Malawi’s Real “Miracle”

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Danielle (right) with Kristof Nordin (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Danielle (right) with Kristof Nordin (photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

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

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.

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