I’s a hot dry day in November 2015 in Dedza district’s lakeshore area in Malawi. Francis Chibwana is sitting under a tree at noon, wiping the sweat off his forehead. After some hours of work in the field, he just wants to rest a bit before going home to his family. It is the end of the dry season, and it has not rained for over six months, but the rains are expected to come soon.
He’s thinking about the old days. Sometimes, growing up, his family used to be without food for months. But these days Chibwana lives in a community with year-round access to irrigation water. Instead of producing only one crop during the four months of the rainy season, he can produce two crops in a row. Bending over to feel the water flow through the irrigation canal, just a short time before taking the midday break, he says “madzi ndi moyo [water is life].”
Despite having access to water to produce enough food, he still worries about the well-being of his community. Despite being food secure, Chibwana continued to see weak and sickly children in his community; others seemed to have problems with their eyesight. The same was true for some young mothers in the village.
His worries changed to hope when people from the International Potato Center came to visit the area in December 2014. The organization works with USAID and other partners to promote six varieties of orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) to improve the lives of the poor. OFSP is an important source of vitamin A, a nutrient that helps the body fight infections, keeps the eyes and skin moist and prevents night blindness.
In Malawi, 800,000 children under 5 are malnourished and 1 million suffer from vitamin A deficiency.
The center came to the area as part of a project—Malawi Improved Seed Systems and Technologies (MISST)—under Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative. The project complements the work of another Feed the Future project in Malawi, Integrating Nutrition in Value Chains, which introduced groundnuts and soybeans to the community. Under these projects, field officers of the Catholic Development Commission (CADECOM) in Dedza worked closely with the community to educate families about the importance of a varied diet.
“Before the USAID projects started, farmers produced and consumed mainly maize because they did not have access to the other crops and were not aware of the nutritional benefits of OFSP,” said Enock Issa, a CADECOM field officer.
Today, Francis Chibwana knows that it is important for his children’s health that they eat a variety of different foods throughout the year. He also understands the importance of OFSP to beat the problems of malnutrition and vitamin A deficiency. In addition to consuming the roots when the sweet potato grows in the field, farmers can also pick and cook the crop’s nutritious leaves.
“The orange-fleshed sweet potato component of the MISST project in Malawi provides access to clean planting material to over 62,500 households, increasing production, developing market potential, and increasing consumption of OFSP,” says USAID/Malawi Feed the Future coordinator Lynn Schneider. “OFSP is growing in popularity and becoming an important means of reducing vitamin A deficiency in Malawi.”
Chibwana and a group of over 100 other farmers received bundles of OFSP vines from the project to plant in their irrigated fields during the dry season from June to October 2015. They were not sure what to expect because they used to plant sweet potato only in the rainy season. But when all the farmers got together to harvest the crop, three of the OFSP varieties gave astonishingly high yields of 25 tons per hectare—more than double what was expected. The children could hardly lift the roots.
According to Schneider, introducing OFSP in Dedza’s lakeshore area was a strategic decision to enhance food and nutrition security in the face of the looming impact of the El Niño weather phenomenon. In the long run, the community will be able to access the nutritious OFSP roots and vines through trade, exchange for other goods and services or through community sharing. This will contribute to reduced malnutrition in smallholder farming families throughout the area.
Brian Kachisa and Daniel van Vugt are with the International Potato Center, Malawi.