The Time is Ripe for Malawians to Eat Outside the Maize Box

Recently a group of Malawians joined forces to acrimoniously castigate President Mutharika over remarks he made concerning coping with hunger. Specifically, the President suggested eating foods such as mice and cassava. While I personally don’t think these are bad foods, even those who disagree on this point need to understand the larger point about Malawian food security.

Some of 220,000 tonnes of Maize recently bought by the Malawi government: is it the only thing we can do to alleviate the hunger situation ? Source: Times Online news, 2016

The President was earnestly trying to emphasize a solution to the persistent food insecurity problem that our country is failing to shrug off her back. There are definitely many factors that influence the dynamics of hunger in Malawi, but the food culture of her people, largely built around maize, needs to take a fare share of the blame cake. This is the point our President was trying to make, and he was right in my opinion. To put his words in another perspective, we are like swimmers repeatedly crying from thirst while all that we need surrounds us. Malawi’s over-reliance on maize-based foods has dragged on for too long, and it is high time for reconsideration.

I remember a story that went viral during my childhood about a villager who went to visit some relatives in town. In the evening he was given rice for supper, but to the surprise of his hosts, he still had the guts to ask for a “real” supper, meaning nsima, a hard porridge made from maize. When he was told that the rice he had was actually supper, he went to bed very disappointed. He left early in the morning for his village to preach of the evil that had befallen him.

Years later, I am surprised to note that most Malawians still consider maize-based products the only “real” foods. I grew up eating nsima for most of my life, and I don’t want to demonize it. However, as the President indicated, we are too great a nation to be held to ransom by one type of food, especially one that is not even the most nourishing.

It is baffling that Malawi — a country blessed with abundant water bodies and rich soils where crops such as millet, potatoes, cassava, legumes and more grow year round — continues to toil under the burden of hunger year after year.

Prior to the President’s comments, a senior European Union official and an esteemed Minister of Agriculture raised similar concerns, rallying Malawians to tweak their food culture by looking beyond maize as the only ideal food. It is baffling that Malawi — a country blessed with abundant water bodies and rich soils where crops such as millet, potatoes, cassava, legumes and more grow year round — continues to toil under the burden of hunger year after year. Just imagine if every family in Malawi ate nsima only once a day, substituting other staples like cassava, potatoes or bananas for other meals. The nation would have a surplus of maize, even in times when the harvest was skimpy like this year.

Malawi’s food security strategies and policy commitments need serious reconsideration as well. For a long time the government and its development partners have mostly focused on promoting maize security, and not food security itself. Every year, the government of Malawi spends countless billions of kwachas on the fertilizer subsidy program to boost maize production, but ironically, in less than eight months, almost the same amount is spent on providing relief for hunger. This is enough evidence that our conflation of food security with maize availability is only making the nation even more desperately hungry.

It is encouraging that this mindset is shifting in government, as demonstrated by the President’s speech. Yet my hope is that all this talk is followed by appropriate action so that it doesn’t become just another cheap political sentiment. Such references to food diversification have been rhetorical and rare. These often fleeting sentiments, such as the most recent “State of the Nation” address have yet to be backed by necessary strategies, actions, and resources.

The time is now ripe for Malawians to eat outside the maize box, and for the government and its partners to implement appropriate strategies that will encourage production and consumption of a variety of nutritious foods. Given the way the general populous reacted to the President’s call for a change in food culture, behavior change interventions should play a significant role in any future initiatives aimed at guiding the nation towards a more diverse diet. Kudos to our President for igniting the talk — may we all learn to walk it.