The Feed the Future Malawi Mobile Project is promoting financial inclusion among the unbanked and underbanked smallholder farmers in rural Malawi.
“This is a good one,” said Ned Konala as he picked up one of the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes that he grows on his farm in Malawi and tossed it onto a pile. “There was no incentive for me to produce a lot of orange-fleshed sweet potato in the past. I used to have to sell to traders at low prices because no one else was buying.” Today, however, because the market demand for the vegetable has grown, he can sell his potatoes for higher prices, so he grows a lot more of them.
One result of the higher demand is an opportunity for Konala and 8,500 other smallholders to earn higher incomes. But a second and potentially farther-reaching benefit is improved nutrition for many of Malawi’s consumers, urban as well as rural, because sweet potatoes are so rich in vitamin A. For the 60 percent of Malawian children under 5 who suffer from vitamin-A deficiency, which can lead to blindness and vulnerability to diseases such as measles and pneumonia, this could be life-changing.
Universal Industries, a leading snack and beverage producer in Malawi, is partnering with Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation and the International Potato Center to develop a value-added strategy in Malawi. Through the partnership, Universal Industries is testing and commercially launching four sweet potato-based products to the market. It is also building a sustainable supply chain by providing sweet potato farmers with training in proper production and storage, improved sweet potato vines, and a formal sweet potato market.
So far, Universal has introduced two orange sweet potato-based products—chips and bread—to the consumer market in Malawi. It’s also seeing high demand from other food processors, such as bakeries, for sweet potato flour and puree—products that can be used as a partial substitute for imported wheat flour, which is more expensive. One of Malawi’s largest bakeries, Sun Bakery, expressed interest in purchasing 20 metric tons of sweet potato puree per week from Universal in order to produce bread.
Malawi stands to benefit from a robust market for orange-fleshed sweet potato products in many ways. Replacing imported, less nutritious wheat flour with sweet potato flour improves nutrition. Increasing the availability of vitamin A-rich orange-fleshed sweet potato products in both rural and urban markets helps address a major nutritional challenge. Sweet potato farmers also reap income gains from higher prices, as well as stability from selling in large quantities.
As Universal Industries expands the market for value-added orange-fleshed sweet potato products, more people can access this nutrient-rich food, and fewer children will suffer from the health problems associated with lack of vitamin A. Higher farmer incomes will also improve household nutrition, as farmers buy more nutritious food for their families.
By expanding market solutions to development challenges, Universal Industries addresses both a market gap and a development gap while growing a sustainable business.
Annie Kaunda* lives in Malawi’s Shire River watershed, where limited economic opportunities and arable land force families to consider unsustainable farming practices. Her story is like that of many other women who live in the area.
For 10 years, Kaunda ran a charcoal business, hiring young men to cut down trees and prepare them for charcoal production. Though charcoal production was her livelihood, it leads to deforestation, which can cause soil erosion and land degradation—and Kaunda knew it.
“When I moved into this area in 1999, I swore I would never cut down any tree for survival,” she recalled. “But in 2005, I found myself being pressured to do so. I looked at the trees in my field and the natural forest around me and I got so tempted.”
Before long, Kaunda was producing more than 15 bags of charcoal each month, without ever replanting a tree. But when practices such as this become common, the environmental costs are high. In Malawi, these costs include heavy sedimentation loads in the Shire River.
The 250-mile-long Shire River is critical in this southern African nation. The vast majority of Malawi’s electricity is generated from three hydroelectric plants at the river’s upper and middle sections. The river’s vibrant watershed is a source of drinking water, crop irrigation, transport and recreation for the communities that thrive in the area, and most rely on farming and the surrounding natural resources for their livelihoods.
But high rates of deforestation and river bank cultivation, largely from charcoal production and agriculture in Malawi, have resulted in serious river bank erosion, which contributes to heavy sedimentation that flows into the river. As it does, the sediment clogs turbines at the hydroelectric plants, frequently knocking them offline. The impact of increasing soil and land degradation has also begun to threaten agricultural production and availability of clean water.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a Feed the Future partner agency, is helping to limit erosion and increase yields in Malawi by funding technical support and training on sustainable land management and conservation agricultural practices. In this way, MCC also helps to advance the goals of Feed the Future, which include women’s empowerment.
In Malawi, most agricultural production, disposition of earnings and land management decisions are made by men, who are considered the heads of household. To support women’s empowerment, the MCC Malawi Compact emphasizes full participation of women in training opportunities and technical assistance programs.
MCC also supports educational sessions that include dialogue between men and women. Participants discuss one another’s roles, women’s rights, domestic violence, family planning, HIV/AIDS, responsible fatherhood and the importance of allowing girls to go to school before marriage. The dialogues promote a better understanding of roles and responsibilities and of equitable decision-making on land use and natural resource management.
Women farmers who have participated in MCC-supported activities have adopted conservation agricultural practices and are now producing enough maize to meet their families’ needs without exacerbating soil erosion. They are also able to sell surplus maize at local markets. Some women, like Kaunda, have abandoned their charcoal production businesses and switched to growing and selling tree seedlings.
Kaunda said she doesn’t earn as much from selling trees as she did from selling charcoal, but she sees the switch as an investment in both her and her family’s future.
“So far, I have planted 155 trees, and I will continue to do so as a way of paying back what I have destroyed,” she said.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Hanna Ayesu’s* soybean yields were low. Despite her seven years of experience growing soy, she was rarely able to grow enough to sell and wasn’t able to access inputs that would improve her crop’s yield.
The Ayesu family’s story is not unique. Of the five million people in Malawi’s Feed the Future target regions, more than two-thirds are poor. Many households, including those headed by women, till small plots for subsistence. For these farmers, hunger and undernutrition are no strangers.
The life-threatening combination of poverty and food insecurity is partly due to farmers’ limited access to financial products and services. Without these resources, they are unable to invest in high-quality agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers, which can increase their productivity and earnings.
To address this challenge, Opportunity Bank of Malawi (OBM) has partnered with Feed the Future Partnering for Innovation since 2015 to provide smallholder farmers with OBM financial and banking products and services as well as training on good agricultural practices. The trainings are held at local organizations such as clubs, and at least one-third of the 10,000 training participants are women. By 2017, 9,000 of the trained farmers will have used at least one OBM product or service, such as a loan, savings account or mobile money.
After seeing publicity for this financial resource and training opportunity, Ayesu joined a club where, as a member, she was able to receive training. She has learned about topics ranging from conservation farming to water management and irrigation to pest and disease control, including instruction on integrated pest management and safe handling and usage of pesticides.
Following the recommended agricultural practices, Ayesu planted her acre with soybeans and now expects to harvest more than 20 bags of soybean—more than enough to feed her family and to sell at market.
Ayesu also opened her first bank account with OBM and qualified for a K50,000 ($75) agriculture loan. She is now investing the borrowed money to pay for extra farm labor to weed and maintain her field which helps ensure a quality harvest. Her ongoing participation in trainings is providing her with mentors, technical assistance, and a new confidence that she can grow her business. “I see a bright future,” Ayesu said. “I will produce more soybeans and expect to borrow again next year because I will have saved money for collateral.”
With better farm management and agronomic skills, farmers, especially women, are less likely to default on loans, and by grouping farmers, OBM can reduce its operating costs.
Partnerships with extension service providers, training in good agricultural practices, and ongoing technical assistance are critical to smallholder farmer success. In Malawi, this unprecedented effort to reach women farmers with financial services is an important opportunity for both women and the local bankers who will benefit from their business.
*Last name has been changed to protect privacy.
Feed the Future focuses efforts in 19 countries, selected not only based on level of need, but also opportunity for partnership and potential for agricultural growth, among other criteria. That approach mirrors the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s model of smart, rigorous development driven by countries’ own priorities for economic growth and poverty reduction. Read on to learn how this model is contributing to better food security in countries that share the United States’ commitment to democracy and mutual prosperity.
On the banks of the Shire River in Malawi, a towering hydrodam hums along, supplying clean energy to thousands of rural communities. Just months ago, the dam experienced frequent outages due to aquatic weed infestation and dense sediment in the river, a result of severe upstream erosion. But support from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is helping address the immediate causes of the power outages while promoting sustainable management of natural resources to prevent recurring problems. An environmental trust between local watershed communities, utilities and private companies is working to reduce factors like soil erosion and sedimentation that threaten Malawi’s power infrastructure as well as agriculture and food security.
The Shire River dam, part of MCC’s five-year, $350.7 million compact with Malawi, is just one example of how MCC strengthens agricultural and rural economies in some of the world’s poorest countries. In many cases, the agreements MCC signs with host country governments promote reliable access to sufficient, safe and affordable food, contributing to Feed the Future’s goals of reducing hunger, poverty and undernutrition. In fact, $4.5 billion – almost half of MCC’s obligated investments – are related to improving food security, much of it going toward infrastructure that improves conditions for agricultural growth and connects small-scale farming communities to markets so they can earn more income.
The MCC development model is unique in that good governance, economic freedom and investing in citizens are all prerequisites for receiving grants that fund country-led solutions to poverty and its related challenges. Like Feed the Future’s, MCC’s approach is rooted in country ownership, and almost all MCC partner countries have prioritized investments related to food security as part of their compact programs.
Just last year, MCC completed two compacts in Burkina Faso and Namibia with large food security investments, including water management, livestock, land tenure, rural finance and rural road components. Two more compacts with Senegal and Moldova will end this year, which have already resulted in significant irrigation improvements in Senegal and the completion of a 93 kilometer road in Moldova.
Some MCC food security investments also align with those of other development organizations. In Moldova, for instance, MCC and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have pooled resources to carry out a coordinated strategy to grow and trade high-value crops among rural farming households, which have struggled during the transition from a centrally-planned to a market economy over the past 20 years. This co-investment aims to revitalize Moldova’s agriculture sector, once a pillar of the economy and a major regional supplier of food products. By improving irrigation, unlocking critical new markets and increasing access to technology and financing, MCC and USAID will help farmers grow more high-value crops like tomatoes, table grapes, nuts, fruits and vegetables.
And in El Salvador, where cocoa is a major cash crop well-suited to small-scale farmers, MCC is partnering with USAID, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to improve cocoa production in coordination with the Salvadoran government. The partnership is stimulating niche markets for “fino de aroma,” specialty chocolates based on cocoa plants native to Central America and the Caribbean, and buyers are already starting to take notice as this supply chain re-emerges in El Salvador.
With an emphasis on rigorous assessment tools, MCC also invests in independent impact evaluations that help show whether positive changes – such as increases in farmer income – are caused specifically by U.S. assistance or are the result of external factors like a national policy change or weather conditions. These evaluations help ensure evidence and data guide future programming and answer important questions about what is effective and what can be done better in development, supporting a Feed the Future Learning Agenda that aims to build the evidence base for what works in food security.
“Grain legumes” is the technical way to describe some of the most basic foods available: beans, lentils, and peas all fall under this category. These nutrient-dense staple crops have historically been cultivated for their protein and are considered “low-hanging fruit” in the fight against undernutrition, since they are already familiar in many diets around the world.
The Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab, led by Michigan State University, is undertaking a number of projects to maximize the potential of these common food staples to combat undernutrition and food insecurity.
In Guatemala, for example, the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab is supporting a project to promote protein-packed black beans among smallholder farmers, distributing disease-resistant bean varieties adapted for high elevations. Carlos Dominguez, a smallholder coffee farmer in the western highlands of Guatemala, recently harvested 200 pounds of black beans as a result of the seed allocation and training he received on improved soil fertility and pest management practices. This means he will be able to provide 100 pounds of food for his family and retain enough seed for the next planting season. The remaining profits will help Dominguez’s family stay food-secure in a region where climate change and plant diseases have made it increasingly difficult to grow crops including grain legumes.
In conjunction with these efforts to increase bean production, Feed the Future is supporting nutrition educators who visit remote villages to educate women and men about the importance of greater dietary diversity and how eating more beans can help improve children’s growth and long-term health. At nutrition fairs, the educators share easy recipes for a bean-fortified maize porridge for infants to replace their traditional diet of atole, a maize-sugar beverage high in calories but low in nutrients.
On the other side of the globe, the Grain Legumes Innovation Lab is bringing physicians and scientists together to combat child undernutrition in Malawi, where nearly half of children under the age of five are stunted. One of the pervasive causes of undernutrition among children is an asymptomatic chronic inflammatory gut condition called environmental enteropathy, which occurs when young children are exposed long-term to an unsanitary environment, including unhygienically prepared complementary foods. The project’s researchers are investigating whether easily digestible grain legumes – in lieu of more traditional staples like maize, cassava and sorghum – can help reduce environmental enteropathy in young children by improving gut health. Cowpea, for example, has three to four times more protein per gram than corn and may have anti-inflammatory effects.
To test this theory, researchers are conducting two trials among different age groups to investigate the effect of common bean and cowpea consumption on infant and toddler gut health and growth. These experiments will contribute to a clearer understanding of whether a grain legume supplement can contribute to children’s increased growth and reduced risk of environmental enteropathy compared to children who receive standard food supplements. If so, grain legumes will represent an exciting new front in the battle to end millions of child deaths resulting from undernutrition and improve the long-term potential for children and economies to grow strong and healthy.
The United States has always been a world leader in the fight to end hunger and poverty. This spring, our partners share how recent efforts embody the best of the United States and why this leadership matters. The following is a guest post authored by Mark Lundy, who traveled to Malawi as a graduate student to work on an agricultural development project. Mark is now a cooperative extension farm advisor in California.
Having grown up in a city, my interest in agriculture was largely something that developed after I left home. As an undergraduate student and in the years afterward, I was lucky to have the opportunity to study and work in China, Ireland and Mexico.
As diverse as these locations were geographically, culturally and linguistically, something that unified these experiences for me was that in each place I ended up working and interacting with farmers in rural areas. In the process, I became increasingly interested in learning about rural livelihoods and how they were changing in a rapidly globalizing world economy. Eventually, this motivated me to dive into the agricultural sciences. I began working on farms and ultimately earned a master’s degree in international agricultural development and a doctorate in agronomy from the University of California, Davis.
It was during the course of my graduate work at UC Davis that I participated in the Trellis program, which partners graduate students in the United States with agricultural research and outreach organizations in the developing world. Run by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Horticulture, the Trellis program’s objective is to share expertise and foster cross-cultural collaborations in agricultural development.
When I applied to participate in Trellis, I was mid-stream in my graduate work and eager to put my “book learning” to some practical use. I was also curious to see how the more detailed understanding of agricultural production I had been gaining largely in the context of Californian agriculture would apply to a rural, developing world setting more similar to those that had initiated my vocation.
Collaborating in Malawi
I was partnered with the Bvumbwe Agricultural Research Station outside of Blantyre, Malawi, whose Trellis project focus was to disseminate improved production practices for small-scale farmers growing fresh-market tomatoes. Our collaboration consisted of compiling region-specific best practices with visual aids into poster handouts and organizing on-farm field demonstrations of best management practices. Trellis provided part of the funding for me to travel to Malawi to participate in some of the field demonstrations.
One of my colleagues during the project was an agronomist named Chimwemwe, who had been educated in the area and possessed both fundamental agronomic knowledge and a nuanced understanding of agricultural production in his region. He had good relationships with leaders in the farming communities we visited and he was well respected among his colleagues at the research station. During my time in Malawi, he and I discussed cropping system innovations such as conservation agriculture, the feasibility and constraints of organic production systems, and possibilities for tomato processing and composting operations.
I was impressed with Chimwemwe’s know-how and, simultaneously, frustrated by the resource constraints that confined the possibility of his impact.
Even though we successfully accomplished the Trellis project objectives, I remember thinking that as much as I valued what I was learning from the experience, the money invested in my plane ticket might have been better spent directly on Chimwemwe’s programs. How much more might he have accomplished beyond the objectives of the project with those resources in hand?
In the years following my participation in Trellis, I finished my graduate work and became an agronomy advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension, part of the Agriculture and Natural Resources division. In that role, I provide agronomic expertise to farmers and lead applied research and extension programs for a wide range of crops (including tomatoes!) in the lower Sacramento Valley. My decision to work in this role was partly informed by my participation in Trellis and my interactions with Chimwemwe.
Seeing Chimwemwe’s extension program in action underscored to me that agriculture is simultaneously (even paradoxically) a global and a local enterprise. Many of the fundamentals of cropping systems do apply broadly across diverse agricultural landscapes, which is what permitted the productive conversations and collaboration between us.
There is no substitute for a nuanced understanding of the particular contours and constraints of any given region or farm.
Nevertheless, there is no substitute for a nuanced understanding of the particular contours and constraints of any given region or farm. Despite my broad knowledge of cropping systems, Chimwemwe’s relationships with individuals in his region and his understanding of the particular constraints to production on the farms he was serving made him a sharper tool for the job we set out to do together.
With a few years’ perspective, I can now see that the project was successful beyond its immediate goal of extending best management practices to small-scale tomato growers in Malawi. Observing Chimwemwe in action inspired me to leverage the regionally specific knowledge I had gained about California agriculture during my graduate education and try to become a similarly sharp tool in my own backyard.
As a result, my Trellis experience continues to bear fruit in my day-to-day work right here in California.
Editor’s Note: Fourteen graduate students from UC Davis, North Carolina State University and the University of Florida are currently working on new Trellis Fund projects in nine countries as part of Feed the Future. Follow their work by visiting the Feed the Future Horticulture Innovation Lab’s website.
More from This Series:
In Malawi, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is investing in hydropower, a clean and renewable energy source, to revitalize the country’s power sector.
One such effort underway is the rehabilitation of a major hydropower dam on the Shire River. To ensure the sustainability of this power infrastructure and the long-term functionality of the hydropower plant, MCC is addressing a range of environmental challenges. For instance, aquatic weed infestation and dense sediment in the Shire River from severe upstream erosion are creating forced outages at the hydropower plant, reducing efficiency and increasing costs.
Together with local implementing partner MCA-Malawi, MCC is tackling this problem with a two-pronged approach that addresses the immediate causes of the power outages while also promoting more sustainable environmental practices to prevent the problem from recurring.
First, MCC funded the purchase of weed harvesters and dredgers to mechanically remove the aquatic plants and silt that have built up over years of the hydropower plant’s operation. But removing the weeds and silt is the easy part; the hard part is preventing future build-ups, which is why MCC is investing in a longer-term approach that promotes upstream conservation. MCA-Malawi is working with upstream farmers to adopt conservation agriculture, reforestation and other farming practices that will ultimately improve environmental outcomes at the plant site and help sustain more reliable hydropower generation.
To help sustain support for local watershed communities beyond the life of this project and build long-term food security, MCC will help create and partially fund an environmental trust to support sustainable improvements in land use management in the Shire River Basin. This trust may be supported through combined financing from water and electricity tariffs, and from downstream private companies through a ”payment for ecosystem services” mechanism. The goal is to link utilities and private companies that suffer the impacts of poor water quality with the upstream communities that manage the natural resources. The trust, using funding from these downstream stakeholders and/or tariffs, will support NGOs to work with upstream local communities to reduce weed infestation, soil erosion and sedimentation.
This work, which ultimately aims to increase the performance of the power sector to drive investment and create economic growth, is part of an environment and natural resources management project that falls under MCC’s five-year, $350.7 million compact with Malawi.