A project implemented by Chancellor College of the University of Malawi aims to improve food and nutrition security and increase livelihoods for rural communities in Malawi by increasing crop diversity, promoting agro-ecological approaches and diverse seed systems and facilitating the formation of farmer cooperatives to improve access to markets. The OSISA funded project, “Farmer led climate smart agriculture and agro-processing for food, nutrition and livelihoods security in Malawi”, is implemented in Dedza and Thylo Districts. Crop diversity is promoted through distribution of landrace orange maize, legumes such as soya, beans, pigeon peas and tuber crops such as orange fleshed sweet potatoes and cassava. Orange landrace maize, locally known as Mthikinya, is high in vitamin A, lipids and protein, and is an early maturing crop compared to white maize, an attribute that is advantageous in the face of climate change.
Mthikinya and associated local knowledge of its cultivation was lost within many areas when hybrid white maize was introduced following independence. Development programmes encouraged farmers to plant hybrid maize at the expense of traditional landraces. Growing landrace varieties means being able to save seed for the next planting, while switching to hybrid varieties means farmers need to buy seed each year. White maize also requires more intensive use of inorganic fertilisers that have suffered from rapid price increases over the past five years. Government subsidies are made available for poor households to buy hybrid seeds and inputs, however, when local mthikinya seed is available, farmers express preference for its use. Increased rainfall variability, reduced soil fertility and overreliance on white maize have contributed to low dietary diversity and poor nutritional status of children. The Chancellor College project aims to diffuse mthikinya seed into areas that have lost the variety through promotion of farmer-to-farmer modes of exchange and learning.
With support from Chancellor College, farmers in the Lobi area in Dedza have planted orange maize for the first time this year, and their crop has done well. Katrina Lufeyo remembers the last time she planted orange maize was in 1962, after which the seed got lost during times of hunger and her family was forced to consume all the seeds and did not keep any for replanting. In 2016, she harvested the orange maize for the first time in 50 years. “When I ate it, I felt like it had butter on it”, she explains, “and my grandchildren say that it tastes better than the regular hybrid white maize”.
Julita Leyo, from Nanseta village in Thyolo district, recalls that her parents used to grow orange maize, but that the seeds got lost by the time that she started to grow. With the help of the programme, she started growing orange maize and has planted it in two of her fields. She also grows purple maize, which she got from her mother when she got married. “Many farmers in the area prefer to grow local maize varieties, as it is usually easier to store as no herbicides and chemicals are needed”, she explains. Hybrid maize is more prone to attacks by pests and as a result, many farmers chose to sell the coupons they receive from the government subsidy programme for hybrid maize to buy local varieties.
IUCN proposes to work in Malawi with partners at Chancellor College, who have requested support from IUCN to broaden their work to assess contributions of the wider landscape and to strengthen the voices of local communities at the policy level, particularly with respect to land use and agricultural policies. The project will support rural communities to document traditional knowledge, identify cultivated and wild species important for diet and nutrition and improve production, processing and marketing of key food crops. This work will contribute to the sustainable management of both agro-biodiversity and wild foods for improved food and nutrition security, sustainable livelihoods and the preservation of traditional bio-cultural knowledge.
This video was recorded during a tour of field sites with project PI, Mangani Katundu, and illustrates some of the experiences of farmers in Malawi with orange maize.
Written by Mariana Rodríguez Valencia, Ph.D. candidate, Natural Resources Institute, University of Manitoba, Canada
Cocoa agroforestry systems (CAFS) are a type of managed ecosystem in which cultural, economic, and ecological importance are considered significant. In the trans-boundary region of Costa Rica and Panama, CAFS have historically been an important component of the Bribri bio-cultural heritage. Biocultural heritage includes the knowledge, practices, and innovations of indigenous or small-scale societies that have been passed down from generation to generation, and that are linked to traditional resources and territories. Conservation and development programmes have recognised the importance of CAFS for both biodiversity conservation and Bribri livelihoods, leading to the implementation of agroforestry projects focused on the management of CAFS to improve cocoa yields. Despite these efforts, CAFS have spatially declined since 1980 as plantain/banana monocultures gain more prominence in Bribri territories.
Considering these antecedents, I undertook a biocultural design project with members of two Bribri communities to identify new value-added cocoa products to support CAFS. A biocultural design is an intentional and collaborative process in which people with different knowledge, skills, and experiences work together to design new products or services by considering local values, needs and aspirations. Three phases guided this research project: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.
In the exploration phase, I discussed with the participants the main reasons to downsize or substitute their CAFS for banana/plantain production, as well as their intentions to continue growing cocoa. Bribri people are growing banana/plantain because this crop allows them to earn cash throughout the year. Moreover, there are several banana/plantain buyers in the area and, the banana/plantain production seems to be less susceptible to pests. In contrast, cocoa production is a seasonal product that offers cash to producers two times per year, has a restricted market and, is still recovering from a pest outbreak that severely impacted the cocoa farms in the late 1970´s. Despite these constraints, some Bribri people are still growing cocoa because it is considered a sacred plant that allowed Bribri previous generations to satisfy cultural needs as well as to support their livelihoods.
In the second phase, the participants and I generated and tested some ideas to develop new products to support CAFS. The first idea consisted of developing new cocoa products. The cocoa seeds produced in Yorkin and El Guabo are either sold to middlemen, who sell them as high-quality products to produce chocolates or, are consumed locally as chocolate beverages. After several discussions, we developed two products to add value to the cocoa seeds: cocoa jelly and cocoa butter. We used plants found in the local farms, such as a local type of cinnamon, and a non-commercial type of plantain, to improve the flavour of the cocoa jelly and to design the cocoa jelly presentation. Additionally, we used traditional techniques in making the cocoa butter, as we thought that the technologies learned by the elders of the community were contributing to creating a unique product.
Our second idea consisted of designing a showcase farm to exhibit six different plant species that have traditionally been used in the area to produce chocolate beverages. The participants and I discussed the best way to grow these plants in the showcase farm and we finally agreed that it would be important to grow them by recreating the way they are found in “the wilderness,” and in this way, manage the incidence of the monilia fungus.
In the third phase, we offered the cocoa jelly and the cocoa butter products to the 1,300 tourists who annually visit the community of Yorkin and El Guabo. The tourists expressed their satisfaction regarding the products and bought them. The participants considered the project successful as they increased the value of one kilo of cocoa by 130%. As such, the participants diversified their livelihoods by adding value to their cocoa production. Moreover, they realised that the products generated are just a few of the potential ideas that might offer improvements to their livelihoods. On the one hand, the participants involved in developing the cocoa products are now creating new products such as coconut oil and sugar cane honey. On the other hand, the participants involved in designing the showcase farm are now looking for rare local varieties of plants to make their farms more attractive. By getting involved in the biocultural project, the participants have a new motivation to maintain their CAFS. Biocultural design can therefore provide an approach to allow creativity to emerge out of bio-cultural heritage to support new livelihood opportunities.