To Improve Competitiveness of Rural Businesses, Linking Farmers to the Private Sector

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

Danielle Nierenberg (left) with Rob Munro, Mark Wood, and Reuben Banda from USAID PROFIT in Lusaka, Zambia. (Photo by Bernard Pollack)The U.S. Agency for International Development’s Production, Finance, and Technology (PROFIT) program in Lusaka, Zambia, is different from other development projects, according to Rob Munro, the program’s senior market development advisor. This is because PROFIT has “real clients” in the private sector who maintain relationships with smallholder farmers.

By working with these partners, PROFIT isn’t distorting the market “by throwing money at it” or giving farmers subsidies for inputs, such as fertilizer. Instead, it is working with farmers, the private sector, and donors to improve the competitiveness of rural businesses by linking large agribusiness firms to farmers. It’s helping to improve linkages within industries that large numbers of small and medium-sized enterprises participate in, such as cotton, livestock, and non-timber forest products like honey.

Specifically, PROFIT helps communities select and train agricultural agents who work with agribusiness to provide inputs to farmers in rural areas-places where agribusiness firms had been reluctant to go because they didn’t think there was a big enough market. The agents are essentially entrepreneurs who provide goods and services that the communities didn’t have access to. In addition to selling things like hybrid maize or fertilizer, the agents can also provide ripping services to farmers practicing conservation farming methods, as well as herbicide spraying and veterinary services.

The “key” to the program’s success, says Munro, is that the agent is a “community man” selected by the communities themselves, not by agribusiness firms. The farmers trust the agent not to run off with their money and to deliver the goods and services they’ve purchased.

Unlike traditional development projects that “inundate” communities with trainers, PROFIT minimizes the number of USAID staff involved locally, helping to ensure that the project isn’t viewed as traditional “aid,” which can create dependency. Unlike the AGRA-supported CNFA, which relies extensively on its own staff to train agro-dealers, 80 percent of the trainings for agents are not provided by PROFIT, but by firms that are training agents how to use their products.

PROFIT’s model means that the program doesn’t work “with the poorest of the poor,” but with farmers who have the ability to scale up, says PROFIT chief of party Mark Wood. If you start with the very poorest, Wood says, “it’s like trying to start a car without an engine.” But by working with the 200,000 farmers in Zambia who have the means to collaborate with businesses, PROFIT is helping to create opportunities for thousands of poorer farmers in the future.

Stay tuned this week for more about PROFIT and Mobile Technology’s work to help small and medium-sized enterprises and farmers use mobile phone technology for e-banking services and to access market information.

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Meet Shayna Bailey, Slow Food International

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet, www.nourishingtheplanet.com

“Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group” is a new regular series where we profile advisors ofthe Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we’re featuring Shayna Bailey, who is Director of International Development for Slow Food International.”

Bio:  Shayna Bailey is Director of International Development for Slow Food International. She works on organizational development, strategic partnerships, and resource mobilization at Slow Food’s international headquarters in Italy. She has a M.A. in Sustainable Development and a B.A. in International Business, and has worked on and managed Community-Supported Agriculture programs in the U.S. states of California, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Vermont, as well as in St. Croix. Bailey has researched perceptions of food security with Quichua women in the Ecuadorian Andes and has studied ecological horticulture at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California-Santa Cruz. She represents Slow Food in the Indigenous Partnership for Agrobiodiversity and Food Sovereignty and is involved in planning the 4th meeting of Terra Madre – World Meeting of Food Communities, to be held in October 2010.

On Nourishing the Planet:  Nourishing the Planet is an important opportunity to show the world that there are effective alternatives to solving the problems of hunger and poverty that are already in practice, and are replicable on a larger scale. Many of these innovations are not well known to diverse and international audiences. This project gives visibility to lesser-known sustainable approaches that tackle some of the most critical and complex issues of our time. Nourishing the Planet will surely shift policymakers’, development workers’, and ordinary citizens’ perspectives on what it will take to decrease hunger and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Slow Food International states that it works to counteract fast food and fast life by bringing together pleasure and responsibility to make them inseparable. Can you give specific examples of how Slow Food does this?

Fast food and fast life create a gap between us and our food. There is less time to savor the tastes of the seasons and the joy of food shared in company. We eat to fill our stomachs, without thinking of the implications. Slow Food works to create a broad cultural shift in the relationship people around the world have with the food they eat. Pleasure is important to our daily food rituals. Responsibility without pleasure does not encourage us to enjoy mealtimes, to preserve our cultural traditions, or to value and appreciate our food. Pleasure without responsibility, however, is negligent.  Our disconnection with food results in a negative impact on environment, economy, culture, and health.

Our decisions about purchasing and consuming food have a direct effect on the food production and supply chain. For example, the demand for artificially ‘cheap’ food on the market means: that our food is unfairly sourced from low-paid labor and, often, is inspected under questionable standards of quality; that varieties of fruits and vegetables are favored for their ease of transportation instead of for their vitamin and mineral content; that we produce enough food in the world for 12 billion people when we have a global population of less than 7 billion, meaning that we waste almost half of all food produced while 1 billion people go hungry; that our children eat food at school that causes diet-related diseases and obesity; and, that, as a result, we spend millions on health care and environmental clean-up to address these externalized costs of our food system.

The concept of making pleasure and responsibility inseparable permeates all of Slow Food’s programs-from raising awareness through workshops and connecting consumers directly to food producers, to supporting small-scale farmers in creating a sustainable product that also has great taste quality and preserves culture, to teaching children that the sweetest carrot they have ever tasted comes not from a plastic bag in the supermarket, but right from their own garden.

Can you explain how preserving biodiversity helps improve quality of life and save communities and cultures?

Biodiversity in our food systems leaves us less vulnerable to climatic changes, to economic crises, to the homogenization of cultures, and to public health epidemics. Just as you would diversify your investment portfolio to manage financial risk, biodiversity in food and agriculture minimizes threats to these systems and lessens the impact of negative influences. The genetically uniform crop of potatoes planted and consumed in the 1840s greatly exacerbated the Irish potato famine, which killed 1 million people and caused the emigration of a million more. The blight that struck Europe would not have had such a terrible impact on the potato crop in Ireland if a diversity of potatoes had instead been planted.

Indigenous cultures are often the custodians of biodiversity, preserving not only traditional seed varieties but also diverse agricultural practices. This knowledge can serve to mitigate and adapt to adverse environmental changes that complicate the cycle of hunger and poverty. Some traditional communities use more than 200 different species in their diets, while the average community in developed countries uses a maximum of 30. These 30 food species, out of 7,000 domesticated species that have spanned the history of agriculture, account for 90 percent of our daily diets. Over the last 100 years, 75 percent of our food crops have disappeared. Agricultural systems that are rich in biodiversity increase food security and improve nutrition for communities, while protecting soil fertility and providing pollinators-essential for food production-with healthy ecosystems.

What are some of the fairs, events, and markets you organize to foster greater connection between producers and co-producers? What is the value in creating this connection?

The idea of ‘responsibility’ is demonstrated in Slow Food’s use of the word ‘co-producer’ as opposed to consumer. Instead of passively making food choices, a co-producer makes educated decisions about the food they eat and, when possible, actively supports the people who produce their food. Slow Food organizes initiatives around the world to directly link producers and co-producers, including Salone del Gusto, Earth Markets, educational projects, and thousands of events by our local chapters (convivia) comprised of 100,000 members in 132 countries. Slow Food is also growing regional networks out of Terra Madre, a global network of food producers, cooks, academics, and youth, to create this cultural shift and grow sustainable food systems on national and regional levels.

This direct link between producers and co-producers is important since, in the United States for example, 91 cents of every dollar spent on food goes to middlemen for packaging, shipping, transportation, and marketing, while only 9 cents goes to the farmer. By shortening the supply chain, consumers pay less and eat better, and farmers earn a fair wage. Besides the obvious economic and health values, this connection also reinforces positive community development, preserves local cultural practices, and educates consumers on the realities of where their food comes from and from whom.

Do you see any connection or potential connection between the “slow food” or “whole food” movements in the United States and Europe, and the work that Slow Food is doing internationally? Why should consumers in the United States care about preserving biodiversity or food traditions in Uganda, for example?

In many ways, consumers are now facing similar food-system issues in both the northern and southern hemispheres. Lack of access to food that is healthy and fresh is not only happening in the neighborhoods of Yaoundé, but also in the food deserts of North America. Over-nutrition is a problem now in sub-Saharan Africa, right alongside under-nutrition, and both can be caused by poverty. People who have migrated to urban areas are eating foods that are low in nutritional value, and, consequently, are fighting diabetes and other diet-related diseases.

There are parents in every country who want their kids to eat good food at school, and gardens on school grounds are growing in every corner of the globe. Engaging the next generation of farmers, and ensuring that they have the skills and the markets to make a living, is another common thread of concern. Nearly everyone we speak with agrees that it is increasingly difficult to slow down and share a meal with friends and families, and that we are forgetting our cultural and culinary heritage.

The effort to feed the world almost exclusively by an industrial approach to food production and consumption is demonstrating its inadequacy in terms of health, environmental, economic, and cultural consequences. Consumers in the United States should care about preserving biodiversity and food traditions in Uganda because they are faced with the same dilemmas at home, because we can learn from one another to improve the situation, and because many American agricultural and trade policies, not to mention cultural influences, have had-and continue to have-a huge negative impact on less-developed nations’ food systems. It goes back to the concept of pleasure and responsibility: we cannot enjoy our food and ignore the system that produced it. In the end, that system affects us all.

Using the Market to Create Resilient Agriculture Practices

Cross posted from the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet.

Care International’s work in Zambia has two main goals: increase the production of staple crops and improve farmers’ access to agricultural inputs, such as seeds and fertilizers. But instead of giving away bags of seed and fertilizers to farmers, Care is “creating input access through a business approach,” not a subsidy approach, according to Steve Power, Assistant Country Director for Zambia.

One way they’re doing this is by creating a network of agro-dealers who can sell inputs to their neighbors as well as educate them about how to use hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and other inputs. At the same time, “we are mindful” of the benefits of local varieties of seeds, says Harry Ngoma, Agriculture Advisor for the Consortium for Food Security, Agriculture and Nutrition, AIDS, Resiliency and Markets (C-FAARM). Care and C-FAARM are working with farmers to combine high- and low-technology practices.

Care thinks that this “business approach” will help farmers get the right inputs at the right time, unlike subsidy approaches that give farmers fertilizer for free, but often at the wrong time of year, making the nutrients unavailable to crops. And Care’s focus on training agro-dealers and giving them start-up grants allows the organization to remain invisible to farmers. Power says that Care wants to be a “catalyst to the market” and help transfer resources, without distorting the basic pricing structure.

Another component of Care’s work is improving the production of sorghum and cassava. “Zambia is as addicted to maize as we are to Starbucks coffee,” says Power. But by encouraging the growth of other crops, including sorghum, which is indigenous to Africa, Care can help farms diversify local diets as well as build resilience to price fluctuations and drought.

Care is promoting conservation farming in Zambia as well. The organization has been working in six districts since 2007, reaching 24,000 households. In addition to promoting minimum tillage practices and the use of manure and compost, Care is helping to train government extension officers about conservation farming so that eventually they’ll be responsible-instead of Care-for training farmers.

According to Power, the key to Care’s work is promoting business-like approaches to agriculture alongside more traditional ones, so farmers don’t become dependent on the organization for gifts of fertilizer or seed. These sorts of programs, according to Care, will be more effective at feeding people and increasing incomes than traditional food-aid projects that rely on long-term donor support. This is a big challenge in a country-and a region-facing the impacts of both climate change and the global economic crisis.

Stay tuned for more blogs about how farmers are linking to the private sector.

To learn more about Care’s work in Zambia, visit www.care.org/zambia.

Wausau Daily Herald: Husband and his wife are helping an African nation farm its was out of poverty

Wausau Daily Herald: Husband and his wife are helping an African nation farm its was out of poverty

Husband and his wife are helping an African nation farm its was out of poverty

http://www.wausaudailyherald.c…

By Danielle Nierenberg

For the Wausau Daily Herald

Stacia and Kristof Nordin have an unusual backyard, and it looks a lot different from the Edgar yard in which Kristof grew up.

Rather than the typical bare dirt patch of land that most Malawians sweep “clean” every day, the Nordins have more than 200 varieties of mostly indigenous vegetables growing organically around their house. They came to Malawi in 1997 as Peace Corps volunteers, but now call Malawi home. Stacia is a technical adviser to the Malawi Ministry of Education, working to sensitize both policymakers and citizens about the importance of using indigenous foods and permaculture to improve livelihoods and nutrition. Kristof is a community educator who works to train people at all levels of Malawian society in low-input and sustainable agricultural practices.

The Nordins use their home as a demonstration plot for permaculture methods that incorporate composting, water harvesting, intercropping and other methods that help build organic matter in soils, conserve water, and protect agricultural diversity. Most Malawians think of traditional foods, such as amaranth and African eggplant, as poor-people foods grown by “bad” farmers. But these crops might hold the key for solving hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Malawi — as well as in other African countries.

Nowhere needs the help more than Malawi, a nation of 14 million in southeast Africa that is among the least developed and most densely populated on Earth.

The country might be best known for the so-called “Malawi Miracle.” Five years ago, the government decided to do something controversial and provide fertilizer subsidies to farmers to grow maize. Since then, maize production has tripled and Malawi has been touted as an agricultural success story.

But the way they are refining that corn, says Kristof, makes it “kind of like Wonder Bread,” leaving it with just two or three nutrients. Traditional varieties of corn, which aren’t usually so highly processed, are more nutritious and don’t require as much artificial fertilizer as do hybrid varieties.

“Forty-eight percent of the country’s children are still nutritionally stunted, even with the so-called miracle,” Kristof says.

Rather than focusing on just planting maize — a crop that is not native to Africa — the Nordins advise farmers with whom they work that there is “no miracle plant — just plant them all.” Research has shown that Malawi has more than 600 indigenous and naturalized food plants to choose from. Maize, ironically, is one of the least suited to this region because it’s highly susceptible to pests, disease and erratic rainfall patterns.

Unfortunately, the “fixation on just one crop,” says Kristof, means that traditional varieties of foods are going extinct — crops that already are adapted to drought and heat, traits that become especially important as agriculture copes with climate change.

“Design,” says Kristof, “is key in permaculture,” meaning that everything from garden beds to the edible fish pond to the composting toilet have an important role on their property. And although their neighbors have been skeptical, they’re impressed by the quantity — and diversity — of food grown by the family. More than 200 indigenous fruits and vegetables are grown on their small plot of land, providing a year-round supply of food to the Nordins and their neighbors.

In addition, they’re creating a “model village” by training several families who rent houses on the property,) to practice and teach others about the permaculture techniques that they use around their homes. They also have built an “edible playground,” where children can play, eat and learn about various indigenous fruits.

More important, the Nordins are showing that by not sweeping, burning and removing all organic matter, people can get more out of the land than just maize and reduce their dependence on high-cost agricultural inputs in the process.

And indigenous crops can be an important source of income for farmers. Rather than import amaranth, sorghum, spices, tamarinds and other products from India, South Africa and other countries, the Nordins are helping farmers find ways to market seeds, as well as value-added products, from local resources. These efforts not only provide income and nutrition, but fight the “stigma that anything Malawian isn’t good enough,” says Kristof. “The solutions,” he says, “are literally staring us in the face.”

And as a visitor walked around seeing and tasting the various crops at the Nordins’ home, it became obvious that maize is not Malawi’s only miracle.

Danielle Nierenberg is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, blogging daily from Africa

at: http://blogs.worldwatch.org/no… She can be reached at dnierenberg@worldwatch.org.

Prescribing Improved Nutrition to Combat HIV/AIDS in Africa

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Everywhere I travel in Africa, there’s increasing acknowledgement about the importance of nutrition when it comes to treating HIV/AIDS.  Many retroviral and HIV/AIDS drugs don’t work if patients aren’t getting enough vitamins and nutrients in their diets or accumulating enough body fat.

According to Dr. Rosa Costa, Director of the Kyeema Foundation in Mozambique, many farmers are often too sick to grow crops, but “chickens are easy.”

The International Rural Poultry Center of the Kyeema Foundation and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics are working with farmers-most of them women-to raise chickens on their farms. Because women are often the primary caregivers for family members with HIV/AIDS, they need easy, low-cost sources of both food and income.

Unlike many crops, raising free-range birds can require few outside inputs and very little maintenance from farmers. Birds can forage for insects and eat kitchen scraps, instead of expensive grains. They provide not only meat and eggs for household use and income, but also pest control and manure for fertilizer.

Breeding Respect for Indigenous Seeds

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Today, farmers and breeders alike have a greater respect for Mozambique's indigenous seed varieties. (Photo by Jose Gonzalez de Tanago)Jessica Milgroom isn’t your typical graduate student. Rather than spending her days in the library of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, her research is done in the field-literally. Since 2006, Jessica has been working with farming communities living inside Limpopo National Park, in southern Mozambique.

When the park was established in 2001, it was essentially “parked on top of 27,000 people,” says Jessica. Some 7,000 of the residents needed to be resettled to other areas, including within the park, which affected their access to food and farmland. Jessica’s job is to see what can be done to improve resettlement food security.

But rather than simply recommending intensified agriculture in the park to make better use of less land, Jessica worked with the local community to collect and identify local seed varieties. One of the major problems in Mozambique, as well as other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, is the lack of seed. As a result, farmers are forced to buy low-quality seed because nothing else is available.

In addition to identifying and collecting seeds, Jessica is working with a farmer’s association on seed trials, testing varieties to see what people like best. In addition, farmers are learning how to purify and store seeds (see Innovation of the Week: Investing in Better Food Storage in Africa).

Weevils, the farmers tell Jessica, are worse than ever, destroying both the seed and crops they store in traditional open-air, granaries. But the farmers are now building newer granaries that are more tightly sealed and help prevent not only weevils but also mold and aflatoxins from damaging crops.

Today, farmers and breeders alike have a greater respect for Mozambique’s indigenous seed varieties. According to Jessica, one of the biggest accomplishments of the project has been getting breeders and farmers to talk to each other. “It’s been interesting for both groups,” says Jessica, “and it needs to be a regular discussion” between them.

Building a Methane-Fueled Fire: Innovation of the Week

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

For half the world’s population, every meal depends on an open fire that is fueled by wood, coal, dung, and other smoke-producing combustibles. These indoor cookfires consume large amounts of fuel and emit carbon dioxide and other dangerous toxins into the air, blackening the insides of homes and leading to respiratory diseases, especially among women and children.

Biogas, however, takes advantage of what is typically considered waste, providing a cleaner and safer source of energy. Biogas units use methane from manure to produce electricity, heat, and fertilizer while emitting significantly less smoke and carbon monoxide than other sources of fuel. Access to an efficient, clean-burning stove not only saves lives-smoke inhalation-related illnesses result in 1.5 million deaths per year-it also reduces the amount of time that women spend gathering firewood, which the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) estimates is 10 hours per week for the average household in some rural areas.

The IFAD-funded Gash Barka Livestock and Agricultural Development Project (GBLADP) helped one farmer in Eritrea, Tekie Mekerka, make the most of the manure his 30 cows produce by helping to install a biogas unit on his farm (similar to the unit that Danielle saw in Rwanda with Heifer International). Now, says Mekerka, “we no longer have to go out to collect wood for cooking, the kitchen is now smoke-free, and the children can study at night because we have electricity.”Additionally, Mekerka is using the organic residue left by the biogas process as fertilizer for his family’s new vegetable garden.

In Rwanda, the government is making biogas stove units more accessible by subsidizing installation costs, and it hopes to have 15,000 households nationwide using biogas by 2012.  While visiting with Heifer Rwanda, Danielle met Madame Helen Bahikwe, who, after receiving government help to purchase her biogas unit, is now more easily cooking for her 10-person family and improving hygiene on the farm with hot water for cleaning.

In China, IFAD found that biogas saved farmers so much time collecting firewood that farm production increased. In Tanzania, the Foundation for Sustainable Rural Development (SURUDE), with funding from UNDP, found that each biogas unit used in their study reduced deforestation by 37 hectares per year. And in Nigeria, on a much larger scale, methane and carbon dioxide produced by a water purifying plant is now being used to provide more affordable gas to 5,400 families a month, thanks to one of the largest biogas installations in Africa.

To read more about how waste can be turned into a source of fuel, energy, and nutrition see: Making Fuel Out of Waste, Growing Food in Urban “Trash,” ECHOing a Need for Innovation in Agriculture, Keeping Weeds for Nutrition and Taste, and Vertical Farms: Finding Creative Ways to Grow Food in Kibera.

If you know of other ways people are making the most of their waste and would like to share it with us, we encourage you to leave a comment or fill out our agriculture innovation survey here.

In Botswana, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Conservation

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

The Mokolodi Reserve is another example of how agriculture and wildlife conservation can go hand-in hand. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)Mokolodi Wildlife Reserve used to be known more for raising livestock than protecting wildlife. But after years of ranching degraded the land, the owner decided to devote the area to protecting elephants, giraffes, impala, kudu, crocodiles, hippos, ostrich, warthogs, and various other animals and birds. But the reserve hasn’t stopped raising food.

In addition to teaching students and the community about conserving and protecting wildlife and the environment, they’re also educating students about permaculture. By growing indigenous vegetables, recycling water for irrigation, and using organic fertilizers—including elephant dung—the Reserve’s Education Center is demonstrating how to grow nutritious food with very little water or chemical inputs. (See Malawi’s Real “Miracle” and Emphasizing Malawi’s Indigenous Vegetables as Crops.)

I met with Tuelo Lekgowe and his wife, Moho Sehtomo, who are managing the permaculture garden at Mokolodi. Tuelo explained that the organically grown spinach, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, green peppers, garlic, basil, parsley, coriander and other crops raised at the garden are used to feed the school groups who come regularly to learn about not only animals, but also sustainable agriculture. Tuelo and Moho use the garden as a classroom, teaching students about composting, intercropping, water harvesting, and organic agriculture practices. The garden also supplies food for the Education Center and Mokolodi’s restaurant, feeding the hundreds of students and tourists who visit the non-profit reserve each week.

The Mokolodi Reserve is another example of how agriculture and wildlife conservation can go hand-in hand.

Reversing Climate Change, One Bite at a Time

(Some valuable and interesting points are made here which we should adhere to for sustainable agriculture.  It’s better food too without all the hormones and other artificial stuff injected into our livestock. – promoted by John Morgan)

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

On the nine hour bus ride from Johannesburg, South Africa to Maputo, Mozambique yesterday, I had a chance to read the latest TIME Magazine and was surprised-and pleased-to see an article on an issue that Worldwatch has been covering for a long time-the benefits of grass-fed livestock systems for the climate.

The article highlights how not all meat is created equal. All of the ingredients used to raise livestock conventionally-including artificial fertilizers and monocultures of maize and soybeans-are highly dependent on fossil fuels. In addition, modern meat production requires massive land use changes that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, including the destruction of grasslands and rainforests in South America and the degradation of ranging lands in Africa (See the Worldwatch report: Mitigating Climate Change Through Food and Land Use).

Rotational grazing systems, on the other hand, can actually sequester carbon in soils. And because the animals are eating grass, not grain, artificial fertilizer isn’t required to produce feed. These systems also don’t have to rely on the long-distance transportation of fertilizer, grain, or other inputs. And while the manure produced at confined animal feed operations, or CAFOs, is often considered toxic waste because it is produced in such massive quantities, the manure produced on smaller-scale farms is considered a valuable resource, helping to fertilize crops.

While raising-and eating- grass-fed beef might not completely reverse climate change, it’s a valuable tool for producers and consumers alike in helping lower the amount of GHGs emitted because of our food choices.

Malawi’s Real “Miracle”

This is the first in a two-part series about my visit to the home of Kristof and Stacia Nordin in Lilongwe, Malawi. Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Stacia and Kristof Nordin have an unusual backyard. Rather than the typical bare dirt patch of land that most Malawians sweep “clean” every day, the Nordins have over 200 varieties of mostly indigenous vegetables growing organically around their house. They came to Malawi in the 1990s as Peace Corps Volunteers, but now call Malawi home. Stacia works for the Malawi Health Ministry, educating both policy-makers and citizens about the importance of indigenous vegetables and permaculture for improving livelihoods and nutrition.

Malawi may be best known for the so-called “Malawi Miracle.” Five years ago the government decided to do something controversial-provide fertilizer subsidies to farmers to grow maize. Since then maize production has tripled and Malawi has been touted as an agricultural success story.

But the way they are refining that corn, says Kristof, makes it “kind of like Wonderbread,” leaving it with just two or three nutrients. Traditional varieties of corn, however, which aren’t usually so highly processed, are more nutritious and don’t require as much artificial fertilizer compared to hybrid varieties. According to Kristof, “48 percent of the country is still stunted with the miracle.”

Stacia and Kristof use their home as a way to educate their neighbors about both permaculture and indigenous vegetables. Most Malawians think of traditional foods, such as amaranth and African eggplant, as poor people foods grown by “bad” farmers. But these crops may hold the key for solving hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Malawi.

Rather than focusing on just planting maize-a crop that is not native to Africa-the Kristofs advise the farmers they work with that there is “no miracle plant, just plant them all.” Maize, ironically, is least suited to this region because it’s very susceptible to pests and disease. Unfortunately, the “fixation on just one crop,” says Kristof, means that traditional varieties of foods are going extinct-crops that are already adapted to drought and heat, traits that become especially important as agriculture copes with climate change.

And indigenous crops can be an important source of income for farmers. Rather than importing things like amaranth, sorghum, spices, tamarinds and other products from India, South Africa, and other countries, the Nordins are helping farmers find ways to market seeds, as well as value added products, from local resources. These efforts not only provide income and nutrition, but fight the “stigma that anything Malawian isn’t good enough,” says Kristof.  “A lot of solutions,” he says, “are literally staring us in the face.”  And as I walked around seeing-and tasting- the various crops at the Nordins’ home, it’s obvious that maize is not Malawi’s only miracle.

Stay tuned for more about my trip to the Nordins.