Diversifying diets and income sources in Malawi with orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes

Diet diversification and food security in Malawi are distinct challenges as most farmers are used to growing and consuming cereals, especially maize. However, recently cereal yields have decreased due to declining soil fertility, limited use of improved seeds and fertilizers, and other factors associated with climate change. Moreover, according to the World Bank, poverty rates in Malawi have risen above 50%. As a result, proper nutrition for young people and expectant mothers can be difficult:

The International Potato Center (CIP) and its partners – United Purpose (UP), Iman Consulting Group and Mothers Holding Limited – are working to tackle these problems. Under the Developing Integrated Value Chains to Enhance Rural Smallholders’ Incomes and Food (DIVERSIFY) project, CIP and UP are working with the ministries of health and agriculture in the districts of Thyolo, Balaka, and Chiradzulu where poverty and malnutrition are severe. Initiated in 2017, DIVERSIFY is funded by the European Union and the Australian Government to build resilience among 3,000 households through improved incomes, nutrition levels, and food security by mid 2020.

Loveliness Kalira in her OFSP plot. Photo: V. Atakos (CIP-SSA)

The first arm of DIVERSIFY has distributed quality planting materials of the best of new pro-vitamin A orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) varieties — Chipika, Kadyaubwerere, Kaphulira and Mathuthu – to 3,000 local farmers. These new varieties can be eaten as a vegetable (roots and tender stems). Surplus vines can be used to feed livestock.

Some farmers elected to join production groups, combined their vines and under the supervision of a lead farmer grew more roots for planting, eating, and feeding livestock. All the farmers and extension staff received training in agronomy, marketing, and value adding processes (including home-based food processing) through 100 lead farmers who are continuing to reach beneficiary farmers in villages close to them. To ensure year-round production and given a changing climate, farmers are being encouraged to shift from overreliance on rains to irrigation.

Nutritionally, local households are being provided recipes to use OFSP roots and tender leaves to boost Vitamin A content in local diets. The recipes will be compiled into a book that will be published mid-2020 in English and Chichewa languages.

OFSP is not only improving the health of the people through readily available diversified foods within the communities, but it has also become a good source of income for women, vendors, and young people. Forty-one-year-old farmer, Loveness Kalira, typically grew maize and pigeon peas, but since adding OFSP to her fields, she has earned enough money to buy maize and pay school fees for her youngest child. Kalira says the fast-growing cycle of OFSP helped her get ahead: “The new varieties I adopted took just three months to mature. As a result, I more than doubled my production and sales. This meant I was able to buy livestock, food, and meet my household essentials.”

Links with local business are providing two-sided dividends. OFSP-growing farmers are linking with local commercial processors, such as Tehilah and Mothers Holdings, who purchase the roots for use in bread, buns, biscuits and mandazi. Because these products substitute up to 40 percent of wheat flour with sweetpotato, they offer more nutritious food products.

To increase the commercial availability of OFSP, DIVERSIFY is building capacity with local processors to make more confections and baked goods that can use the nutritious roots. For example, Mothers Holdings has acquired processing and storage equipment specifically for OFSP, which will enable them keep these materials longer and use them in more products.

Early market responses to these OFSP-products has been positive. They are reported to be tasty, high in fiber, full of vitamins A, C, E, K and B, and lower in glycemic content. Aside from the nutritional advantages, the use of OFSP in baking has reduced production costs between 20-35% for local processors.

In the communities, project leaders have found that men, women, and youth alike are showing interest in learning more about growing and processing OFSP to improve nutrition and earn more income. Adam Davies, the country director of United Purpose, said,

“[This] is a ‘win-win’ situation for both smallholders and bakeries that is at a scale never seen before in Malawi or Africa. Thousands of smallholder farmers now have an assured profitable market for their hard-earned OFSP root produce. Olympic Bakery has reduced [its costs] by not having to use expensive imported wheat. Consumers also enjoy a delicious new bread that is healthier and better for them.”

DIVERSIFY still aspires to higher goals. Project leader, Wells Kumwenda, says for the remainder of the project they will continue to reach out to farmers and extension workers in other regions of the country to increase the adoption of these ideas.

Read the project profile

This blog was written by Wells Kumwenda (CIP-Malawi) and Adam Davies (United-Purpose)