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improving food security in Malawi
One of the key underpinnings of public health is food security — especially in a nation with a fast-growing population, such as Malawi. Many organizations, including the nonprofit — Soil, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC) are working to empower communities through improving food security in Malawi. How do they aim to achieve this? By working with these communities in developing productive, sustainable agricultural practices.

The Current Situation

Malawi became independent from British rule in 1964 and has made steady progress in building a more resilient country since the nation’s first, multi-party, democratic elections in 1994. According to the World Bank — literacy rates in Malawi have improved but poverty rates remain high, with 51.5% of the population living in poverty as of 2016. Again, per the World Bank — poverty in Malawi is driven by factors including low-productivity farming and limited non-agricultural economic opportunities. Hunger is still a widespread problem, as 47% of children in Malawi are stunted according to USAID.

Smallholder farmers make up 80% of Malawi’s population — largely growing crops to feed themselves. Therefore, improving food security in Malawi must involve more efficient farming practices to promote food production and economic growth.

Initiatives of SFHC

SFHC is working to improve farming techniques, nutrition, soil/environmental health and food security in Malawi. The organization coordinates many projects to support farmers by doing research driven by their needs. SFHC initiatives include building more sustainable food systems and using agroecological farming methods for improving food security in Malawi. According to its website, SFHC assists more than 6,000 farmers in more than 200 villages in northern and central Malawi.

Joint Research in Improved Agricultural Methods

Olubunmi Osias, a Cornell University student, spoke with The Borgen Project about her experience working remotely for SFHC this summer as a Cornell CALS Public Health Fellow. Osias is a research assistant for Rachel Bezner Kerr, who holds a doctorate in Development Sociology from Cornell University and is an associate professor at the same university. Kerr works with SFHC on the effects of different agricultural methods on nutrition and food security. Kerr also uses an agroecological framework, which is the study of ecological systems as it relates to farming. Harnessing ecological analysis can help promote soil conservation, crop yield and pest management — offering a way to improve food security in Malawi. “Dr. Bezner Kerr is looking at a revival of agroecology, including intercropping, where you grow different crops together. It is better for the soil and productive yield. Other methods are being developed to manage pests,” said Osias.

Osias sees agroecological research as a way to alleviate some of the lasting deleterious effects of Britain’s colonial rule on Malawi. This includes but is not limited to their encouragement of planting corn and other cash crops as opposed to producing a variety of food crops for local consumption. Not only did British colonial forces kill peaceful protestors who advocated for change in the 1950s but they also undermined traditional farming practices, to the detriment of food security.

A Community-Based Approach

In order to make sure that SFHC research to improve food security in Malawi is driven by the needs of local communities, Kerr is using a community-based participatory research approach (CBPR). According to Osias, CBPR has many similarities to other forms of research. However, CBPR is unique in that it is a partnership between the researcher and the community — rather than a researcher studying people who have neither influence over the research-study design nor the goal.

Better Research Makes for Better Results

Research projects like the one that Osias assisted with can contribute to improvements in agricultural productivity. This can in turn improve health outcomes by providing communities with better food security and a more stable source of income. 

Tamara Kamis
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

research4life
Research, development and innovation are key factors in addressing socio-economic challenges. Investing in scientific research and institutions promotes economic growth, product development and global market integration. In fact, there is a strong positive relationship between scientific research and the standard of living. While high-income, developed countries continue to advance in this sector, low-income, developing countries lack the resources to reach this potential. In 2019, nations collectively invested $1.7 trillion into research and development. However, this spending was mostly concentrated in 10 of the world’s wealthiest countries. In economies where citizens struggle to meet basic needs, the government is left with few resources to invest in academia. Research4Life, a program that provides access to academic and peer-reviewed content for developing countries, is helping to solve this problem.

What is Research4Life?

Since it was founded in 2002, Research4Life has been committed to reducing the scientific research gap between high-income and low-income countries by providing access to scholarly journals and books in a variety of fields including health, agriculture, environment and law. So far, Research4Life has helped over 10,000 universities, libraries, research institutes, government offices and hospitals across 120 countries.

The organization is a collective of five programs that specialize in providing scholarly resources across a variety of disciplines:

  1. Hinari: The Hinari Research for Health program is a partnership between the World Health Organization, Yale University Library and several international publishers that provides access to biomedical and health-related literature. Hinari empowers workers and students to improve the world and public health conditions.
  2. AGORA: The Access to Global Online Research in Agriculture is run by the Food and Agriculture Organization in partnership with Cornell University and provides access to research in agriculture, fishing, nutrition, veterinary and biological sciences.
  3. OARE: The Online Access to Research in the Environment combines resources of the United Nations Environment Programme, Yale University and international publishers to provide access to peer-reviewed literature about environmental sustainability and climate studies.
  4. ARDI: Access to Research for Development and Innovation is an initiative of the World Intellectual Property Organization that provides low-income countries with research from the fields of science and technology that can help with developing solutions to technical problems.
  5. GOALI: The Global Online Access to Legal Information provides access to legal research with help from the International Labour Organization, Cornell Law School Library and the Law Library at Yale Law School.

A country or territory is eligible to register with Research4Life for free or at a low-cost based on five factors: Total Gross National Income, Gross National Income per capita, its ranking on the Human Development Index, Healthy life Expectancy figures, and whether it is considered a Least Developed Countries by the United Nations.

Today’s knowledge market is incredibly competitive. Access to science-based research and collaboration is a critical component in the development of new products and services that can help to improve living standards in developing countries. Applied research can help create solutions for eradicating poverty in its many forms, decreasing the spread of disease, ending famine and promoting environmental sustainability. Closing the research gap and expanding the reach of science-based knowledge is an important step towards achieving sustained global development and ensuring the inclusivity of developing countries.

– Sylvie Antal
Photo: Flickr