Anita McCabe reports from the field on efforts to improve food security in Malawi

Anita McCabe

As the hot dry breeze wafts through the lakeside district of Nkhotakota, Malawi, a group of women sing as they take turns to water their near-ripe crop of maize. Further downstream, another group is busy making seed beds in preparation for another crop.

Like many women in developing countries, these women face a particular set of responsibilities and vulnerabilities when it comes to providing food for their families. Not only are they the primary caregivers, they are also the food producers and income earners.

Women produce between 60 and 80 per cent of food in developing countries, and so hold the key to tackling hunger and malnutrition. A woman’s nutritional status is critical to her health, and her ability to work to ensure that her children are properly nourished.

Water works

The Nkhotakota region has suffered from recurring drought and flooding and the people here know the consequences. “As a woman, it hurts to see my children cry with hunger,” says Grace Kalowa from Thondo village. “It’s more painful as a mother to tell them that I don’t have any food to give them. That feeling of desperation is what brought us together as women to drive hunger away from our families.”

Grace is the chairperson of the twenty-member Kathyothyo Women Irrigation Club. They are part of a programme run by Concern to help poor farmers to tackle hunger by improving their agricultural practises by giving them both the start-up inputs, and the necessary knowledge about irrigation.

Ariema Benetala  irrigates maize with a treadle pump supplied. Image: Concern

Ariema Benetala irrigates maize with a treadle pump supplied.
Image: Concern

The introduction of treadle pumps, a person-powered pump developed in the 1980s that extracts water from shallow wells (around seven metres or less) to irrigate an area of around a third of a hectare is a good example. A study showed (PDF) that treadle pump adopters in Malawi had significantly higher net farm incomes (NFI) than non-adopters, which led to other benefits such as building better houses and payment of school fees.

For the first time in many years, Biacha Jefuri, a member of the group which now has about eight hectares under cultivation, has managed to harvest twice in one year. She believes that hunger is no longer a problem in her home and the group feels they have defeated hunger once and for all. “I can now see a big change in our lives,” says Jefuri. “We have already sold part of the crop and the money has been deposited in our village savings and loan account. Concern taught us how to save money after selling our surplus crop. We use part of the money to lend each other as capital for small businesses. As women, we know that in the household so many things are needed.”

The Kathyothyo Women Irrigation Club has helped to transform the food situation for families in the region. Tackling hunger requires more than just increasing farm output, but empowering women to take control and increase their own food production is a vital step.

Sustainable progress

It’s not an isolated story of change. In the past few years, Malawi has made great progress in improving food and nutrition security. This is due to political commitment to prioritize nutrition, including the Malawian Government’s engagement in the UN’s international Scaling Up Nutrition (PDF) movement, discussed recently on this blog by Katy Wilson

Progress is also due to Concern and Malawian initiatives such as the Women’s Irrigation Club that integrate nutrition and agriculture. Sustaining this progress will of course require huge commitment and continued effort over the long haul; I know this from my work with Concern in many other extremely poor countries such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger and Sudan.

I have seen the effects of acute and widespread child hunger, and I know there are no quick fixes. But we know that we can defeat hunger by investing in interventions that improve nutrition for mothers, and their children which then empowers women to produce more food and earn an income that can be used for medicine, education, and to ensure food security in the future.

About Anita McCabe

Anita McCabe is Country Director for Concern Worldwide in Malawi.

This blog post was adapted from an article that originally appeared on the USAID Impact Blog.

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