Tag Archives: nutrition

“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