Fighting intergenerational malnutrition is possible: Lessons from adolescent girls in Malawi

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Young people manually shelling the highly nutritious orange maize Young people manually shelling the highly nutritious orange maize

In Malawi, where stunting is as high as 37%, and 10% of the gross domestic product is lost annually due to malnutrition, girls are becoming part of the solution.

Malawians between the ages of 10 and 35 years constitute approximately half of the population, most of them girls. But despite bad nutrition indicators, adolescent girls are routinely missing from malnutrition interventions.

Only 36% of girls successfully complete primary school and 30% become mothers, posing a significant risk to the nutrition status of the child. The likelihood of infants born to teenage girls being stunted is 6.3% higher than infants born to adult mothers. Worse still, 35% of adolescent girls are anemic and 12.9% underweight, further fueling low birth weight among their children, leading to intergenerational malnutrition. On average, an adolescent girl bears one child by the time she finishes her adolescence. This vicious circle has been going on like this, as most nutrition interventions target under-five children, pregnant and lactating mothers.

The three-year Adolescent Nutrition Sensitive Agriculture (ANSA) Pilot Project has demonstrated how young people are part of the solution to the challenge of malnutrition in Malawi. The project promotes the production, consumption of nutritious foods and improved livelihoods of girls.

Launched in 2018, implemented by Farmers Union of Malawi (FUM), funded by the Government of Japan through Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF), and administered by the World Bank, the project targets adolescents ages 10-19 , mobilized in groups in Mwanza and Ntchisi districts. Lessons learned so far include the following:

1. Girls are quick adopters and catalysts for change

The project mobilizes girls and supports them with trainings, leadership and start-up inputs for nutritious crops and small-scale livestock. Central to the project delivery approach is peer to peer learning and community-based approach. As a result, consumption of nutritious foods has increased from 24% to 90%. Additionally, 53% girls are now involved in the year-round production of nutritious foods through integrated homestead farming. Any surplus production is sold, and the money invested in Village Savings and Loans (VSL), thereby boosting their livelihoods even further.  

Girls such as Mary Kambalikena have testified that the project has increased her knowledge and enhanced adoption of healthy diets, as well as leading to economic empowerment.

Now she knows the six food groups, the value of a balanced diet, and the importance of sourcing protein from mice and grasshoppers, which can be found in abundance in the Mwanza district where she lives. She is no longer relying on maize as the only food required for survival, and she is sharing her knowledge with her family. She further indicated that due to economic empowerment of girls,  incidences of sexual exploitation, early marriages, and gender-based violence have drastically been reduced.

Coupled with nutrition education, the demand for nutritious crops and small-scale livestock have greatly increased. Private seed companies also have an opportunity to sell the certified seeds of nutritious crops through their agro-dealer outlets. 

2. Multi-sectorism and partnerships

Harvest Plus, a member of Consortium Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) was leading the campaign to promote bio-fortified/nutritious foods. It delivered its agenda through demonstration field plots, trainings, and nutritious processing. With strong anchorage from the Ministry of Agriculture, Department of Nutrition, HIV and AIDS (DNHA) and District Councils, the project has been mainstreamed within the government structures. Adolescent nutrition strategies are now integrated within the district implementation plans, providing hope for entrenched sustainability. For instance, the project interventions on sexual reproductive health, livelihoods, literacy skills, recreation have all been blended to respond to the needs of girls in both districts.

3. Strong champions and innovative data transmission

While mainstreaming the project within government is key to success, the strong coordination role played by FUM has been solid. District Councils are now empowered to manage and own the project, while putting a functional real time monitoring and evaluation system using smartphones, to ensure timely data collection, transmission, and transparent reporting.

Moving forward, it is important to consider blending the project with other multisectoral needs that girls face while strengthening collaborative partnerships. Apart from addressing nutrition needs from the diversified consumption options, creating demand and links to markets is key for the adolescent farmers to sell the surplus and ensure sustained financial resource base. The peer-to-peer learning provides confidence for increased adoption of nutritious foods and improved livelihoods for girls and their families.


Blessings Botha

Senior Agriculture Economist

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