Soybean is a welcome new addition to diets in Malawi

In a series of features focusing on FAO projects in Africa, Leyla Alyanak reports on how the introduction of soybean is helping to fight malnutrition and improve food security in Malawi

Soybean is a welcome new addition to diets in Malawi

High-protein, high-energy soybean is one of the best foods to combat malnutrition
"Fill a metal pot with water. When the water is warm, slowly add a mixture of one cup soybean flour and four cups maize flour. Stir until it becomes thick, and let it boil until it is cooked. Then it becomes phala, or porridge," explained Lovart Banda, stirring the air with his arms for emphasis.

Two things are unusual about Banda's recipe: first, the cook is a man, and, second, soybean is not a traditional food in Malawi.

"I like the fact that I was taught to cook soybean," said Banda. "It is good that my wife and I both do this cooking together. That way, if one of us forgets how to do it, the other one will remember."

Forgetting is not all that farfetched, because villagers here have not been cooking soybean for very long. Until recently, they only grew soybean for sale to the national marketing corporation, Admarc.

"We tried to eat it once," recalled Ivon Mkwamba, her fingers twirling a small plastic bag filled with the fine yellowish flour. "But we were taking the whole soybean and milling it, so it did not taste nice. Now we know how to prepare it properly, without the husk."

Growing soybean and preparing flour and porridge from it are some of the skills being taught by a new project, implemented by Malawi's Ministry of Agriculture with technical assistance from FAO, to fight malnutrition in Central Malawi.

"Soybean is very high in protein and also very high in energy," said Ruth Ayoade, FAO's national project coordinator, "so it is one of the best foods to combat malnutrition. In addition to that, it is easy to grow, it is relatively drought-tolerant, and households can easily store it."

Soybean, made up of about 40 percent protein and 20 percent oil, can play a major role in alleviating protein-energy malnutrition. It is considered as good as egg or meat protein.

These benefits are not taken lightly in a country where more than half the children under five years of age in rural areas are malnourished or stunted.

To teach farmers to grow and cook soybean, the project runs a series of training courses, first for the trainers themselves, then for district and village officials and, finally, for the farmers. Other activities include preparing training materials, producing seeds, and promoting the use of soybean in nutrition centres.

The project has also yielded some unexpected results. For example, the villagers have provided all their own equipment for processing, without expecting handouts - a positive sign for the project's long-term survival. Also, training is conducted by both men and women, even though nutrition is usually considered a woman's concern. Not only that, but at least as many men as women are being trained. This is key in nutrition education since men hold important decision-making powers in the home.

Headmen from communities not involved in the project have approached project officers to ask for training for their villages. And there are reports farmers are training other farmers, spreading the information even further afield.

"This project has had quite a big impact on us," said Marion Vijverberg, nutrition and food security coordinator for the Catholic group Caritas in Malawi. "We sent someone for training to the FAO course, and as a result we started our own training courses. We trained about 45 people, and now they have trained another 4 000."

Vijverberg says the project has affected Caritas' work in another way. "We were looking for ways to help households become more self-sufficient," she said. "We wanted to make a transition from supplementary food feeding into food security. The FAO project was a good starting point for us. We were distributing likuni phala, a soybean and maize weaning food for malnourished children. Then we started training women to grow soybean and make their own likuni phala at home."

Without a doubt, the project's contribution to food security is greatly appreciated. For many people in the village, the memory of the 1991 drought is still too vivid.

"I remember, we were going to Admarc to buy maize, but there wasn't any," said Magdalena Samuel, whose stunted 18-year-old son looks no older than 12. "Even if we had money, we would come back with nothing, so we would go back the next day. If we had no food, we would have to spend the day doing piece work." That often meant walking up to 15 km each way to find ganyu, or casual labour, on someone else's farm. At the end of the day, all the villagers had to show for their efforts was a bit of food to take home to their families. "I had no choice," Samuel said. "The lives of my children depended on food. I was scared. I knew that if I didn't find food they would die."

But with their new soybean - the first crop is being planted this season - the villagers are more confident. "Soybean will help us because with it we can make porridge," said Ivon Mkwamba. "With soybean, even if there is less rain, we will still get something."

Not only that, but the children like it better than maize. "We don't have soybean in our house yet," said 14-year-old Rangeni Futsa. "But the neighbours have a little, so I go eat theirs." Soon, he'll have his own.

2 April 1997

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