A Personal Reflection From a Visit to Soil, Food, and Healthy Communities In Malawi

Photo by: Soil, Food, and Healthy Communities, Malawi

Photo by: Soil, Food, and Healthy Communities, Malawi

John Wilson is a Zimbabwean freerange facilitator and activist playing a small part in promoting agroecology and food sovereignty at different levels in eastern and southern Africa

The visit

Earth, air, water and fire, the four interconnected elements of life on Earth: We began the day with a mística in which Method and Gertrude led us through a reflection on these four elements. We each had our own insights. As so often with místicas, we took our sense of belonging to life and our empathy to Nature a little deeper. It was a fitting preparation for the day ahead. 

“We” are all part of the Seed and Knowledge Initiative’s (SKI’s) Community of Practice and had come to northern Malawi to learn from and share with the Soil, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) organization. 

After the mística we crowded into a bus, eager to get out into rural Malawi after the previous day indoors, keen to see in practice what we had been hearing. All forecasts predicted we would be rained upon but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm.

We headed north. The last time I visited this part of Malawi was about 10 years ago. My impression this time was that there was even more maize than before. I suspect that the Government input subsidy programme is responsible for this. Though one knows it, it’s good to be reminded of the huge implications that stem from seeing maize as being equal to food. There’s the same equation here in Zimbabwe. We passed maize field after maize field, with patches of tobacco every so often. Tobacco is farmers’ cash crop in the north of Malawi. Here and there one could spot other crops such as groundnuts, pigeon pea, beans and Bambara nuts.  

Fairly soon after going through Ekwendeni, we pulled up on the edge of the road. We were to walk the last kilometer or so.  After a long mid-season dry spell, a lot of rain had fallen in the previous two weeks. We slipped, slid and waded our way to the Moyo family home in Wengani Moyo Village, which is in the Edundu area. 

The homestead was alive with activity. There were four fireplaces in action. Many people were cutting, mixing, stirring and testing. We visitors split into two, with half the group going to the fields and the other half staying to hear what was being cooked and how. 

One immediately striking observation in the cooking scene was that both men and women were actively involved. We had heard the story behind this the day before and how it had been a difficult road to reach this stage. 

We saw all the different recipes being prepared with a strong emphasis on a diverse diet. The men and women, of different ages too, were cooking a variety of dishes with legumes, such as ‘bean sausages’ and soya milk. They made sweet potato doughnuts and finger millet ncima. And much more. 

We then toured the fields to see what they are growing and how they are transitioning to agroecological practices, still using bought fertilizers but reducing these as they learn more about feeding the soil with compost, bokashi and manure rather than just feeding the plant, as highly soluble chemical fertilizers do.  

Later we gathered in the shade of some large trees for lunch. The rain fortunately continued to hold off, though as a southern African I can never complain about rain, even if it had come! The lunch table was full of a huge variety of dishes, mostly cooked dishes, but also samples of dried food to try. There was also Ishwa (flying ants), one of my favorites. Before the meal some of us sampled a little finger millet 7-day brew, just enough to whet our appetites. It was a pleasant appetizer – nothing more than finger millet soaked in water and fueled by wild yeasts, pure and only mildly alcoholic. 

The community members went through all the dishes one by one, explaining what each was. Then we dived in and what a feast it was. It was impossible to try everything and so we had to choose, which is the age-old human dilemma that revolves around selecting foods. We used to be good at selecting for nutritional reasons, now we’re not so good. Fortunately, in this case nutrition was the emphasis. 

After lunch, we sang and danced. Included in this was a performance of traditional dancing from some elder stalwarts, who were dressed traditionally. The day was a celebration of food, smallholder farming, dynamic culture, local knowledge development, rural communities, working together, and solving problems. We went home tired, nourished in a number of ways, asking questions, and thinking about what all this meant for our work. 

What I learnt from this trip and find particularly striking about SFHC’s work

Documentation and Evidence

The Soil, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) organization began as a programme of Ekwendeni Hospital around 20 years ago. The initial focus was to work with communities to intercrop legumes so as to improve nutrition. There were far too many children ending up in the malnutrition ward of the hospital. They hoped to stem these numbers. Being an action research programme, they documented very well from the beginning. This is the first thing that struck me about the work of SFHC. Documenting and gathering evidence is something that many civil society organisations struggle with. 

Over the years SFHC have built up a vast amount of evidence related to their work. They have had some very supportive people in the academic world to back this up. It also struck me during discussions on this visit how much work this documentation involves. While I believe we need to pay much more effort to linking academics to CSOs, not all CSOs will ever find the kind of support that SFHC has had. We in the agroecology world are bombarded, and have bombard ourselves, with the need for evidence. It’s something that we discuss often from different angles. 

What I concluded from this trip to northern Malawi is that we must try and strengthen the link between the academic world and CSO work related to Agroecology and Food Sovereignty. But we must also be strategic about this in some way. It’s not going to be possible to have the level of SFHC’s documentation everywhere. I don’t think that’s realistic. How can we ensure that at least some of our work is documented to the kind of level that SFHC has achieved?

Relationships between men and women

In the above paragraph I have stressed the aspect of evidence as one strategy to be able to sell Agroecology as a practice more effectively. But SFHC’s main concern was not this so much, especially as they were starting out. Their concern was to find out what was working and, even more important, what wasn’t working. 

About three years after beginning their first ‘Soil, Food and Healthy Communities’ programme they discovered, through their action research, a major flaw in what they were doing. They were increasing the burden of women’s work through their promotion of legume intercropping practices. In their own words, they were making the situation worse not better! They were shocked but not dispirited by this revelation. They already had a strong self-critical streak, knowing that they had to be very careful about their assumptions as they progressed with their work. 

In the next phase of their work, SFHC introduced a strong emphasis on digging deep into the relationships between men and women. They gathered the groups they were working with into safe spaces where they could talk about these issues. They carried out exercises to look at how men and women spent their days. They used drama to highlight aspects that came out of the discussions. I got the impression that they were relentless in pursuing this theme, knowing that if they didn’t tackle it they were not going to get anywhere. 

It’s not my intention to go into a lot of detail here. That detail is captured elsewhere. What has happened with the work of SFHC, and this is all well documented, is that in the groups they have worked with they have radically changed the nature of the relationship between men and women. 

Many men came to realize through the SFHC facilitated processes that their wives were overloaded with work and as a result they have taken on tasks that have been traditionally reserved for women. They now help with the cooking and looking after their children. They undertake ‘women’s’ work in the fields too. Even more important perhaps than the specific role-sharing, they are much more aware and this has led to an improvement in relationships between married men and women. 

To me this is remarkable and beautiful. Rural Malawi is conservative, like many rural areas of Africa. Change doesn’t come easily and that’s certainly not all bad. Too much change has been and is devastating. I’m a strong advocate for cultural revival across Africa, recognizing that this is an intricate part of people’s identity. Like many who are or have been part of the African Biodiversity Network, I see cultural and biological diversity as being intricately linked. 

Unfortunately many people see culture and improving gender relations as being incompatible. This is I believe based on wrong assumptions and distorted views of ‘culture’. I think what SFHC have shown is that these two are not incompatible. Culture is dynamic, one often hears, and so it must be. Where SFHC is working with communities this seems to be the case. 

Transitioning to Agroecology

Another theme that came through in this visit was that of seeing and understanding a transition to Agroecology. I think some of the SKI visitors were a little disappointed that the farmers with whom SFHC are working still use the very soluble and acidic commercial fertilizers. For example, one farmer applies manure to his field before he plants his maize and then uses a soluble chemical top-dressing half way through the season. Another farmer uses bokashi in one of her fields but the soluble chemical fertilizers in her other, bigger field. 

All those working with SFHC trained farmers are doing some form of intercropping. It’s a process of transition. They are trying, seeing and learning. This makes sense to me. Soils depleted by years of using the soluble chemical fertilizers will take time to be restored to health. I’m hoping that the fermented biofertilizers currently being promoted in some AFSA-linked trainings, and hopefully this year through SKI too, will help farmers take this transition further and more quickly. 

We perhaps need to do more to link up the many options of agroecological practices that have been developing across our continent and across the globe. There are many such alternatives to the chemical farming that destroys the biology of life and creates a self-perpetuating dependency by farmers on these products purchased from corporates. There is a tendency for these agroecological practices to remain in their own pockets. I believe that together they are starting to present a very powerful alternative. 

Agroecology is for poorer farmers?

“The problem is that Agroecology is seen as a practice for poorer farmers,” suggested a Zimbabwean SKI partner in the meeting. “That’s not a problem for us at all”, an SFHC representative responded, “that’s who we work with and who are often left out.”

“But the problem is, if it’s seen as something for poorer farmers then young people won’t be interested,” came the reply. 

Both these points are good I think. Agroecology is an excellent practice for those who don’t want to spend money on inputs. But at the same time it remains our challenge to show how Agroecology is in fact the modern 21st century approach to farming, based on complexity science and the most recent research into soils. The simplified approach of the green revolution was a 20th century solution that has backfired. To bring young people in we may need at times to bring in a more business-oriented approach to farming to ensure the income generation that they are keen on, as well as the other benefits of an agroecological approach. 


SKI’s Community of Practice is about learning and I think we learnt a great deal from this exchange visit. It’s impressive what SFHC have done and achieved in relation to gender and agroecological practices. It’s also striking how well they have documented their work. These are both issues that many civil society organisations struggle with.  

One of their results is that they have contributed significantly to the closure of the children’s malnutrition ward at Ekwendeni hospital! 

One less encouraging point is that at a workshop last year when they presented their results, the Government representatives hardly listened. They said, “we’re doing all this already”. We still have a long struggle ahead!!