Before she started farming, Lonjezo Wedison, a farmer from Moyo Village in the area of Traditional Authority Maganga in Salima District, thought the nutritious food within the six food groups was only for the rich and the working class.
Most of the people in her area were of the same view that nutritious food could never be found right in their area, a village for that matter.
Lonjezo, a lead farmer, now knows better.
“We have realised that most of the food we need for our growth and health can easily be found right here where we stay, through farming,” Lonjezo said.
She is leading a group of women farmers who have established community gardens where various crops including tomatoes, beans, soya and other local vegetables like Chisoso, Kamuganya and Bonongwe are grown.
Apart from that, the women are also engaged in livestock production.
Each and every household is also encouraged to have at least a fruit tree which apart from providing the fruits, the trees also provides a readily available shelter from the merciless sun of Senga-bay, Salima.
“Since we started this kind of farming which uses manure, we have noticed that malnutrition is a thing of the past, because apart from providing us with a source of income, they are also a readily available source of nutritious food, we have also learnt from extension workers that apart from fish, other crops such as Bonongwe and Kamuganya are also nutritious so we now have alternative sources of food,” Lonjezo explained.
In the years that she, together with the other farmers, have been engaging in irrigation farming, Lonjezo has noticed enormous progress.
She said there are many gains economically and the same can be traced in the fight against malnutrition.
According to Lonjezo, a challenge comes in when the farmers need to use the money they have gained from selling their farm produce to buy processed foods in shops.
Despite having knowledge of the nutrient content of the food in their backyard gardens, Lonjezo and other people in her area are not aware of how nutritious are the processed food and beverages they buy from shops.
“Mostly we just believe that if the products have found their way into these big shops, then they must be nutritious because most of us do not even read what is written on the packets of the food that we buy and eat from the shops,” Lonjezo said.
Elsewhere at Malinda Village, Mercy Mulapa said she is aware that the vegetables from her backyard garden that she consumes with her children, provides them the nutrients they need because extension workers in the area told her so.
But when it comes to processed food and drinks bought from major chain stores, Mercy said she just trusts that they have nutrients that will help her body fight diseases apart from assisting in the growth of her two children.
“In fact, most of us do not even know how to read, even if we knew how to read, most of us would not bother to read what is contained on the food packages because we are just used to the things that we consume without taking the time to know the nutritious contents of the food that we eat,” Mercy said.
According to Mercy, most of the manufacturers only indicate the ingredients of the products anyway, without necessarily informing the consumer of the health benefits of the product.
“The only caution that we share among ourselves is to avoid breaking bones of these modern chickens which do take long to grow as we are told that their bone marrows contain chemicals they are injected with to chemicals to induce quick growth,” she said.
Lonjezo and Mercy are but some of the many Malawian farmers, who despite contributing to the country’s food value chain, do not have knowledge as to the nutritious benefits of various products they buy on the market.
Salima District Nutrition and HIV Officer Joana Chitaya attributed the existence of such knowledge gaps to the absence of a food and nutrition law in the country.
Malawi currently has a draft national Food and Nutrition bill, which has remained in that form since 2014.
Chitaya said the law is important as it will provide for the right to adequate food and nutrition, freedom from hunger, labeling and fortification of food apart from monitoring and regulation of the food and nutrition industry.
“In short, this law will help Malawians to know more about the food they eat and benefits thereof, we need a law that will spell out the kinds food and their health benefits, including alternatives to various types of foods that Malawians consume in search of various vitamins,” Chitaya said.
She also said a food and nutrition bill will commit the government to do more in ensuring that people have access to quality food and nutrition.
“The bill will fight malnutrition by creating more awareness on what people should look out for when purchasing various kinds of food, and of course it will also ensure that the government invests more in issues to do with nutrition that is the case now,” Chitaya said.
Various organisations under Civil Society Organisations Nutrition Alliance (Csona) have been pressing the government to table and pass the bill as part of its commitments aimed at fighting malnutrition and ensuring that everyone is free from hunger.
It also has provisions that will make it mandatory for all food producers involved in processing and pre-packaging to label their products so that people know what they are consuming.
“A legislation on the Right to Food and Nutrition would be a key legal instrument that would help address some of the challenges Malawi is facing in as far as nutrition is concerned,” Csona Programmes Manager Joseph Gausi said.
He said although Malawi has yielded positive gains over the years from nutrition programing by reducing stunting rate from 47% in 2010 to 37% in 2016, slow progress has been registered as the clock ticks towards the 2025 target.
Recent statistics show that stunting is at 36% and the country has poor infant and young child feeding practices with only 8% of children’s population aged 6-23 months meeting their minimum acceptable diets.
“Malawi is experiencing other forms of nutrition challenges including high rise of obesity especially in women which is currently standing at 36%, this is exposing thousands of people to risks of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular conditions, which are estimated to account for 32% of total deaths in Malawi,” Gausi added.
Ministry of Health officials recently said the bill, which has been under deliberation since 2003, is currently with the Ministry of Justice.
As discussions on the bill continue, Lonjezo still thinks local farmers have a role to play.
“So we would like to urge the government to involve and empower us so that we can produce more nutritious food for the growing population,” Lonjezo said.
The bill also provides that food and nutrition shall be adequate, available and accessible commensurate with age, sex, state of health or occupation of a person in order to allow the person to grow, develop and maintain physical and mental wellbeing.
It is also aligned to the recommendations made by the UN-Special Rapporteur on Right to Food that asks governments to establish a framework law on the Right to Food.
Eric Msikiti is a Senior Reporter/News Producer at Times Group. Though relatively young, Eric boasts years of experience in Malawi’s media industry.