in their meals.”

To support existing programming and expand into other areas of Malawi, Tembo said DAPP in Malawi and TCE will be engaging seed companies for seed donations.

“The demand is high… the people who are (HIV) positive are living a healthier life whenever they adhere to the information given to them about soya and how to prepare it,” she said.  “Now the challenge will be to provide soya seed for the people to plant in their fields.”

Food insecurity continues to plague Malawi

Experts believe that reducing the emphasis of maize in Malawi’s diet will require significant cultural change. Photo by Blantyre News Limited.

Much like kimchi is to Koreans, or tortillas are to Mexicans, nsima is to Malawians.

Nsima is a thick, starchy porridge made from corn, flour, or cassava, which is served with every meal (click here to see how it is prepared), but it has little nutritional value and no protein.

But in a country where over half the population survives on less than two dollars a day, having a balanced, varied and nutritious diet is – if not a challenge – nearly impossible.

Approximately 47.5 percent of Malawian children under the age of five have stunted growth due to deficient diets, according to a study conducted by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Malawi’s College of Agriculture, and the World Bank.

One of the biggest problems is that maize is the crop par excellence in Malawi; it is grown on up to 90 percent of the country’s arable land. Although crop diversification projects are starting to take place in certain regions of the country, for the most part, the production of other fruits and vegetables that would add more value and diversity to the Malawian diet remains largely overlooked.

Therefore, when something goes wrong with maize production, the country agonises.

Between 2001-2002, Malawi experienced a period of famine due to erratic rainfall that caused flooding and waterlogging of maize fields. Later in 2005, due to drought, the country suffered its worst corn harvest in a decade, which left five million of its then 13 million people experiencing chronic food shortages.

During both emergencies, food aid came from the World Food Programme (WFP), donor countries like Great Britain and several church groups. Yet, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) believes that the response to both crises, both at the national and international levels was delayed, slow and misinformed.

In 2005, President Bingu wa Mutharika, decided to implement a fertilizer subsidy program for Malawi to grow its own food and lessen its dependence upon foreign aid. This, in combination with good rains, helped Malawian farmers produce record-breaking maize harvests in 2006 and 2007, according to government crop estimates.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Malawi has sustained high rates of maize production. For the period of 2010-2011, FAO reports that maize production is 14 percent larger than the previous year. It also considers Malawi has “generally favourable food security conditions,” although some southern districts remain a concern due to a dry spell.

Furthermore, Principal Secretary for Agriculture, Food Security and Water Development, Erica Maganga, recently declared that Malawi should shift its focus from food security to the achievement of nutrition security, since she believes food production targets have already been met.

Yet, critics, like McDonald Ndekha, a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Nutrition at the College of Medicine, disagree with Maganga.

Ndekha says that food and nutrition security goes beyond the production of surplus food.

“Research indicates that there is no single measure that accurately captures all aspects of food security,” he says, adding that other important elements to consider are the availability, accessibility and utilisation of food.

For instance, he says the accessibility to food could “be negatively affected by lack of income.” In other words, nutritious food may be available, but people simply may not have the money to buy it.

Ndekha also believes that variety in food choices is crucial to a healthy life, as this variety allows the body to get all the essential nutrients it needs.

But studies conducted over the past five years indicate that this isn’t the case in Malawi.

Between 2006-2008, the College of Medicine conducted a survey among HIV-infected anti-retroviral therapy clients at the Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in the city of Blantyre.

Based on a 12-point mark, the study revealed that only 30 percent of those surveyed achieved just four of the 12 points.

“Vitamin A and iron deficiency are among the health problems of public health importance in Malawi,” says Ndekha, “Particularly [when it comes to] children.”

A 2010 report, conducted by UNICEF estimates that 21 percent of Malawian children under five are under-weight.

National Coordinator for the Malawi-US Exchange Alumni Association, Peter Mazingaliwa agrees that Malawi is far from being food secure.

Food security, he says, is about being “food sovereign” first.

“Food sovereignty means that a nation has registered surpluses in, at least, two or three key crops,” says Mazingaliwa. “We must have silos for maize, rice, beans, peas, among other crops.”

But, unless Malawi starts a national crop diversification program that favours other legumes, both Mazingaliwa and Ndekha agree that the health of the population will remain poor and the country will continue to be food insecure.

With files from Richard Chirombo

Malawi abandons tobacco for crop diversification (and food security)

At a farm estate in Zomba District, Malawi, chickpeas now dry in the sun where previously space was only made for tobacco. Travis Lupick photo.

This past season, Henry Tambula saw his farm narrowly avoid financial ruin.

“I’ve grown tobacco for 25 years,” he said on the property he manages in Zomba District, Malawi. “And what happened this year has never happened in Malawi -It has forced us not to grow tobacco this season so we have stopped. We will never go back to tobacco.”

Strong words for a farm manager in a country that once relied on “green gold”, as the locals fondly call it, for as much as 70 percent of its exports and 15 percent of GDP. But in renouncing the crop, Tambula is in good company.

For 2011, Malawi’s tobacco earnings are down 57 percent from what they were the previous year. After five consecutive seasons of declining returns on tobacco, a combination of the global recession, oversaturated markets, and increasingly-popular anti-tobacco campaigns is forcing Malawian farmers to look to other crops.

According to Prince Kapondamgaga, executive director for the Farmers Union of Malawi, this is not bad news. “Diversification is long overdue,” he said.

A group of Canadian’s working in Malawi agrees. Canadian Physicians for Aid Relief’s Putting Farmers First program has long supported food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. In an email sent from Toronto, Kevin O’Niell, a program officer with the group, wrote that CPAR builds on the strengths of small-scale farming communities by promoting conservation agriculture principles such as crop diversifcation.

“Crop diversification is one of a series of sustainable farming techniques at the core of CPAR’s approach that improve crop production and expand opportunities for farmers to lead competitive agricultural production efforts,” he explained. “By moving away from mono-cropping (planting only one staple crop such as maize), small-scale farmers lessen their dependency on the success of that crop.”

What’s more, he continued, this strategy also helps to improve the nutritional content of families’ household diets. As arable land previously used to grow maize and tobacco –the two most-common crops in Malawi– is cleared of those plants, more room is made available for healthier fruits and vegetables.

O’Niell maintained that for CPAR, these issues are very-much a matter of human rights.

“People’s right to food is driven by the notion that food should be accessible to all (sustained year-round access to a stable supply of food), available to all (a sufficient supply), adequate for all (nutritionally adequate and from a sustainable food system), and acceptable to all (culturally appropriate and respectful of traditions),” he wrote. “Our work with small-scale farmers is based around these principles.”

[caption id=”attachment_5516″ align=”aligncenter” width=”675″ caption=”Not tobacco: In a country that once relied heavily on so-called "green gold", farmers are increasingly focusing on other crops, such as c

The food security paradox

Food security has been the hallmark of Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika's rule, yet half a million Malawians are at risk of starving

Following a famine in 2002, in which thousands died and three million people were relying on food aid, Malawi has turned itself around and recorded a surplus of maize, the country’s staple crop, for the past five years.

There is enough food for everybody. So why, according to a recent report from the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee, are half a million Malawians still at risk of starving?

Malawi is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the international treaty which determines access to food as a human right. Further, the right to food is included in the national constitution.

Unfortunately, neither has done much to prevent people from going hungry in the country.

Chandiwira Chisi, a food security activist working for the international NGO ActionAid, says that without having the right to food enshrined in law, such food inequities will continue to exist. That’s why right to food legislation is being pushed by a number of NGOs in the country.

“If we have a clearly developed law in place,” says Chisi, “it could guarantee that citizens of different social levels can protect their right to food.”

As economist Amartya Sen famously argued, people don’t go hungry because a country lacks food but because certain people don’t have access to food. Preventing famine isn’t simply about producing more food. In most cases, the food is there.

Malawi is a case in point. Food security has been the hallmark of Bingu wa Mutharika’s presidency since he took office in 2004. Millions of Malawians were relying on food aid in 2002. The recent surpluses arecredited to a fertilizer subsidy program that Mutharika supported in 2005. Thousands of kilograms of fertilizer are distributed each year to the 80 per cent of Malawians who rely on subsistence farming.

Carol Samdup, an advisor for the Canadian NGO, Rights & Democracy, who helped draft the right to food bill, says the new legislation will allow government to be held accountable when food shortages arise as a result of mismanagement.

“The value of the human rights framework is that it elevates food security from an aspirational goal to a legal obligation of the state,” says Samdup. “Consequently, [people] are able to hold the state accountable when policies are ineffective, discriminatory, or harmful of their enjoyment of their right to food.”

The bill also proposes to establish an arms-length investigative body to look into—and hopefully prevent—potential food violations. Similar legislation providing for the right to food has been adopted in ten countries over the past decade.

The Malawian right to food bill was first drafted in 2002 but it has been passing hands since and, nearly a decade later, it seems the political will to push it forward has evaporated.

“Initially, the government was on board when it came to recognition of a right to food framework,” says Chisi. “But then, early in 2010, we began seeing a change on their part. They began expressing fears that the Right to Food bill would exert too much pressure on government.”

Samdup has heard similar concerns from the Malawian administration.

“There seems to be a misunderstanding about the right to food within Malawi’s government,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that you have to feed people. It means you have to provide the platform from which people can feed themselves.”

Dr. Andrew Daudi, secretary for the agriculture ministry, refused to comment on the government’s position.

Whether or not the Right to Food bill would prove effective remains to be seen. What is clear is that with half a million presently at risk of starving, subsidizing fertilizers and international treaties have not been enough to prevent people from going hungry in Malawi.