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Jonny Jacobs: To Improve Livelihoods, Don’t Go it Alone

In this guest post, Jonny Jacobs, Managing Director of Malawi Mangoes gives recommendations on how to make interventions to improve rural livelihoods gain traction in communities. For more on the Malawi Mangoes business model, watch the Farming First TV interview embedded in the post.

Poverty has continued to linger on the African continent with much of the economic hardship falling on farmers. At Malawi Mangoes we believe we can play a key role in addressing the social, environmental and economic challenges encountered by rural communities by involving them in inclusive and empowering business enterprise.

So what is it that keeps poor people poor? The usual suspects are: no stable income, poor health, lack of education and limited opportunity to change ones circumstances. In recent decades, solutions to this problem have been virtually the sole purview of NGOs and governments, However, after years of experience and vast quantities of funding (official development assistance reached $134.8 billion for 2013) the awkward but undeniable reality is that we are not making fast enough progress. One institution carrying the weight of the world like Atlas, need not be the vision for the future.

Since inception in 2011, Malawi Mangoes has modelled itself on a far-reaching but straightforward proposition: if one is looking for a programme or method which will act as a ‘silver bullet’ when it comes to poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa, (and in particular, in Malawi) then you are going to be badly disappointed. Everyone is starting to realise that the key to making a difference is the openness with which we approach this question, and the extent to which we’re prepared to collaborate across sectors and disciplines to answer it.

We all have something to offer and, yes, everyone can win. Nowhere is that more true and more painfully obvious than when we look at the need for the ‘progressive’ public sector and ‘responsible’ private sector to work together in agriculture, especially in the developing world. Through such an inclusive partnership you are far better equipped to tackle the big issues with each party bringing a set of unique skills to the table.

Linking interventions to income generation for rural populations

Take for instance the handicap of malnutrition. In the sub-Saharan African region one in four people are undernourished and in Malawi the number of children under the age of five whose growth has been permanently stunted is 42%. People often think ‘surely this only affects people in the village!’ Well that’s true. But at Malawi Mangoes, and we would argue most companies engaged in rural agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, a majority of our employees either came directly from the village or have many family members and friends who still live there.

At the same time, previous nutrition initiatives have often fallen short because they fail to take into account the necessity to link such rural initiatives directly to income-generation. Put another way, it is our belief that in an environment where people face a daily battle for existence based on their perception of a lack of economic choices, any initiative (whether it be health, education or otherwise) will require an economic component if you really want to gain traction.

Lemongrass harvest. This grass is boiled to make nutritious tea. When planted it also acts as a natural barrier and pest repellent.

Bringing in the right expertise

As a for-profit company we clearly understand the importance of economics but a number of limitations appeared concerning how to practically translate this into a functioning initiative. So we hailed in a specialist. The Kusamala Institute for Agriculture & Ecology is an NGO whose vision is to instil in Malawians the knowledge and skills to achieve food security through a low-input agro ecology system. Their widespread experience in community engagement and comprehensive, near encyclopedic, knowledge of local flora, elevated our project far beyond what we would have been able to achieve on our own.

In alliance we designed a nutrition initiative known as ‘Garden To Mouth’. Our one hectare pilot plot is currently housed on our first ‘anchor’ farm, and on it we grow over 15 different varieties of vegetables, fruits and legumes. Through carefully selected crop combinations we aim to provide every employee with his or her recommended daily intake of micronutrients. Critically, a certain percentage of the field is always set aside for cash crops be sold in the local market. In this way, those that use the scheme as we roll it out into village heartlands will be able to eat better and make money at the same time.

Cultural nuances, especially ones as ingrained as eating habits, are slow and difficult to change. However, through daily exposure to nutritious food, involvement in both the education component and economic opportunity presented by the initiative, we hope to influence the way people think about and consume food.

To remain disparate solo acts limits our strength and potential. Many hands do in fact make light work, especially when those hands bring something that the other could not. Issues of poverty, education and, in this instance nutrition, are daunting but not insurmountable. However, the knowledge necessary to successfully tackle such obstacles lies across all the disciplines and requires collaboration, not competition, between the sectors. We have all the players we need, we just need to start playing together.


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