Bringing research to farmers' fields in Malawi: Lizzie Shumba (Malawi)

December 09, 2010
IDRC Communications

Bigger crops lead to better health with Canadian collaboration

In 2000 Ekwendeni Hospital in northern Malawi set out to improve the child nutrition, food security, and soil fertility of poor farm households. How? By intercropping protein-rich legumes like pigeon pea, soybeans, and groundnuts that fix nitrogen in the soil, thus boosting crop yields while reducing the need for expensive fertilizers.
Malawian and Canadian researchers — agricultural, nutritional, and social scientists — worked with hospital staff and farmers to find the“best legume options.” Supported by IDRC since 2001, the project has improved nutrition, particularly of women and children. After eight years, the children of families involved show significant weight increases. This makes a good case that soil health and community health are connected. Legumes are now part of the diet in the area. The research has also helped strengthen the communities and build trust among their members.
In Malawi, IDRC-supported research on the cultivation of protein-rich legumes has both improved soil fertility and boosted child nutrition
The research is a collaboration between Ekwendeni Hospital, Health-Bridge Foundation of Canada, and the University ofWestern Ontario’s Department of Geography. Other supporters include the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, among others. The project coordinator is nutritionist Lizzie Shumba:
Canadian researchers helped us understand why we had high rates of malnutrition and problems with food security. Then they worked with us to test legume intercropping techniques and to establish a baseline for our research on child nutrition by measuring the children’s weight for height, and age for height.

We started with 30 farmers in seven pilot villages. These farmers were trained in research techniques. Now, more than 7000 farmers are involved, and so many more are interested in learning the technologies. Farmers see that using legumes to improve their soil fertility is sustainable and it reduces the need to buy fertilizers.  
The families are also seeing that by eating legumes, children have better nutrition. We go out, especially after the harvest, and show communities how to process and use the legumes to improve children’s diets. These “recipe days” are becoming very popular. I’m really happy because the rural people are saying that they are happy.

We are now collaborating with the Bunda College of Agriculture of the University of Malawi to expand our approach into different areas of Malawi.
Lizzie Shuma sits in legume field