Population: 18.6 million
Poverty rate: 51.5%
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked 174 of 189 countries on the Human Development Index. Over half the population lives in poverty, and one-fifth in extreme poverty. Access to clean water, sanitation, and health care remain significant challenges for many Malawians, especially in rural areas.
With 80 per cent of the population dependent on agriculture, the economy is extremely vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters. The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a significant impact on economic growth, increasing poverty rates among an already-vulnerable population.
Fighting poverty with sweet potatoes
Aiesha is a single mother from Chiradzulu in Malawi, where 37 per cent of children are affected by stunting due to undernutrition.
When her husband left, Aiesha became the head of her household and sole carer for five children. She struggled to grow enough food for everyone, and the family was hungry for three months of every year. Often the family only had one or two meals per day during this ‘hungry season’.
When Aiesha’s village chief told her about an opportunity to learn how to grow orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (OFSP), she was eager to try.
“I was already growing white-fleshed potato, so I was interested to work with the project,” she said.
Aiesha attended a series of training sessions that covered seed production, crop management, storage, and food preparation. She received 100 bundles of OFSP vines to kick-start her crop, as well as ongoing advice and support through field visits.
“The processing of sweet potato has been very useful to me,” she said. “I learned how to make mandazi (donuts) and chips. I liked this – I came home and made new things straight away for my kids.”
Aiesha now has more food for her children – they have three meals almost every day. She also earns extra income by selling 50 per cent of each crop at market.
“People like sweet potato more than the white ones,” said Aiesha. “It is more profitable. With the extra income, I buy fertiliser for my vegetable gardens, hire labour to help me in the fields, and also pay school fees for the children.”
OFSP is an important source of beta-carotene and Vitamin A, which is vital for improving children’s nutrition, boosting immunity, and maintaining healthy vision.
Since this project began in Chiradzulu, stunting among children under five has fallen by 22 per cent. There is also near-universal understanding among the community of the nutritional value of sweet potato.
“Many things have changed for me because of the project,” said Aiesha. “Before, I had many financial problems. It was hard to feed everyone. Now I have more food in the house. The hungry season is about a month or less, sometimes a few weeks only. I want to be food-secure all year round. I am nearly there and I am happy.”
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