Enhancing role of legumes in Malawi


Agriculture has always anchored Malawi’s economy, directly accounting for about one third of gross domestic product (GDP) consequently significantly contributing to employment, economic growth, export earnings, poverty reduction, food security and nutrition, and gender equity.

While maize has been the major food crop in terms of the policy agenda and hectarage planted, legumes are now considered as unique crops.

Over the past 10 years, smallholder farmers have made a tactical shift to legumes, increasing the production and utilisation, a crucial response to crop diversification as suggested in the circulated Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) III.


Legumes play roles that vary from important to very important in smallholder farmers’ strategies for incomes, food security, nutrition, natural resources management and gender equity in Malawi.

In the MGDS III, government eyes legumes increased production and productivity, both in terms of yield and hectarage to intensify agricultural diversification.

The common grain legumes beans, pigeon peas, groundnut and cowpea, but also soybean, are mostly grown by smallholders with limited use of inputs such as inorganic fertilizers or inoculants. But the proceeds from their sales are encouraging- smallholder farmers’ livelihoods are considerably improving.


In 2011, the Ministry of Agriculture reported that the national production of soybean over 10 years had been growing at about 4.6 percent per year. The national demand was at 111,000 metric tonnes, which caused the farmers to increase their production areas.

Legumes such as soybean are not new crops in Malawi. Reports by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security indicate that soybean has been grown in Malawi since 1909.

Nutritionists contend that soybean, like many other grain legumes, combat severe nutritional deficiency and enhances household food security. Soybean consists of more than 36 percent protein, 30 percent carbohydrates, and excellent amounts of dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

It also consists 20 percent oil, which makes it the most important crop for producing edible oil, probably a reason why several companies in the country are producing soy cooking oils now, a relatively cheaper oil for many homes.

In addition to nutritious weaning foods, whole soybeans can form important ingredients in recipes for preparing adult meals. This compliments carbohydrate—dominated diets such as maize.

This high protein value crop is also currently being processed for breakfast cereal for infants and HIV and Aids survivors, additives for meat, bakery, and animal feed, for soy milk, and for the manufacture of soap.

And beans, particularly sugar beans (Kholophethe) are high in demand and grown in many areas throughout the country because beans are very valuable to farmers as they provide the much—needed proteins to Malawian families, especially those in the rural areas where income is low and many people cannot afford to buy animal proteins.

It is thus clear that soybean and other grain legumes combat severe nutritional deficiency and enhance household food security thereby playing a critical role in nutrition as a basis for food supply and healthy diets, and thus averting a major threat to the nation’s growth and development.

A recent study on the Cost of Hunger (Coha) shows that Malawi loses 10.3 percent of its GDP every year due to under-nutrition, posing a major threat to the nation’s growth and development.

The Department of Agricultural Research Services in a Guide to Soybean Production in Malawi (2013) asserts that soybean is one of the most important crops in Malawi.

“It is a versatile grain legume because it has a variety of uses. Soybean is rich in protein, vegetable oil and essential minerals. The crop has the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen and therefore improves soil fertility.

“Soybean is increasingly becoming popular and serving as an alternative food and cash crop. The area under soybean production as well as productivity is increasing in Malawi due to government policies on value addition, domestic use and crop diversification, reads the Guide.

Subsequently, there is a significant expansion of the legumes industry within Malawi and with substantial demand for export market hence enhancing the role of legumes especially in nutrition.

Various stakeholders including Comsip Cooperative Union Limited are supporting the Government policy on crop diversification to enhance the leading role of legumes.

Comsip under the Legume Enterprise and Structured Production (Lep) initiative has encouraged members to consider legume production both as an Income Generating Activity (IGA) as well as a nutrition initiative. Hence, the initiative has the potential to contribute to the Malawi Export Strategy that emphasizes on production of pulses for exports.

The union, in a matching grant principle, provides inputs, support extension services under Lesp, a value chain initiative under the Livelihood and Skills Development (LiSD) component of Masaf IV, which helps Comsip members enhance their nutrition, linked to markets and earn incomes to improve their livelihood.

The initiative, now in its third year, promotes the production of selected legumes such as soybeans, sugar beans (Kholophethe) and pigeon peas which serve as an investment in addition to meeting the needs for nutrition and health promotion.

Comsip Operations Manager, Susan Kondowe told journalists recently in Mponela, at a Lesp Integrated Pest and Disease Management Training for Comsip aggregators, who are local animators to champion the production of legumes at cooperative level, that in the 2017/18 farming season, Comsip is supporting 77 clusters and cooperatives that are producing soy and sugar beans (Kholophethe).

During the, 2016/17 and 2015/17 farming seasons Comsip supported 68 and 36 clusters and cooperatives under the Lesp project and respectively. In 2017 Comsip groups produced 49, 48 and13 tonnes of soybean, sugar beans and pigeon peas. In 2018, the productions are expected to double.

Kondowe said apart from gains in improving soil fertility, legumes are also providing a supplementary source of income to smallholder farmers especially rural women because the domestic demand for soybean by the processing agro-industries is high.

Women such as Martha Ph i r i of Masomphenya Comsip Cluster in Kasungu have recognised an excellent opportunity and are already exploiting it.

Phiri claims that apart from meeting the nutritious needs of her family from the selling sugar beans and soybeans, she now affords to pay school fees for her children, buys household items, eats well at least three times in a day, has built decent house, and bought bicycle.

In the 2016/17 farming season, her cluster realised about 300 bags of sugar beans, she claimed.

And the exciting opportunity has also attracted other Comsip groups to participate in the initiative.

Martin Chiphesi of Mikundi Comsip Cluster in Mchinji District expects to harvest about three tonnes of soybean in the current farming season barring bad weather.

Chiphesi observes that the commercialisation of soybeans is helping build capacity on gender permitting both men and women to play roles in ensuring that they both capture the benefits.

It is, therefore, perfect to suggest that agricultural diversification into areas such as production and utilisation of legumes is important for Malawi’s smallholder farmers’ strategies for cash incomes, food security, nutrition, sustainable natural resource management and gender equity.

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