Q&A with Lizzie Shumba, Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC): Agroecology and the future of food

Ahead of the Global Alliance’s Transformative Research and Action for Food Systems Convening this September, Deputy Director Lauren Baker spoke to contributors to the Politics of Knowledge compendium to understand how they are taking action to advance agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways where they live or work. In this interview, which coincides with the publication of The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) 2022, Lauren speaks to  Lizzie Shumba, Agriculture and Nutrition Manager from Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC), who is based in Malawi.  

Lauren Baker: Lizzie, we’re very excited to talk to you and find out more about your work in agroecology. Before we start, can you tell us a little bit about what you do and who you work with? 

Lizzie Shumba: SFHC is a farmer participatory-led organization that works with food insecure farmers on different agroecology practices in Malawi. SFHC began in 2000 in Ekwendeni in the Northern Region of Malawi, with just thirty farmers. Now, we work with over 6,000 farmers in more than 200 villages in Northern and Central Malawi. It is a participatory project, in which farmers work together and exchange knowledge to improve soil fertility, food security and nutrition. 

We do a range of activities, such as: training farmers on different agroecology practices and gender transformative; conducting research on agroecology experiments; farmer-to-farmer exchanges; research on interconnected issues such as climate change, forestry, and botanical pesticides. SFHC has also incorporated the principles of agroecology in its research and training. We are dedicated to ensuring equitable participation and distribution of resources, facilitating farmer leadership, and working to support sustainable, healthy, and resilient communities.

LB: The findings of the latest The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 report are an urgent call to action that we must transform food systems. In your opinion, how can agroecology, regenerative approaches, and Indigenous foodways address the structural inequalities driving the global hunger and nutrition crises? Can these approaches actually produce enough food to feed the world considering all the current challenges?

LS:  There’s little doubt in my mind that agroecology can produce enough food to feed the world. We can see from our work that by combining traditional agricultural knowledge and modern ecology and agronomic sciences, agroecology provides the principles and practices needed to restore the productivity of small farms by enhancing plant health and soil quality. 

In terms of addressing structural inequalities, we believe that farmer-to-farmer training is key: farmers must be enabled to apply some of the key principles of agroecology – such as crop diversity, livestock systems, and improving soil health with additions of compost manure – alongside the social aspects, and these are best conveyed person-to-person; peer-to-peer. Again, we know from our work that this leads to increasing local market opportunities and addressing gender inequities within households. 

LB: What do you think is the main barrier/opportunity to the mainstreaming of agroecology, regenerative and Indigenous foodways? 

LS: One of the barriers I see in mainstream discourse is that agricultural and seed-system policies do not focus on building a progressive, knowledge-based agricultural sector, which fosters the participation of all stakeholders to deliver strong support, extension, and education services for agroecological technologies. Another barrier is that poor market conditions are not favourable for rural and urban agroecological production. Policymakers, funders and researchers should engage with the agroecological farmers and local organizations already working and building success stories within communities across the globe.

LB: How is SFHC challenging gender norms as a way to address food security at SHFC?

LS: For many years now, SFHC has been conducting training on gender equality and equity for the farmers, addressing issues such as division of labour, decision making, access to and control of household resources and finances. 

For example, in September last year, we launched the SAGE project: Scaling out Agroecological Pest Management & Gender Equity. The project addresses the intersections between insect pest management, land degradation and gender inequality in Malawi, a state that has largely pursued input-intensive agriculture. We introduced an intensive, 9-month gender-transformative curriculum that sees farmers and SFHC staff take part in facilitated dialogue and community theatre scenarios on gender issues, such as the division of labour to gender-based violence.

Similarly, we’re facilitating single-sex discussions aimed to foster peer solidarity and honest reflection, while mixed-group and couples sessions encouraged men and women to hear other perspectives and identify entry points for social change. At the end of the training, community members will develop gender action plans, outlining local objectives and action steps for women’s empowerment and gender equity. We will be documenting our results, which we hope to publish in future papers. Stay tuned! 

LB: If you could describe or sum up agroecology in one sentence, what would you say? 

LS: Agroecology is a holistic method that uses ecological principles to produce food, such as improving soil health, increasing biodiversity and building synergies between different parts of the food system.

— Ends