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Text: Kasey Worst
Images: Erin Anders, Vicki Morrone, Isaac Jambo
Before she left to do research for the Global Center for Food Systems Innovations in Malawi, Erin Anders’ professor told her a saying from that country:
“Maize is life.”
It is a phrase Anders said she did not understand then. But after spending May through August of 2014 in the
country, she learned what it meant from Malawians.
“They’d laugh,” Anders said. “They’d laugh at me for just asking the question. Every single one of them would laugh. And then they’d say it’s the staple food.”
The preparation of maize in Malawi is a social event, she said.
“They’ll sit out as they’re shelling it, and laying it out on the mats to dry, they’re just talking,” Anders said.
With its ability to grow in a variety of climates and the social customs that have developed around processing maize, Anders said the crop is ingrained in Malawian culture.
Yet although maize is an important crop, it does not provide much nutrition, she said.
This is especially true in Malawi because the processing methods for maize takes off the yellow outer shell of the kernel, she said. The mushy, white inside of the kernel is then made into flour, but this strips most of the little nutritional value that the maize once had.
That is an important loss. About 42 percent of children under 5 in Malawi have stunted growth, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.
The pigeon pea is far more nutritious. Pigeon pea has more than twice the protein of maize, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Anders said the high levels of protein in the pigeon pea is a main reason why the crop is planted.
Anders went to Malawi to study how farmers there grow this plant. The pigeon pea was introduced to Malawi in the 2012-2013 growing season, Anders said.
“For export purposes they would typically dry it,” she said. But for consumption they’ll eat it green. They may dry it for later.
“They’re still experimenting with how this fits in with their food,” she said.
Pigeon pea is often prepared as part of a larger meal.
“So it’s just like a side dish, almost like a re-fried bean type side dish that they’ll eat with the maize,” Anders said.
Pigeon peas are a multi-purpose legume, meaning it can be used for more than food, Anders said.
Pigeon pea plants release organic nitrogen into the soil, which can then be turned into a form of nitrogen that other plants can use, Anders said. The plant can also be used as fodder for animals and as firewood.
Its roots help stop erosion. Pigeon pea has the potential to be one of the only perennial food crops grown in Malawi, Anders said.
“You can cut it back, and then they grow back next year, and they become thicker and much taller, almost like a tree,” she said.
But Anders discovered that many farmers tear up the pigeon pea after one season and plant maize instead. One reason for this stems from a unique planting method. The farmers build ridges of dirt with deep furrows on either side. They plant their crops on top of the ridge, and once the plant has been harvested, they break apart the ridge. Half of the dirt and plant matter left behind goes into one of the furrows. The other half goes into the other furrow.
The next time the farmers plow the field, they build the new ridges on top of the old furrows, Anders said. This makes it difficult to plant both maize and pigeon pea without replanting the pigeon pea each year.
“They would have to build around the pigeon pea if they want it to be a perennial,” Anders said.
The future of Malawian farming will involve a blend of new crops like the pigeon pea, and traditional staples like maize, she said.
Anders is encouraged by the innovations Malawian farmers make in adapting the new crop. She said the Malawian farmers will continue to innovate.
“Farmers need the tools, they need to know why these tools work and what their purpose is so they can figure out how to make them work within their system to meet their needs,” Anders said. “And farmers are willing to do that, but it takes time.
“And we just have to be patient and give them the best information that we have so they can make their decisions based around that information.”