Recently, a government official admitted that Malawi has a long way to become food secure. Nkhotakota district nutrition officer Kondwani Luwe aptly told The Daily Times most people in the country consider maize as their staple food instead of diversifying their diets.
This is the painful tragedy pervasive at all levels of society. We have erroneously associated food security with maize. Even journalists mistakenly equate food security to food production. In this confusion, it is uncommon to hear that kulemera n’kudya (to be rich is to have food).
Even official agricultural statistics tend to emphasise much on maize. Of course, maize is a political crop. But food is not maize.
Surely, this overreliance on maize has created an imbalance between food availability and nutrition.
The country has concentrated much on maize tonnage instead of the quality of food and dietary practices, the core of good nutritional habits necessary for human development.
Growing other crops, such as beans and vegetables, would promote more diverse diets among smallholders and the rest of the citizenry.
Currently, about 37 percent of under-five children are stunting. This is unacceptable for a country that prides itself as an agriculture economy.
There is need to raise awareness through the nationwide agricultural extension network, school curricula and other social media on the importance of dietary diversification.
The big problem is that the country relies too much on rain-fed agriculture despite being endowed with perennial rivers and a big lake that empties its fresh water the Indian Ocean in Mozambique.
With effects of climate change, as evidenced by dry spells, prolonged droughts, floods, severe winds, pests and diseases, we need to engage in small-scale irrigation as a climate-smart approach to turn things around in the agriculture sector although it is arguably very expensive when used for low-value crops like maize.
Small-scale irrigation schemes are economically viable when farmers grow high-value cash crops and the resulting income can be used to ensure the smallholder family meets its food and nutritional needs.
So, despite the high costs for small-scale irrigation, smallholders can increase the possibility by producing a variety of nutritious crops. What they need to achieve multiple cropping is to give them a leg to achieve this.
Irrigation schemes built simply for food security, particularly with a hackneyed view of maize as food, often fail. They must be economically viable to be sustainable.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 is about ending hunger, achieving food security and improving nutrition and promoting sustainable agriculture.
Political will and collective efforts from a multiplicity of payers is key to achieving this transformative goal under the 2030 Agenda, backed by United Nations (UN).
The country needs a vibrant agricultural extension system that is demand-driven and responsive to the needs and priorities of smallholder farmers.
In the quest to address food insecurity, one way to alleviate the huge workload of agricultural extension workers is to adopt and upscale diversification of the extension system by use of modern ICT materials, including cheaper phones and production of participatory videos, community radio stations and other innovative technologies already being employed by various change agents in the agriculture and development sectors.
Plugging the existing extension gaps through innovative means, supporting smallholder farmers through irrigation and carrying out a national nutrition education campaign would help reverse the steep decline in food dietary diversification practices in the country.
The duty to teach our people on the need for food diversification is not only for our dedicated extension workers from the government, civil society, private sector but it requires all of us to teach our children on the importance of diversifying our home menu.
Our national anthem should always be “food is not just maize”. n