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).

Engaging students for family food security and 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.]

As a small country with a large and rapidly growing population, Bangladesh has to make the most of its fast-disappearing agricultural land. Although the government of Bangladesh prioritizes modern and sustainable agricultural technologies to maximize crop production, many farmers’ beliefs in traditional agriculture methods, despite poor production, make them resistant to using new practices that improve production. Resistance to using improved agricultural practices that promote higher production has been a significant factor in food insufficiency and poor nutrition in rural Bangladesh, especially among land-poor farmers. This article explores how MCC Bangladesh has worked with young students to increase the adoption of new, more productive, agricultural practices.

MCC assists families experiencing poverty to increase their income from agriculture and livestock production and their access to diversified food in order to improve food security and nutrition. Encouraging farmers to shift from traditional techniques to new agricultural practices is not easy, especially among those who are older and have lower levels of formal education. MCC Bangladesh has found that young and literate farmers are generally more willing to try new techniques.

In particular, students are often willing to adopt new ideas. In Bangladesh, students are also often part of household decision-making. Despite limited financial resources, most poor families try hard to send their children to school. Families hope that, after gaining an education, their children will be able to improve the family’s financial status. For this reason, families sometimes depend on their children to make household decisions even while the children are still studying. This cultural context led MCC Bangladesh to involve students in a food security project focused on using modern agricultural techniques for improved family food security and nutrition.

Under its Research and Extension Activity Partners (REAP) project which ran from 2010 to 2016, MCC Bangladesh worked in Chattra Union, Pirganj Upazila in Rangpur district, Bangladesh. A total of 900 students in grade eight from six different secondary schools were selected as a primary participants. These students took part in the project up to grade ten. Each project year, new students were selected to join, with priority given to students from households experiencing poverty. These students received training in different agricultural technologies at school outside of regular class time, with technical support provided by MCC Bangladesh staff. The project also trained school teachers in agricultural technologies to improve their understanding of the project and to equip them to support their students.

At home, students discussed what they learned about these new technologies with their parents and other family members. When their parents expressed interest, MCC Bangladesh staff arranged for demonstrations of different agricultural technologies at their homestead. These agricultural demonstrations focused on best practices for rearing milk cows and goats, calf fattening, raising chickens, fruit tree cultivation, integrated pest management and making different types of compost for homestead gardening. Each household worked with at least two or three new techniques, with the entire family involved. MCC Bangladesh staff and the school teachers frequently visited participant students’ homes to monitor and discuss the new agricultural activities.

Students’ motivation encouraged households to focus their work on these new agricultural activities. Significant changes to nutrition occurred among the selected farm families over the project period. Families’ diversified agricultural activities provided them with more fresh vegetables of greater variety, more eggs and meat, more milk and more income from new agricultural activities like cattle rearing. With the extra income, families could afford to diversify their diets while meeting other family needs as well.

Some students have been particularly successful in generating income through the new agricultural activities. For example, one young woman in Sokhipur village received training in vegetable cultivation, cattle and goat rearing and compost production. MCC also provided her material support so that she could start raising goats and making compost. Now, besides being a respected source of agricultural knowledge in her community, she sells goats and compost to pay tuition fees for herself and her three sisters and has further expanded her family’s livelihoods by purchasing two cows.

In addition to agricultural work, the REAP project also provided peace education to targeted students and parents. These trainings, alongside other community peacebuilding work, helped ensure that conflicts that might arise from students teaching parents and encouraging new practices at home could be peaceably mediated and resolved.

Through this project, MCC Bangladesh learned that involving students in extension work to diversify agricultural activities addressed the challenge of motivating farmers to adopt new techniques. Through the work of students to improve families’ skills and capacity, parents were motivated to try modern agricultural practices, while students gained additional skills and knowledge. Ultimately, the combination of approaching parents through students and setting up demonstration plots on families’ own homesteads ensured sustainable changes to food security and nutrition due to changes in participants’ knowledge, attitude and practice.

Md. Arefur Rahaman is sector coordinator for food security and Md. Mokhlesur Rahman is program director with MCC Bangladesh.

Learn more

Quasem, M. A. “Conversion of Agricultural Land to Non-Agricultural Uses in Bangladesh: Extent and Determinants.” Bangladesh Development Studies 34/1 (2011): 59-85.

Ballantyne, Roy, Sharon Connell, and John Fien. “Students as Catalysts of Environmental Change: A Framework for Researching Intergenerational Influence through Environmental Education.” Environmental Education Research 4/3 (1998): 285-298.

Conservation agriculture and religious motivation

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Farmers in every region of the world are adapting to a changing climate. In Africa in particular rainfall is becoming increasingly unreliable, forcing farmers to seek out new ways to conserve precious soil moisture for food production. A growing number of MCC partner organizations in sub-Saharan Africa are promoting a style of farming called conservation agriculture (CA). MCC works with a number of church-based organizations,
including the Mennonite church in Tanzania and the Brethren in Christ Church in Honduras, Zambia and Zimbabwe, to promote CA. This article examines the promotion of CA through “Farming God’s Way” and assesses how that framing impacts the adoption of new agricultural techniques.

CA has three main principles: minimal soil disturbance (no plowing), ground cover (mulch) and crop rotation. For many farmers, these principles have contributed to greatly improved yields, even during very dry growing seasons. The no plowing and mulch principles can have significant positive impacts on soil moisture levels, but they are also
countercultural for most farmers. Farmers in most communities where MCC’s partners work have for generations tilled and cleared land (with clearing often done by burning plant material) in preparation for seeding. These culturally entrenched practices go back generations and die hard. Asking a farmer not to till before seeding is something like telling city homeowners not to cut their lawn. “That’s not the way we do things around here. What would the neighbors think?”

So even as farmers actively look for new techniques to respond to drier conditions, convincing them to try CA with its counter-cultural elements has proven challenging. To overcome this cultural barrier, some organizations bring biblical and spiritual principles into their conversations about CA with farmers, integrating biblical ethics with scientifically sound agriculture practices in order to connect with and influence farmers more effectively. These organizations seek to persuade farmers that CA is akin to farming God’s way. In fact, a growing movement that started in Zimbabwe actually calls itself Farming God’s Way. For its proponents, Farming God’s Way is not a farming model per se, but rather a perspective from which to present, promote and understand CA.

Mulch, for example, in standard CA parlance is simply referred to as mulch. Mulch is plant material that covers the soil to conserve moisture, suppress weeds and foster plant growth. Farming God’s way, however, describes mulch as “God’s blanket”. Farming God’s Way promoters explain “God’s blanket” to farmers thus: If one observes the natural, God-created world, one rarely sees soil not covered with some sort of plant material. God’s intention is thus for soil to be covered with plant material, even in human cropping systems: applying “God’s blanket” participates in God’s creative and sustaining action while protecting the soil for future generations. Suddenly, with this explanation, once skeptical farmers are now more convinced that mulching and CA as a whole are worth a try. MCC partners who present CA as farming God’s way report that it smoothes the road for change in many communities. This approach apparently works equally well for Muslim and Christian farmers alike. In fact, even non-religious farmers do not seem to be turned off by the argument. Furthermore, framing CA using “farming God’s way” language provides better community entry, using existing community structures such as churches and church youth groups.

Organizations that promote CA as farming God’s way are not trying to pull the wool over farmers’ eyes with talk about God and the Bible: they are sincere in their belief that CA mimics the natural world more closely than conventional farming and is therefore closer to God’s intended way of farming. However, farming God’s way proponents also realize that talk about God only goes so far. To be sure, CA often leads to dramatic increases in yield. In fact, recent reports suggest average yield increases of over 100% for first-time CA farmers. Increased yield obviously offers extra motivation for farmers, regardless of their desire to be good stewards of God’s creation. But along with entrenched notions of how to farm properly, the extra work required by mulching presents a real barrier for many farmers. In some communities, farmer adoption levels have not been as strong as expected, mostly due to the perceived increase in labor requirements, particularly in the first year of using CA approaches. But farmers tend to be innovators. Some farmers have come up with alternatives to mulching that serve the same purpose, like growing beans
along with corn (intercropping). The beans cover most of the bare ground around the corn, acting as a sort of living mulch. The extra bean harvest makes the additional work worthwhile.

While farmers prove time and again to be innovators, organizations promoting farming God’s way have not always encouraged this innovation, holding to an overly dogmatic or narrow understanding of what it means to farm God’s way. Yet lived reality challenges such dogmatism, and proponents of farming God’s way have begun to learn that diversity is also a part of God’s created order. Most MCC partner organizations now encourage farmers to embrace the three CA principles in general and then adapt them to their own particular farming circumstances. MCC’s partners hope to convince more than 20,000 African farmers to try CA farming within the next few years. One of the challenges will be
to present CA not only as God’s way, but also as a way toward a more sustainable and food-secure future for farmers. One might argue that these two things are mutually inclusive, but farmers rightfully require evidence of CA’s effectiveness, given that their families’ livelihoods are at stake. A current initiative funded by the Canadian government in eastern Africa and implemented by MCC and its partners seeks to gather better information about crop yield and other food security metrics in order to provide a more complete picture of how CA methods improve the lives of farmers and their families.

Some MCC partner organizations that promote CA avoid framing arguments for CA in religious terms, choosing to rely solely on agronomic arguments. Most organizations, however, choose a balance between God and yield, making the case that CA practices mimic the created order while also demonstrating CA’s practical benefits. MCC does not mandate a specific approach to promoting CA, opting instead to listen and learn from its partner organizations about what works best. For now, however, the initial evidence seems to support the hypothesis that framing CA in religious terms fosters adoption of CA practices.

Vurayayi Pugeni and Dan Wiens are disaster response and food security coordinators, respectively, for MCC.

Learn more:

Investing in Communities: The Benefits and Costs of Building Resilience for Food
Security in Malawi. Teddington, UK: Tearfund, 2010. Available at

Social protection and seasonality in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe

In this article I compare the impacts of predictable seasonally-targeted safety nets in Ethiopia with annual unpredictable emergency food assistance interventions in Zimbabwe, based on cases studies of MCC supported projects. I argue that when designing food assistance projects, more predictable assistance during the hunger period provides greater opportunity to build long-term food security through the protection of household assets and labour and the promotion of greater risk-taking to enhance agricultural production. I conclude with a focus on practical measures to enhance safety net interventions.

MCC’s experience in Ethiopia provides evidence that the predictability of
seasonal safety nets enhances food security and reduces the risk of acute
crisis. Seasonally-targeted and predictable social protection interventions
aimed at addressing chronic and seasonal food shortages in the form of cash-for-work and food-for-work have been successful in boosting agricultural productivity and in scaling up conservation agriculture in severely degraded watersheds of Ethiopia. Implementation of physical and biological soil conservation activities in farms in Amhara has reduced soil erosion, thereby improving soil fertility and expanding the productive land available for farming. Crop yields have steadily increased and targete communities have restarted growing nutritious, palatable and higher-value crops such as barley, wheat, teff, field pea and haricot bean. In some of the graduated watersheds, the number of months of adequate household food provisioning has improved from six to ten.

Growing a greater variety of crops also helps decrease vulnerability to climate change by diffusing risk. Over 7000 small-scale farmers in Ethiopia’s Amhara and Sidama zones can now apply conservation agriculture (CA) techniques on their rehabilitated land, something they could not do before because of the level of erosion and land degradation. Most of the farmers in these two zones who have taken the lead in introducing CA techniques to the region have praised the seasonally targeted safety net project as the reason why they were able to adopt new farming technologies that otherwise they would have considered too risky. Most of the farmers are using the income generated from the cash-for-work resources to buy fertilizers and improved seeds. Increased fodder availability thanks to biological and soil conservation techniques is also leading to better livestock production outcomes.

These seasonally-targeted and predictable transfers in the form of cash and food have resulted in more consistent consumption at the household level. Project participants are eating more food, of different types, of better quality and more often. At the beginning of the project, 80% of the project participants were eating fewer than two meals per day and to date the same participants are consuming at least three meals per day thanks
to the seasonally-targeted and predictable transfers of food and cash. The number of food groups consumed has also increased from three to seven out of a possible twelve groups measured by the Household Diet Diversity Score index. The project is designed to ensure consumption smoothing (i.e. more predictable, stable consumption patterns) through the use of cash-for-work during the first three months of the annual hunger period (the months when food is available and accessible through the market) and food-for-work during the last three months of the hunger period (when markets have more limited food options available).

Seasonal cash- and food-for-work projects are also protecting people’s
productive and labour assets in Amhara and Sidama zones. Significant numbers of project participants are now able to avoid selling their limited harvests to pay for short-term household needs such as medicine or school fees and have also been able to avoid selling productive assets like livestock and household utensils for food. They have avoided high interest loans for food and have not had to migrate to find work during the annual hunger months (distress migration), thereby allowing more investment in
their own household livelihood activities. In addition, they also avoid low paying, exploitative and insecure casual labour as well as avoid harvesting their crops prematurely to address pressing food shortages. Cash payments from cash-for-work projects are also used for a range of productive investments, including education, livestock and savings schemes. Moreover, the predictable transfers play a key role in allowing people to feel secure enough in their income to take out productive loans which they previously found too risky.

By way of contrast, in one MCC project I examined in Zimbabwe short term and unpredictable emergency safety net interventions in the form of food-for-work meet the immediate food needs of households during peak hunger periods and create community assets such as earth dams and weirs. However, the unpredictability and late delivery of these food transfers create a tension in chronically food insecure households between meeting urgent food consumption needs and liquidating those limited food reserves in order to meet other needs for agricultural investment and education.

Year after year, rationing consumption and irreversible coping mechanisms (such as the sale of capital assets) had been reported before the emergency food-for-work projects started. Repeated exposure to seasonal stress is leading to the use of erosive coping mechanisms which in turn undermine a household’s ability to cope in the long term. Communities take on potentially disastrous debts and sell productive assets, which in turn compromises future livelihood gains, all to buy food for immediate needs. This pattern severely limits families’ abilities to bounce back, thus leading to a poverty trap. Uncertainty in the delivery of emergency assistance discourages households from making risky investments and taking out productive loans because their consumption smoothing and asset protection are not guaranteed. Not surprisingly, distress migration is common, with the majority of the able-bodied youths in the community opting to cross the border to South Africa in search of work.

While seasonally-targeted and predictable social protection interventions in the form of cash-for-work or food-for-work schemes are the best options for addressing chronic and seasonal food shortages, specific conditions should be in place for the predictable seasonal safety nets to be more effective. These conditions include:

  • Where cash-for-work is used, the size of the payments should be realistic and reviewed against inflation and the local cost of a diverse monthly food basket for the household. In Ethiopia, the size of the benefits paid is regulated by the government and in most cases the participants perceived the payments as too small to meet the food gaps.
  • Payments should be made on time. When payments are made late, households are likely to revert to harmful coping mechanisms which defeat the whole idea of a predictable safety net. Timeliness and predictability of payments from cash-for-work projects are key.
  • Participants in cash-for-work or food-for-work projects should be informed upfront of the payment amounts or of the food ration sizes. Participants should also be alerted to the duration of the project and when they will no longer be eligible to participate in the project (the project’s “graduation threshold”). When households are aware that they will receive seasonally-targeted cash or food transfers for a number of years, they are encouraged to take risks on their farms and adopt new technologies without fear of being food insecure.
  • Projects should establish clear guidelines about who is targeted for participation and what the project’s graduation thresholds will be. Such guidelines are essential for effective household selection and monitoring.
  • Very poor, labour-challenged households should be accommodated. Those who cannot contribute labour such as the sick, elderly and children should not be left out. Arrangements should be made for them to receive unconditional cash or food transfers each month.
  • Public works components of cash- or food-for-work projects should be conducted during the agriculture slack period so that these initiatives do not compete for agricultural labour aimed at household food production.
  • Community assets created though public works schemes need to be maintained on a regular basis. For this to happen, community based structures to support sustainability are vital. So, for example, in Boricha, Ethiopia, social fencing, the community shaming of those who encroach on rehabilitated land, has proven to be useful in protecting community assets.
  • Participants need continued access to the seasonal safety nets until livelihood-enhancing activities have created a sustainable livelihood.

While the food assistance schemes in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe examined above both provide immediate access to food for vulnerable households, the predictable and timely seasonal safety nets in Ethiopia are more effective in promoting long-term food security and reducing risk. Seasonal safety net projects should accordingly ensure that cash and food transfers happen in a predictable and seasonally timely manner.

Vurayayi Pugeni is an MCC humanitarian assistance coordinator, based in
Winnipeg, MB.

Learn more:

Ellis, Frank, Stephen Devereux and Philip White. Social Protection in Africa. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2009.

Devereux, Stephen. “Seasonality and Social Protection in Africa.” Future Agricultures Consortium Working Paper 011. Brighton, UK: University of Sussex, 2009. Available at