and his wife are helping an African nation farm its was out of poverty
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Nierenberg is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, blogging daily