As recipes go, the ideas sound tempting if not particularly groundbreaking: one is for dal, another for meatballs, and a third for “six food-group porridge” (with an optional egg).
The suggestions in a new Malawian cookery book are also, in their own way, quietly revolutionary, as they are all made with an ingredient that the country produces in abundance but has often been overlooked: the pigeon pea.
A drought-resistant legume that thrives in the dry fields of southern Malawi, the pigeon pea is an essential part of the diet of millions of people around the world, particularly in India where it is eaten as a staple alongside rice and roti.
In Malawi, Africa’s leading producer, the pulse has generally been regarded as “desperation food” eaten when there is no alternative. Just 10% of the 400,000 tonnes the country produces each year is consumed domestically.
Now, like so much of Africa, Malawians are suffering a multi-layered crisis due to the climate emergency, the Covid pandemic and soaring costs of agricultural essentials, such as fertiliser and wheat.
Susan Chimbayo, the chair of the Nandolo Farmers’ Association (NFA), wants the Pigeon Peas recipe book, published last month, to remind people that they may have a locally grown, drought-hardy and nutritious alternative right under their noses.
“People [in Malawi] don’t really know what can be done with the pigeon pea. We are just growing it for export. But it can be consumed locally and the market will be ready. Pigeon peas can do wonders,” she says. The dal featured in the cookery book, she adds, is “so delicious, you won’t stop eating it”.
In theory, pigeon peas have several advantages. They are easy to cultivate, requiring minimal input in terms of fertiliser, pesticides and irrigation, and are cheap when grown from recycled seed. They can easily be grown alongside other crops, such as maize, sorghum and peanuts.
In practice, though, Malawi’s pigeon pea farmers have come up against a host of challenges, from floods and cyclones to exploitative middlemen who target isolated farmers and promise them a sale at very low prices. On top of that, says Chimbayo, the average farmer does not have the space to store the crop properly, with the result that the quality suffers.
In recent years, she says, several warehouses have been built, as part of a wider partnership with the charity Christian Aid and AquAid, a watercooler supplier, that aims to boost the pigeon pea sector and tackle poverty. The warehouses, she adds, not only provide storage but also increase the negotiating power of the farmers, who can collectively market their produce instead of haggling on an individual basis.
“They get together and have a powerful voice to say: ‘No, you buy the pigeon peas at such and such a price,’” says Chimbayo. The NFA, which was formed in 2015 and has about 11,000 paying members, says it plays a central role in helping its farmers get a better price with buyers.
Although only 200 copies of the cookery book have been published, Chimbayo says she has been fending off demands for republication by the Ministry of Agriculture’s field extension workers, who work with communities on farming practices.
Patrick Watt, the CEO of Christian Aid, says indigenous African crops have a major role to play in helping low-income countries become more resilient.
“We keep going round in circles on this. Each of these crises gets more severe. We have to be asking ourselves: ‘What is it that breaks the cycle?’ Obviously, it’s not one thing, but part of the solution has got to be that African countries invest more seriously in agriculture and in reducing their exposure to volatility in food, energy and fertiliser markets, and are doing that in an environmentally sustainable way and a way that supports nutrition. And traditional African crops have a really important role to play in that.”
Some suggest such crops have been stigmatised and are regarded as inferior because of a lingering colonial mentality. “There is a need [for a] decolonisation of African agriculture,” says Watt.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushes up the prices of staple foods, Malawi’s smallholder farmers are struggling to keep their heads above water, Chimbayo says. “It’s only by the grace of God that we’re still managing to survive. At the end of the day the prices that we get [for our produce are] not really exciting, but we are the same ones who buy the same expensive fertiliser.”
The situation in rural villages was “really worrisome”, she adds. “But we keep telling [rural farmers] that the pigeon pea that they’ve grown, they can still use it and eat it – they shouldn’t sell all of it, because they will need it at one time or the other.”
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July 19, 2022 at 11:39AM Lizzy Davies