Addressing malnutrition among smallholder farming communities

Photo by Marian Amaka Odenigbo
By  Marian Amaka Odenigbo

On 22 July 2015, IFAD-funded Smallholder Agribusiness Promotion Programme (SAPP) in Zambia embarked on a food survey. This is the first food survey in an IFAD-supported programme and it aims to assess the food consumption pattern and the underlying factors necessary to ensure adequate food intake.

You may ask why is IFAD engaging on food survey?

In the blogpost entitled ‘Building strong partnerships for nutrition and agricultural development’, IFAD President reminds us that "Every night, 842 million women, children and men go to bed hungry. And every day 8,000 children die needlessly from conditions linked to under-nutrition." He proceeds to say: "Under-nutrition could not be solved by a simple equation: increase agricultural production and incomes, and better nutrition would automatically follow."

Repeatedly, we hear about alarming  under-nutrition and micronutrient deficiency rates in many rural regions and among smallholder farming communities. And we keep asking ourselves why do smallholder farmers still go hungry and are persistently malnourished in spite of the agricultural and rural development interventions which have contributed to improving food and nutrition status and increase income?

In an effort to address the issue of persistent malnutrition, Abla Benhammouche, IFAD Representative and Country Director is championing mainstreaming nutrition-related issues in the Zambia portfolio. Her work led to conducting a food survey to better understand the underlying factors contributing to malnutrition.

Herds of sheep in Bakasa community, Siavonga district,
Photo by 
Marian Amaka Odenigbo
I travelled with the survey team to Siavonga, one of the districts in Zambia where SAPP is being implemented.  In paying a courtesy call to Dr Kunda Ndashe, the Siavogan Acting District Agriculture Coordinator, I was pleased when he said “I was very happy when I heard that IFAD is planning to mainstream nutrition in its programme. As you go into the community tomorrow for data collection, you will see lots of malnourished children despite the abundance goats, sheep, cattle, fish in these communities.”

This statement and the fact that about 45% of Zambian children are stunted increased my curiosity to probe for the underlying factors and barriers that are hindering good nutrition in this district.

As we drove through the community for the focused group discussion (FGD) and household data collection, I saw lots of livestock roaming around in almost all the neighborhoods. These scenes made me reflect on how can a farmer in this remote rural setting keep abundant cattle, goats, sheep, chicken while the children are malnourished?

Focused group discussion in Bakasa community
Photo by Marian Amaka Odenigbo
We engaged in an interactive conversation with men and women farmers, representatives of farmers groups and leaders to find out about their regular and traditional food production, processing methods, storage and consumption pattern.

The participants told us  that sorghum, finger millet, cucumber, fish, goat, sheep, cattle, local chickens were among the staple foods in the communities.

As we probed further to understand why these available and common food items were not translating into good nutrition, the following emerged:

Livestock – a status symbol
The community members unanimously gave the following reasons for rearing cattle:
  • means of transportation 
  • for sale to generate income
  • for milk production
  • symbol of pride 
In the rural communities, your status and stature is based on the number of livestock you own. It is for this reason that unfortunately, livestock heads are rarely slaughtered for consumption at household level with the exception of customary festivity period and/or for funerals.

Nsimbi Godfrey, one of the community members, told us “if you eat your livestock you will have problems paying the school fees for your children.”

The Chalokwa community consume chicken every three months and the eggs are off-limits, because they are used for hatching to increase the numbers of chickens.

Kabyobyo cooperative in Masau community located in Siavonga district acknowledged receiving support from SAPP for fish cage farming and marketing. However, when members of this cooperative were posed with the question on fish consumption at household, Simalarali Salai told us “we don’t even taste the fish, the produce is only for the market. For you to taste a fish, you have to buy it’’.

Listening to this comment made me think, are these farmers only interested on increasing their income and are oblivious to the importance of nutritional values of their food intake? But there is always more than what meets the eye……

Traditional norms 
When community members were asked about intra-household food distribution, the men emphatically mentioned that the two delicious parts of chicken – namely the gizzard and the back -  were meant and  reserved for the head of the family which typically is the husband or the father.
Both men and women within the community did not consider this as a gender bias, rather for them it is normal practice to reserve the best and last portion of meat for the man of the house.

Regular diet intake
Woman grinding Sorghum for Nshima or porridge (Left);
Woman preparing rape –the steamed green leafy vegetable in the pot (right) 

Photo by Marian Amaka Odenigbo
Another reason why the communities suffer from malnutrition is because their monotonous daily meals consist of three key staples: Nshima (made of sorghum or maize), Okra and sorghum porridge. Although on occasional basis, Nshima may be eaten with fish and sorghum porridge with sour milk but the common pattern is to eat Nshima with steamed rape leaves; okra with addition of only of salt-potash) or sorghum porridge cooked with baobab fruit or sugar/salt.

Through this food survey, we managed to identify the regular dietary pattern of the communities and identify what is preventing them from benefitting from nutritious diet.

As a result of the food survey, we will now embark on a nutrition education and behavioral change to raise awareness about the importance of protein intake and a diverse diet.