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  • Kamla-Raj 2014 J Hum Ecol, 48(1): 97-101 (2014)

    Indigenous Knowledge-Systems and Food Security:Some Examples from Malawi

    Gregory Kamwendo and Juliet Kamwendo

    University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa

    KEYWORDS Food Preservation. Food Storage. Household. Hunger. Food Levels. Women

    ABSTRACT The paper explores the extent to which indigenous knowledge-systems can contribute to theachievement of food security. With examples drawn from Malawi, the paper illustrates the way in which indigenousknowledge-systems can assist in food preservation and food storage, leading to food security. The paper examinesthe way traditional ways of food preservation impact on food security and access at household level. In addition,we also highlight the role of women in food preservation and food storage using indigenous knowledge systems. Weargue that the abandonment of the indigenous knowledge-systems is one of the causes of food insecurity as wewitness it nowadays.


    The paper is framed within the context ofIndigenous Knowledge-Systems (IKS) and theirpossible contribution to food security throughindigenous food storage and food preservationtechniques. Drawing on personal experiencesfrom Malawi and examination of secondarysources the objective of this paper is to interro-gate indigenous post-harvest strategies usedby local communities in Malawi for food preser-vation and storage. This demonstrates that in-digenous knowledge systems are unique to spe-cific communities. These systems are valuablein addressing issues such as the environment,health, food security, and many more (see Smitand Masoga 2012). When food security issueswere first highlighted, the question was wheth-er a nation or region could command sufficientfood to meet the aggregate requirements of itspeople. Special attention was paid to fluctua-tions in aggregate food supply and food securi-ty interventions which would provide effectivebuffer mechanisms against such fluctuations. Itwas, however, realized that this gave a very lim-ited view of foodsecurity problem. A larger seg-ment of a population could be living in hunger,even though the country could have sufficientfood on aggregate. This, therefore, reflects thatadequacy of food at national level does not nec-essarily mean adequacy of food security athousehold or individual level (von Braun et al.1992). This paper, therefore, treats food securityas migrating from household to nation, not viceversa. We argue that indigenous food preser-vation and food storage ways play a critical rolein contributing to food security.

    While indigenous knowledge has been rec-ognized as one avenue through which food maybe preserved and/or stored, such knowledge istreated as inferior to modern food preservationand storage measures or technologies, or thedevelopment of chemicals. Malawi experiencessocial stigma associated with certain traditionalways of food storage and preservation. Somepeople regard traditional practices as primitive.This has led to the decline and/or abandonmentof the indigenous ways of food storage and pres-ervation, which used to help a great deal in sus-taining food security in most households. Newand modern storage facilities (such as refrigera-tors) have reduced the drive for using local/tra-ditional methods. However, questions that comeinto authors minds are: How many people ownfridges? How many homes have electricity forrunning fridges? Since the majority of these peo-ple cannot afford modern food preservation andfood storage facilities, large quantities of food-stuffs such as vegetables and cereals are wast-ed every year. This situation forces people sim-ply to sell their produce for fear of it being wast-ed, or rotting, or being attacked by pests. Weargue in this paper that these now-abandonedindigenous ways of preserving and storing foodensured that people had at least sufficient, if notsurplus until the next harvesting period.

    Conceptual Framework

    Since the late eighties, the focus on foodsecurity has shifted from national and global tohousehold and individual levels. Thus, this pa-per is conceptualized within Sens (1981) frame-


    work of sufficiency, access/entitlement and se-curity. Within this framework, Sen (1981) explainsfood security as sufficiency of food in terms ofnutrients and calories needed for an active andhealthy life. Beyond the core concept of foodsecurity is the concept of enough food which ispresented by some authors as minimal food con-sumption. Sen (1981) argues that food availabil-ity remains a key issue in food security. Thefood-security notion is identified as secure ac-cess to sufficient food. The idea of food storageand preservation translates into access, entitle-ment and security. By storing and preservingfood, households ensure that they secure foodwithout jeopardizing future food consumption.Although public policies may concentrate onpoverty and hunger alleviation, householdsmust take responsibility for ensuring that theyown food. The framework therefore provides asystematic approach to private ownership offood by households. Sen (1981) argues that ex-cess food resources may be converted into as-sets in terms of stored and preserved food.

    Malawi: A Brief Political andSocio-economic Background

    Malawi is a landlocked country located insouthern Africa. The country shares borderswith three countries, namely, Zambia, Tanzania,and Mozambique. Previously known as Nyasa-land during British colonial rule, the countrybecame independent as Malawi in 1964. Fromindependence to 1994, Malawi experienced a dic-tatorial one-party and one-president rule underDr Hastings Kamuzu Banda and his Malawi Con-gress Party. The 1990s witnessed a strong waveof democratization campaign which sweptacross Africa. These winds of democratic changedemolished one-party dictatorships; and Malawiwas not spared. It is in this context that a nation-al referendum was conducted in 1993, whichoverwhelmingly swung in favour of the adop-tion of a multi-party system of government. As aconsequence, Malawi held multi-party generalelections in 1994. Dr Banda and his Malawi Con-gress Party lost in the elections. On May 17 1994,Bakili Muluzi was elected president of this multi-party state. Within the parameters of the consti-tution of Malawi, Bakili ruled for two consecu-tive presidential terms and the late Bingu waMutharika took over in 2004 (see Kaspin 1995,Posner 1995). Mutharika died before the end of

    his term of office, thus allowing the incumbentvice president, Mrs Joyce Banda, to take over. Itwas during Bingu wa Mutharikas term thatMalawi faced a confrontation with the donor com-munity; the president having been accused ofbeing undemocratic. Malawi experienced an ex-tensive donor freeze because of poor governance.

    Food Situation in Malawi

    Access to adequate food is a basic humanright. It is catalytic to the realization of all otherrights, such as the right to education and goodhealth, to mention only two. Therefore, attain-ing national and household food security is offundamental importance. However, achievingfood security and making it sustainable, remainsa global challenge. Most countries in the sub-Saharan region are grappling with this problem.Although Malawi is well known as an agricul-tural-based economy, sustaining food securityhas become challenging, owing to the poor eco-nomic status of the country. The current situa-tion is that of low productivity, persistent hun-ger and malnutrition. This leads to much humansuffering and substantial low productivity(Binauli 2010; Mussa and Pauw 2011).

    Although Malawi faces challenges of pov-erty and dry spells which affect crop produc-tion, the report from a food-security outlookgives one cause to believe that the situation isnot hopeless. The Ministry of Agriculture andFood Security (MoAFS 2013)report projects anincrease and surplus in crop productionof above740,000 metric tonnes in maize, rice, millet, sor-ghum, potatoes, and cassava. Although this isfood security at a national level, it is throughlocal farmers that this outlook is derived. Thepaper attempts to discuss these traditional prac-tices, examining the way in which they have im-pacted greatly on household food security, en-titlement, and access. The indigenous practicesto be discussed are Msanja, Nkhuti, and Mfut-so.


    Msanja as a Storage Place

    Malawi, like other countries in Africa, has itsown indigenous ways and practices of storingfood for future use. These were traditional mea-


    sures of ensuring that the household did notsuffer from food shortage during any part of theyear. From the authors own lived experiences,the idea of msanja was very common in mostLomwe households. This was a raised, table-like structure, locally constructed of poles andsorghum stocks. The structure is fixed at thecentre of the kitchen, right above the kitchensfire place. However, the use of this technologyis no longer common. This was where millet,sorghum, unshelled nuts, and all varieties of peaswere kept. Some even used the msanja to storemaize cobs which were earmarked for seed forthe next growing season. This reveals that peo-ple of Malawi, more specifically the Lomwe, hada considerable list of indigenous grain/legumescrops on which they depend for their staple food.The reason for storing harvested crops in thisstructure was to protect them from weevils andother pests. Because fire and smoke were a per-manent feature in the kitchen, pests and rodentswere kept away from the harvested food. Thesoot coating made grains bitter and not edibleby both pests and rodents. This was not onlypriceless, cost-free technology but an effectiveway of ensuring food security. As time went by,the grains and unshelled legumes were all coat-ed with soot. Sma