Amidst drought and flooding, Malawian farmers look to diversify their diet

Drought and crop failure is putting Malawi's food supply at risk. With farmers selling precious crops for cash, hunger and food insecurity in rural communities is a growing threat. ©IFAD/Marco Salustro
Drought and crop failure is putting Malawi's food supply at risk. With farmers selling precious crops for cash, hunger and food insecurity in rural communities is a growing threat. ©IFAD/Marco Salustro

16 November 2016 - In the landlocked country of Malawi, 2.8 million Malawians—nearly 20 per cent of the population—face food insecurity. As Malawi’s drought worsens, it is expected that the number of people in need of assistance will increase in the months and years ahead.

Two years of poor harvests as a result of flooding and drought have already left millions of people in need of food aid in Southern Africa.

Now, an IFAD-supported project is encouraging Malawian farmers to eat the food they produce - instead of over relying on maize and other food products that they are forced to buy.

The  Rural Livelihoods and Economic Enhancement Programme (RLEEP) has helped rural people across Malawi improve their families’ nutrition through dietary diversification at the household level. The secret is a simple twofold approach: providing lessons in nutrition and encouraging farmers to eat the food they produce.

The focus on nutrition is one element of IFAD’s Rural Livelihoods and Economic Enhancement Programme (RLEEP), which has so far reached 37,000 households. In addition to increasing agricultural production and connecting smallholder farmers to value chains, the project also ensures that surplus income will benefit the health of all members of the family.

Jeremaya Maduka – a small farmer – works in his potato garden in Ntchisi, Malawi, an area which has been hit hard by drought and crop failures. In the past, Maduka used to sell nearly all of his production, leaving little for his family to eat.
Jeremaya Maduka – a small farmer – works in his potato garden in Ntchisi, Malawi, an area which has been hit hard by drought and crop failures. In the past, Maduka used to sell nearly all of his production, leaving little for his family to eat.

Jeremaya Maduka of Chinkhande village in the Ntchisi district, grows potatoes and soya beans. He used to sell nearly all of his production, leaving little for his family to eat. To Maduka and other farmers, every piece of produce consumed meant lost cash income. In addition, they saw potatoes not as a staple, but as a cash crop—food to be sold to restaurants and hotels.

“I was selling all my harvest and buying food for my family, but I would run out of money to buy food during lean periods,” Maduka explained. “My children would have dietary ailments because they were lacking adequate and nutritious food.”

As a result, Maduka spent time taking his children to the hospital instead of tending the family farm.

In Ntchisi, malnutrition is endemic. A survey RLEEP conducted in 2015 revealed that less than 20 per cent of women consumed diversified diets, contributing to a stunting rate of over 60 per cent.

But smallholders in Ntchisi were producing all the food they needed for a balanced diet.

The project not only helped Maduka to increase his agricultural production (increasing soya production from 700 to 1,000 kilogrammes per hectare and potato production from 7 to 20 tonnes per hectare), but also encouraged him to put aside some of his produce for home consumption. Meanwhile, his wife attended RLEEP-organized nutrition training, where she learned about food diversification and different ways to prepare healthy dishes.

One lesson she learned particularly touched Maduka: that women with iron deficiencies have a higher risk of dying during childbirth.

Rural women from the community display food prepared during RLEEP nutrition training in Ntchisi, Malawi.
Rural women from the community display food prepared during RLEEP nutrition training in Ntchisi, Malawi.

The soya beans Maduka grew were rich in iron, protein and calcium, but he had been selling his entire crop. Now, he reminds his wife about the importance of a proper diet and makes sure to put aside enough potatoes and soya beans for household consumption. “I have a healthy family now,” he said.

“We learned how to prepare balanced food for the good health of our families especially children and lactating mothers. We are lucky because we produce most of the foods that we were taught how to prepare,” he said.

As Malawi’s drought worsens, the lessons Maduka and other farmers took from RLEEP in agricultural production and nutrition remain as important as ever.