Promoting local food sources to improve nutrition

[Individual articles from the Winter 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In many countries across Africa and Asia, communities use the bark and roots of the hardy moringa tree for medicinal purposes. Over the past several years, however, MCC and its partners in Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, India and Lao PDR have been promoting moringa leaves as a readily available, locally sourced and nutrient-rich food that is drought resistant and adaptable to changing climates. This article examines how MCC’s main partner organization in Burkina Faso, the Protestant ecumenical social service organization ODE (Office de Développement des Eglises Evangéliques), educates Burkinabé about the rich nutritional properties of moringa leaves as part of its overarching nutrition strategies in a country facing food insecurity exacerbated by climate change. ODE’s experience with promoting moringa leaves underscores the importance of looking to nutrient-rich, local food sources adaptable to changing climates in efforts to combat malnutrition.

Food insecurity and malnutrition rates in Burkina Faso are chronically high. The global acute malnutrition rate (GAM) among children under five years of age is 8.2%, while stunting levels stand at 31.5%. High food prices and unpredictable weather can result in drought or flooding, further limiting Burkina Faso’s access to food.

Over the past 30 years in Burkina Faso the climate has changed dramatically, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to predict the planting and harvest seasons. These changing climate patterns have in turn contributed (alongside other factors) to acute food insecurity. Arouna Yameogo, responsible for sustainable agriculture projects with ODE, recalls a time when the planting season would begin in June and end in December, resulting in a six month farming season. Today some parts of Burkina Faso see only two or three months of rain per year. Instead of steady, slow rains that nourish and provide moisture to the new crops, torrential storms now flood fields and ruin crops. Intermittent, moderate rains that alternate with a dry season are becoming things of the past. Meanwhile, the Sahel (the semi-arid region south of the Sahara desert) expands steadily southward, encroaching on Burkina Faso.

While these challenges to the agricultural sector exacerbate food insecurity and malnutrition, MCC and ODE see promise in the leaves of the moringa tree. Originally from northern India, moringa spread to various parts of Asia and Africa over the past thousand years. Nicknamed the “miracle tree” and the “never die” tree, moringa thrives in many different countries and varying climates. While moringa branches, seeds, pods and roots have been used in traditional remedies for ailments ranging from high blood pressure to stomach pain, the tree has not historically been viewed as a food source. Yet moringa, resistant to drought and flood, is able to weather changing climates, while also bearing the potential to combat malnutrition with its 16 vitamins and minerals and high levels of protein, potassium and calcium.

Yameogo and his colleagues at ODE provide support to farmers cultivating moringa to establish nurseries and have distributed moringa seedlings purchased from those farmers to hundreds of other farmers. Alongside efforts to promote the cultivation of moringa, ODE organizes trainings to educate communities about the nutritional value of moringa leaves and cooking demonstrations to show how those leaves can be used in and adapted for traditional dishes. “Moringa has grown in Burkina for quite some time, but people didn’t know about it or how to use it,” Yameogo explains. “Now we’ve had trainings to show the different nutritional qualities of moringa. It can prevent many sicknesses and can also fight against hunger because it has many vitamins and nutritional qualities. So now in the villages, we train people on the utility of moringa, and people use it all the time. We also train women how to make a powder from the leaves to put in porridge or in sauces. People are beginning to understand the importance of moringa.”

Community education on the use of moringa begins with awareness meetings since educating people about moringa’s nutritional properties is the first step in achieving wider adoption of moringa, with cooking classes showing how moringa leaves can be part of a daily, healthy diet. Participants in these trainings are not immediately convinced of moringa’s benefits or of its adaptability to local tastes. ODE has found, however, that participants gradually become used to adding moringa powder or leaves to everything from sauce to rice and even to eating boiled moringa leaves alone like spinach. One participant, for example, mixes moringa’s coin-sized leaves right into the peanut sauce she cooks with cabbage and tomatoes and serves over rice or , a thick, cornmeal-based mash common to Burkina Faso.

Since ODE began its projects, knowledge about and use of moringa have steadily increased in Burkina Faso. Although training and education are necessary to convince farmers that moringa is an economically viable crop and to persuade families that moringa leaves can be integrated into their diets, moringa is quickly becoming a valuable resource in efforts to combat malnutrition, both in Burkina Faso and beyond. Funding from MCC’s accounts at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) and the Foods Resource Bank (FRB) has enabled MCC and its partners to expand promotion of moringa as a nutrient-rich food source in multiple contexts. So, for example, MCC partners in Kenya and India raise awareness at the village level of moringa’s nutritional properties. In Zambia, meanwhile, MCC partners promote moringa consumption as part of efforts to strengthen the immune systems of people living with HIV and AIDS. By itself, of course, moringa will not solve food insecurity and malnutrition challenges. Yet, as ODE’s experience suggests, leaves from the moringa tree can play a vital role in addressing malnutrition in contexts in which agriculture is being disrupted by changing climate patterns.

Lauren Wade was an intern with MCC Burkina Faso in summer 2016. Arouna Yameogo is a project manager at Office de Développement des Eglises Evangéliques.

Learn more

Nielsen, Jonas Østergaard and Anette Reenberg. “Cultural Barriers to Climate Change Adaptation: A Case Study from Northern Burkina Faso.” Global Environmental Change 20/1 (2010): 142-152.

Durst, Patrick and Nomindelger Bayasgalanbat. Eds. Promotion of Underutilized Indigenous Food Resources for Food Security and Nutrition in Asia and the Pacific. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, 2014.

Hughes, J. “Just Famine Foods? What Contributions Can Underutilized Plants Make to Food Security?” International Symposium on Underutilized Plants for Food Security, Nutrition, Income and Sustainable Development. Acta Horticulturae 806 (2009).

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