Need to use the bathroom at work? Lilongwe’s female vendors think twice

vendor.pngby Lizzy LaFave

Women farmers and entrepreneurs in Malawi experience more limitations than their male counterparts, researchers say.

Students in the 2017 Frugal Innovation Practicum (FIP) interviewed vendors at Mitundu market to learn about issues they face that affect their businesses and ability to put food on the table. The practicum is hosted in Lilongwe, Malawi.

“The kinds of support vendors have in markets will help them sell their food, which helps them to be profitable,” said Dr. White, FIP Program Director and City-Regional Food Systems Lead at Michigan State University’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovations.

This support can come in a variety of forms, but one that is often overlooked is a safe bathroom, White said.

“It is common to go around a whole open market like the one at Mitundu and not find a single bathroom,” said Dr. Judith Kamoto, a senior lecturer at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, a key institutional partner in the FIP.

The lack of facilities places a burden on women in particular because it is socially acceptable for men to urinate in the open, said Kamoto.

“They don’t care whether someone is seeing them, but women would think twice about it. They (Women) would say okay, I am not going to do any business at that market.”

Hilda Tabulo has been a produce vendor at Mitundu market since 2011. She said at one point the market had a free bathroom facility, but it was dirty because nobody was paid to clean it. Now, the facility is clean but costs 50 kwacha per use, a fee instated by the private company hired to manage the upkeep.

“If I go to the bathroom four times,” Tabulo said, “that costs 200 kwacha per day.”

This is a cost that many men do not pay, Kamoto said.

Watch a video of Hilda Tabulo in Mitundu market.

Tabulo said that the costs she faces in the market because she is a woman inhibit her from the same profitability male vendors receive. To even the playing field, Tabulo said the toilets should be free, especially since all vendors already pay a daily market fee of 150 kwacha to the market committee.

Rather than continue with the private cleaning company, Tabulo said, “They [the market committee] should employ a worker and the committee should be paying that worker. That worker should be cleaning the toilets.”

Bathrooms are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of barriers to growth that women working in food systems face.

“As you go up the value chain, along the way you see women begin to lose control,” Kamoto said. Men are the primary decision makers throughout the food system and make many decisions that disadvantage women, she said.

The Frugal Innovation Practicum works to find solutions for problems identified by researchers and vendors. The innovation needed is usually not a shiny piece of technology, White said, but something that may take more time. This could be patching communication networks or initiating structural change suggested by local vendors and researchers.

So, what’s the hold up?

Although the practicum has been working in Lilongwe markets since 2015, students are only on the ground for two weeks out of the year.

White said she would like to integrate FIP into a larger program that focuses on sustained engagement.

“The first step is to create a strategic and collaborative planning committee with our partners from LUANAR that brings food system stakeholders in Malawi together for long-term planning that would benefit food-based livelihoods and food security in the region,” she said.

Following that, it will be a matter of identifying grants and rallying support for the topic, she said.

If you are looking to get involved or support the program in any way, White is available at

This story originally ran on The Global Center for Food Systems Innovation’s website.


Jackfruit: The old fruit with new fans


By Max Johnston

The jackfruit is a large tree borne fruit that has been cultivated in southeast Asia for centuries.

However, in the past few years jackfruit has caught on in western markets. The fruit’s texture and ability to be take on almost any flavor has made it a hit with vegetarians.

Upton’s Naturals is a food outlet based in Chicago. They sell jackfruit in a variety of recipes and flavors, from Barbeque to Thai curry.

Nicole Sopko is the Vice President at Upton’s Naturals. We talked about jackfruit, vegetarian markets and much more.

Listen to that interview here.

Great Lakes Farmers confront too much milk, low prices


Michigan’s top commodity, milk, has suffered a series of economic blows since 2014.

When dairy cows produced about 9.6 billion pounds of milk in 2014, prices in the state began to drop, leaving farmers scrambling to sustain their businesses.

Michigan farmers produce 4.9 percent of the milk in the United States and are ranked 7th in production in the nation. However, over the last three years, dairy farmers have produced more milk than the market could process.

“The current supply of milk in Michigan is abundant but the processing capability hasn’t kept with this increase in supply. “says Burke Larsen of Larsen Farms in Scottville.

As a result, some farmers go out of business, use up their financial reserves or sell their herds says Zachary Clark, director of government relations at the National Farmers Union in Washington, D.C.

Ernie Birchmeier, a Michigan Farm Bureau livestock specialist, said that “dairy production is up because Michigan has the best dairy farm managers. In the last decade, we have added lots of cows to the herds.”

Clark said economic challenges in agriculture are affecting more than just dairy farmers. “Commodity prices across the board have been bad over the years. The prices of wheat, corn, soybeans and grain sorghum have been going down.”

Generally, when one crop or type of livestock is not doing well financially, farmers often use yields from other commodities that are doing well to balance their budgets. But when prices are bad across the board, it becomes difficult to offset low prices, Clark said.

For Michigan dairy farmers, the past few years have been challenging. To help address the problem of overproduction, dairy products are exported to other states.

But that comes with its own challenges.

Larsen said, “Sometimes milk has to be shipped to Florida because of the deficit Florida experiences due to heat. However, this increases transportation costs.”

And Clark said, “There is need for consolidation in the dairy industry. We need to see recognition out of federal programs, a fair pricing system through federal orders, an assistance program for farmers during uncertain economic times and supply management.”

To help address that challenge, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing,proposed a new farm bill which received bipartisan support in the Senate. She’s the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

The state’s dairy industry supports 40,000 jobs and contributes more than $15 billion to the economy. according to Stabenow.

The new farm bill proposes several risk management and insurance tools intended to protect farmers from market uncertainties.

The Farm Bureau’s Birchmeier said the Senate action is a vital step towards the assistance needed by the state’s struggling dairy industry.

However, he said the legislation would not solve the problem of overproduction.

“The risk management tools proposed in the Senate allow farmers to protect a margin between prices and the cost of production. It’s not a fix and will not make farmers profitable,” Birchmeier said.

Mark Iciek, a board member of the Michigan Milk Producers Association from Gladwin, said, “There’s a long-term solution which is adding processing capacity. Several organizations are working to increase milk processing capacity but this is something that will take several years.

“At the moment, there is no short-term fix to this problem,” Iciek said.

Birchmeier said that to solve the problem of overproduction, people need to consume more dairy goods, adding that prices are reasonable and dairy is great source of protein.

“Milk contains nine nutrients that people need,” said Janice Jackson of the United Dairy Industry of Michigan, which promotes dairy products to the public.

A 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans report showed that there are four nutrients that Americans don’t consume enough. Three of those nutrients – calcium, vitamin D and potassium – are found in milk.

“Consuming milk has also been associated with reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and type two diabetes in adults,” said Jackson.

Besides encouraging consumption, Larsen said trade plays a role in handling excess production.

“We need to push dairy products. Globally we are doing all right, domestically we need to improve.”

And Birchmeier said, “We need to increase trade worldwide and cut production in order to bring it in line with demand.”

This story initially appeared on Capital News Service

Crops rotting in the field: How the immigration debate is keeping food off the table

By Max Johnston

Farms across the Midwestern United States are being forced to shut down and in some cases leave crops rotting in the field because farmers can’t fill open jobs.

According to one story, asparagus growers in Michigan lost over a million pounds of product in 2013 alone, due to labor shortages.

Stephanie Mercier is a principal at Agricultural Perspectives, a Washington DC-based consulting firm. She says that immigration laws are preventing Midwestern farmers from filling jobs, and that’s keeping food off the table.

In the immigration debate, voices from southern states like California, Nevada and Texas are often the loudest. But Midwestern farmers also rely on immigrant labor and have entirely different labor needs.

The problem? No one seems to be listening.

We talked about Midwestern crops, President Trump’s immigration plan and much more.

Listen to that interview here.