Case Studies, Systems Thinking

An agroecology approach structured around social and gender equity

There’s no shortage of topics to chat about when Anita Chitaya visits her neighbours. Chitaya is a long-time Community Promoter with Soils, Food and Healthy Communities (SFHC), a farmer-led nonprofit based in northern and central Malawi.

On this particular day, Chitaya is meeting with Jennifer and Winston, a couple in her village. The conversation starts with farming—subsistence agriculture is the primary way of life for rural communities across Malawi.

Anita presents the couple with a hybrid variety of soybeans, and suggests they’re planted as a means to restore soil fertility. Winston notes they are far behind when compared to friends in other villages.

“Yes, we are behind because you men in this village do not really understand gender equality— especially you!” Anita accuses.

Winston doesn’t deny his unwillingness to complete what he considers “women’s work”—everything from caring for the children to tending the fields. “If I cook and draw water, why did I marry her?” he demands. “What if my buddies came to visit and they found me cooking? Won’t they think that I’m under her ‘petticoat government?’”

These uncomfortable but important conversations are the foundation of SFHC’s work. In weaving farmer participation and gender equity with goals of food security, child nutrition, and soil fertility, SFHC has been building more equal and resilient Malawian communities since 2000.

The benefits of agroecology are widely researched and documented. While the movement is promoted as a way to secure food sovereignty and overcome a suite of other challenges, the SFHC team believes it can overlook key social and cultural dynamics.

That includes questions of power, gender norms, and the uneven distribution of labour in homes such as Jennifer and Winston’s. Agroecology methods require a different kind of labour and knowledge than conventional agriculture. SFHC’s efforts ensure it’s not only women who are bearing the burden of that transition.

Complex environment, complex solution

Soils, Food and Healthy Communities started when Rachel Bezner Kerr visited Malawi as part of her master’s research at a Canadian university. One of her meetings was with Esther Lupafya, now the Director of SFHC.

At the time, Lupafya was the maternal child health coordinator in the nearby Ekwendeni Hospital. She had witnessed an alarming rise in child malnutrition rates, especially since 1994. The impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis on women’s social and realities had also contributed to this. That year’s general election brought the ousting of Hastings Banda, Malawi’s President for nearly 30 years. “Monocropping and fertilizer were encouraged by [Banda],” Lupafya explains. “He subsidized the price so even a very poor person could afford it.”

With external chemical inputs now unattainable, Malawi faced a food deficit for the first time in decades. Lupafya and her hospital colleagues could do little more than enroll a child in their intensive refeeding program and know that the food handouts from international agencies would not sustain an entire family.

Mindful of these complex dimensions, Lupafya and Bezner Kerr started to work together on a new approach to community development. Combining Lupafya’s experience and local connections and Bezner Kerr’s research background, the two women launched a pilot program working with 30 people in seven villages.

Alongside voluntary farmer researchers, they studied the types of indigenous legumes that could be appropriately intercropped in the region. Training farmers how to plant those crops, the team also started recipe demonstrations so people could utilize what they were growing.

All the while, research was also happening in the home. Interviews with families revealed issues of domestic violence and major rifts in labour distribution along gender lines. The need for women’s empowerment was clear.

Just as it can take years to revitalize nutrient-deprived soils, gender norms don’t change overnight. But years after the initial pilot program, research published in peer-reviewed journals demonstrates the effectiveness of SFHC’s participatory nutrition, soil, and gender equity approach. Families are food secure and the local refeeding centre has closed due to lack of demand.

Now a professor at Cornell University, Dr. Bezner Kerr has stepped back to serve in an advisory and research role. Today, SFHC is run by a group of eight trustees, all farmers from Ekwendeni villages. Local farmers are staff, hold leadership positions, run workshops, conduct experiments, and influence the organization’s projects and direction.

SFHC’s farmer and community engagement

Farmer-led research and community outreach have always been two key means of mobilization for SFHC. The organization has more than 400 voluntary Farmer Research Team (FRT) members in 209 villages. Each village elects its FRT representatives—one male, one female. These individuals are responsible for sharing knowledge on behalf of and with the community.

Complementing the FRT is the involvement of community promoters. These 13 individuals coordinate activities and serve as the main liaison point between SFHC and farmers. Gender sensitization and agroecology outreach continue, and community promoters use dancing, singing, and skits to get their messages across in entertaining ways.

“This [FRT and Community Promoter] work is vital in order for us to represent the best interests of the farmers we work with, and also helps us coordinate high quality quantitative and qualitative data collection,” says the SFHC website. Sustaining and improving farmer-to-farmer networks also taps into the rich social capital of countries like Malawi.

All the same, the next challenge for SFHC and Malawian farmers has reared its head: climate change. Droughts have become more frequent, jeopardizing food security and SFHC’s progress. For farmers and the organization, the work around this complex issue is just beginning.