Promoting diversity on the farm – and the plate

As a recent meeting in Lusaka showed, Food Change Labs offer an innovative path towards greater diversity on the farm and on the plate in Zambia.

Seth Cook's pictureFelia Boerwinkel's picture
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5 June 2017

Seth Cook is a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group; Felia Boerwinkel is food and energy change lab coordinator for Hivos

A Zambian farmer in his maize field. The overdependence on maize is having a negative impact on diets in Zambia (Photo: Wesley Wakunuma)

A Zambian farmer in his maize field. The overdependence on maize is having a negative impact on diets in Zambia (Photo: Wesley Wakunuma)

Zambia is set to harvest a bumper maize crop this year. That's good news, right? 

In fact, although maize is by far the country's most important crop and the primary source of calories for rural and urban dwellers alike, a bumper harvest will do little to alleviate the under-nourishment that affects 48 per cent of people in Zambia.

Some 40 per cent of Zambian children under the age of five are stunted (too short for their age and often with reduced cognitive capacities), while 23 per cent of Zambian women are overweight or obese. All these issues are a result of poor diets, high in starch and calories but low in nutrient-rich fruit and vegetables.

Levels of chronic disease such as diabetes and hypertension are high. And it is precisely the predominance of maize in the Zambian diet and agriculture which is at the heart of the problem.  

The eclipse of local crops

Although native to Mesoamerica, maize was introduced to Zambia and other African countries during the colonial era, and its promotion by the British colonial administration gradually led it to eclipse local staple crops such as millet, sorghum and cassava that are far better suited to the ecological conditions of the country. 

This has had a negative impact on diets – as millet in particular is far more nutritious than maize. The overdependence on this monoculture has also led to a loss of resilience on Zambian farms. This was tragically demonstrated by a devastating outbreak of army worm at the end of 2016, which ravaged the maize crop yet left traditional staple crops largely intact.

The limited diversity on Zambian farms and in local diets is the dilemma that our Zambia Food Change Lab seeks to address. This lab, convened by Hivos and IIED, is a multi-stakeholder innovation process that aims to better understand specific issues in the Zambian food system, build coalitions of stakeholders, generate ideas for change, and test these innovations on the ground. 

Change labs are ideally suited to addressing complex issues that encompass a myriad of actors and policies. Together with local partners, we started the Food Change Lab in Chongwe district in 2015, then later shifted focus to the national food system in 2016.

The Food Change Lab meeting held in Lusaka on 22-23 May brought together 64 stakeholders from diverse backgrounds: farmers, youth, entrepreneurs, local and national government officials such as MPs, and representatives from international institutions such as Bioversity International, FAO, UNEP and WFP. 

This effort is part of the Sustainable Diets for All programme, which builds capacity among local civil society organisations in Uganda, Indonesia, Bolivia and Zambia to advocate for sustainable, diverse and healthy diets. A Food Change Lab process has also been spearheaded in Uganda, where a People's Food Summit in April 2016 drew more than 100 participants and resulted in commitments from elected national and local leaders, local authorities, street vendors, religious leaders, farmers and civil society. Those groups have self-organised into a local food council, monitoring and implementing the commitments made at the summit.

Participants began their two-day journey by revisiting a map of the Zambian food system (PDF) that was developed during an earlier lab event in November 2016, when we explored issues and solutions in the areas of production, consumption, processing and access to food. The map is a great tool for highlighting underlying themes and identifying potential points of leverage for change. 

Mwandwe Chileshe of CSO-SUN Alliance discusses the food system map with meeting participants (Photo: Salimu Dawood)

During the lab, we launched 'Agriculture, food systems, diets and nutrition in Zambia', which provides up-to-date information and analysis on the Zambian food system. The paper makes a number of recommendations, including:

  • Leveraging the e-voucher system as a means of diversifying production 
  • Making extension services more responsive to improved diets and production
  • Creating value chains that effectively process, store, market and sell legumes, vegetables and fruit, alongside maize, and
  • Stimulating demand for legumes, fruits and vegetables amongst consumers

At the end of the meeting, 10 spontaneous groups emerged, putting forward small-scale innovations ('prototypes') that can help shift the food system in more sustainable directions.

These will be put into motion in the coming months, and include, for example, a national symposium to raise awareness on the need for agricultural diversification, encouraging young people to take an interest in the food system, and persuading consumers to demand healthy foods.

Other initiatives include establishing a radio station targeted at farmers and an assessment of current levels of agrobiodiversity in one locality.

Coalitions for change

Clearly, the process of diversifying diets and alleviating malnutrition in Zambia is a complicated and lengthy process. Still, gatherings such as this one can provide a strong impetus and inspiration and initiate new, durable coalitions for change.

One of the most powerful aspects of our change lab process is that it works on multiple levels. While it is underpinned by the latest information and analysis on the Zambian food system, participants are also asked to listen and respond not just with their heads, but also emotionally and intuitively.

After all, fomenting change cannot be done with data alone. As facilitator Martin Kalunga Banda, of the Presencing Institute, pointed out: "It is not enough to reach people's heads, you also have to touch their hearts. We have to reach a point where we cannot not do."

Seth Cook ( is a senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research groupFelia Boerwinkel is food and energy change lab coordinator for Hivos

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Sophie HearnDecember 2017

Glad to hear that the local community is being engaged in this issue. This serves as a good reminder that it’s not just calories that we are counting when considering nutrition and diet in a population. I’m curious about the policy implications — how much support is the Zambian government giving to this issue? And who are the local players who are challenging a more diverse food system? Is it primarily a matter of educating and getting on board the locals? Interesting dilemma, but it seems like there are lots of options and hope!