The burgeoning Slow Food gardens in Malawi symbolise more than just the promise of a nutritious meal. In a land marred by drought and flood, disease and unlawful land grabbing that left 92% of its rural population to struggle with food insecurity, these gardens hold out hopes of restitution.
First launched in 2010 as ‘A Thousand Gardens in Africa’, the project aimed to build sustainable gardening units in schools, villages and the outskirts of cities in 26 African countries to ensure a consistent supply of fresh and healthy produce and fortify local economies. “These gardens have proved to be more economical and sustainable than commercial farming which was practiced earlier. Since the majority chose to cultivate high-yielding crops, local varieties were not only ignored but also shunned. Now, we’ve been able to resuscitate the entire process by giving local crops preference. This also makes the involved communities less dependent on the market,” attests Manvester Ackson, Slow Food Coordinator Malawi.
An essential precondition to starting a garden is the involvement of the local community, as the organisation and development of the garden is greatly dependent upon the skill-set of the community. Though Slow Food provides startup kits and tools for gardening as well as access to experts, drawing on the diverse knowledge base of the community is key to the success of a garden. “While the young are the ones that can take this change forward, we have to rely on the traditional knowledge of the elders because not everyone knows how to prepare local dishes. Fortunately, they readily chip in to teach these young learners about indigenous crops and ways of using them,” says Ackson.
Once the team is put together, “we identify a piece of land for the gardens and try to choose a place that is not far away from water supply so that we don’t have to travel long distances in search of water. We then construct beds, which are usually 90cm apart to leave space for irrigation”, says Moses Chigona, who is part of a 15-member team in the village, Katambo.
At the outset, the creation of a thousand good, clean and fair gardens also entailed raising awareness among the youth to uphold the principles of biodiversity and food sovereignty, to enable them to pioneer change for themselves and their communities. To this end, schools were galvanised into action. Today, nearly a third of the gardens exist in educational institutions and serve as open-air classrooms. “Along with educating the younger generation about indigenous crops and preserving traditional techniques of preparation, an unexpected outcome of the garden projects in schools has been the increase in enrolments. With the gardens, many kids who had dropped out of school have begun to attend classes again,” says Ackson, who has helmed the project in Malawi’s schools since its inception.
It’s vast reach and favourable outcome led to the re-launch of the project in 2014 with a bolder ambition. This time, the target was 10,000 gardens to comply with the framework of the 2014 International Year of Family Farming (as designated by FAO). Focused on building indigenous leadership in Africa, this strong network of people, driven by a deep sense of community and committed to food sovereignty along with safeguarding and promoting traditional crops and practices, provides a strong foundation for a sustainable food system that guarantees food on every plate.
For Chigona, this is the most salient feature of Slow Food gardens. “I’ve been involved with the project for 7 months now and we have not bought vegetables from outside in that time. We are able to feed ourselves, and our families, with the food we grow. In fact, we often sell surplus produce to get supplementary income to buy other essentials.”
As the project expanded in scale, it also broadened its scope to involve victims of prejudice. In collaboration with The Community of Saint Egidio (Dream), the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity implemented the GRASS project to empower people affected with HIV to be food sovereign with the eventual aim of improving their health so that they can avail of therapies that often fail in the face of malnutrition.
Through the project, 30 sustainable community gardens producing diverse indigenous crops have been established, involving 10,600 people. The communities have also hosted local Terra Madre Days with participation exceeding 300 members, with 75% of beneficiaries replicating the garden model. “We are using our garden as a demonstration garden so that the community can grow and others can learn how to build them. It would also be great to see members build good, clean and fair home gardens,” says Chigona.
by Damini Ralleigh, November 13th 2019
This year we are celebrating 30 years since the signing of the Slow Food Manifesto, a moment that marked a turning point in the organization’s history. To mark the occasion, we have launched the international campaign 30 Years of the Slow Food Manifesto – Our Food, Our Planet, Our Future, which looks back at the successes and forward to the future challenges that await us.
This is why we are sharing a selection of initiatives from our network around the world that are promoting good, clean and fair food for everyone. Contributing to Slow Food’s projects means helping to implement activities that support local communities, protect biodiversity and seek to make access to food a right guaranteed to all.