From left to right: unidentified man; Lywell Nyangulu; Haylet Nkosi and Irice Zgambo. Fuzani village intercropping plot - Northern Malawi.
From left to right: unidentified man; Lywell Nyangulu; Haylet Nkosi and Irice Zgambo. Fuzani village intercropping plot - Northern Malawi.

Big health and environment benefits on a shoestring in rural Malawi

IDRC-funded researchers are improving the lives of thousands of malnourished families in Malawi.

With more than 10 years of experience in the region, the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities project is increasing food security and improving child nutrition, showing that small changes in planting methods, education, and community involvement can have a big impact.

Team members and volunteers recruited families to sow legumes to improve soils and produce healthier food. As a result of eating protein-rich food, children’s health improved, leading to a significant improvement in their growth. Crop yields also increased, without the heavy use of chemical fertilizers.

This initiative of the Ekwendeni Hospital in northern Malawi and Malawian and Canadian scientists draws in farmers who live in the town of Ekwendeni and surrounding villages. Here, the staple crop is maize, which is low in protein and depletes soil fertility when planted alone (monoculture). To counter this trend, the research team promotes intercropping of legumes - that is, growing two or more crops close by in the same field or plot of land. The benefits include: a more diverse diet; natural and free fertilizer from crop residue; and less reliance on government aid - all of which are needed to combat food insecurity in the long term.

A small-scale approach with long-term potential

The success of the project has been widely recognized. In 2009, National Geographic magazine featured an article about the global food crisis. It questioned whether a green revolution for Africa, with its “traditional package of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation, supercharged by genetically engineered seeds,” would offer a realistic solution. The article points to the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities project as a success story, citing its collaborative and innovative approaches to tackling food insecurity: “There are no hybrid corn seeds, free fertilizers, or new roads...  Instead the project distributes legume seeds, recipes, and advice for growing nutritious crops like peanuts, pigeon peas,  and soybeans, which enrich the soil … while also enriching children's diets” (Bourne, 2009). 

Intercropping, however, is a departure from the norm in Malawi, where government subsidy programs now widely distribute chemical fertilizers to small farmers. Many of them have become dependent on these handouts.

BBC News Africa picked up on the success of the Ekwendeni project in 2010 and questioned whether or not the subsidy program will be sustainable in the long term. "The (chemical) fertiliser itself ruins the soil fertility and soil structure … economically we can't sustain it…" says Edgar Bayani, a local agriculturalist. Enoch Chione, village chief in the town of Chipetupetu, is a participating farmer as well as a community promoter of the project. He says the biggest advantage of the intercropping system is that it can reach everyone, whereas government subsidies only reach the poorest half of the population. The system is also fairly simple and encourages farmers to experiment with various crops: they can observe what works best and take away important lessons about growing methods.

Looking to the future

Where will the project go from here? Radio Canada International’s The Link featured an interview with research coordinator Rachel Bezner-Kerr in 2011. She explained that research objectives expanded as issues such as climate change, gender inequality, and disease (most notably HIV/AIDS) play important roles in determining whether the approach will be successful on a wider scale and well into the future. The team continues to explore environmental, social, and agricultural contributors to poor nutrition and health. By widening their research scope, they will improve food security in the long term and build on the success of their commitment to Malawi.

Read regular updates at www.soilandfood.org

Photo (right): Rachel Bezner-Kerr
Local resident Eliza Shaba attends a recipe day, August 2009, northern Malawi

This article profiles a project supported by IDRC’s Ecosystems and Human Health Program.

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IDRC funds researchers in the developing world so they can build healthier, more prosperous societies
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