Malawi: Hunger Drives Acceptance of New Staples

Photo: Twin and Twin Trading
Malawian farmers prepare to plant groundnuts: The reluctant embrace of crops that would not previously have been considered as food is a capitulation to the strength of hunger, farmers say.

Farmers across Malawi, struggling to harvest sufficient staple crops of maize and rice in changing weather conditions, are turning to crops they had never previously considered for food.

"In (past) days, when we said food or a proper meal, we were referring to rice or thick porridge made from maize flour," said 53-year-old Fannie Kalua, a farmer from Rumphi in the country's north. "Even children felt they hadn't eaten if they did not have either of the two."

But growing rice and maize in the face of increasing inadequate rainfall - a problem scientists think is driven by climate change - means farmers like Kalau are now, reluctantly, changing their diets.

Defeated by successive years of lean harvests, increasing numbers of farmers are heeding the advice of agricultural experts to diversify their crops.

Cassava, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, millet and sorghum require less rainfall than rice and maize, scientists and farmers say. As a result, they are now being grown more frequently in Malawians' fields - and finding their way onto dinner tables, often as the entire meal.

The reluctant embrace of crops that would not previously have been considered is a capitulation to the strength of hunger, farmers say.

"We have told our children that things have changed and we cannot just rely on the traditional crops for food because we may not get enough harvest from such crops," said Kalua.

SECUITY IN DIVERSITY

Chakalipa Kanyenda, Malawi country director of Find Your Feet, an international nongovernmental organisation, said crop diversification gives farmers something to harvest even under the harshest conditions.

"Not all crops require the same amount of rain to produce a desired harvest," Kanyenda said.

"During short rainfall seasons, crops that do not require too much rain to grow will save the situation where the traditional crops fail," he explained. "When the rains are adequate, the farmers can turn to the traditional crops and probably sell the rest."

Since 2008, Find Your Feet has been teaching farmers how to adapt to climate change, encouraging them to look beyond traditional crops to ones they had never considered as staples.

Initially, Find Your Feet targeted around 12,500 farming families, but by 2011 the number had increased to over 25,000, Kanyenda said.

He attributes the speedy multiplication effect to the lead farmer concept, in which one trained farmer then goes on to train others in how to grow a new range of crops.

NATIONWIDE EXPERIMENT

Currently, the idea of trying out alternative staples is enjoying national acceptance in a country where almost 85 percent of the 14 million population live in rural areas and rely mainly on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood.

"Gone is the time when people should be looking to maize or rice alone for food," said Ulemu Chilapondwa, deputy minister of agriculture and food security. "Baked beans and boiled cassava, among others, are equally good food."

Fannie Kalua said that having gained valuable knowledge about crop diversification, she would not abandon the concept even if the climate became favourable for traditional crops once more, so as not to lose her new farming skills.

She also acknowledged the nutritional value of a more varied diet, saying that even if her traditional crops produced enough to live on, she would now alternate between them and the newer foods at mealtimes.

"If these crops give us more than what our families need, we will sell the surplus and buy other valuables (for the) home," she said.

Karen Sanje is a Malawi-based freelance writer with an interest in climate issues.

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InFocus

Hunger Drives Acceptance of New Staples in Malawi

Malawian farmers prepare to plant groundnuts: The reluctant embrace of crops that would not previously have been considered as food is a capitulation to the strength of hunger, farmers say.

Farmers struggling to harvest staple crops of maize and rice are heeding the advice of agricultural experts to diversify their crops. Read more »