Improving child nutrition through cooking demonstrations and backyard gardens

Reducing stunting in Malawi

Lulutani Tembo
Sophilet and son outside their home
World Relief/2020/Joseph Gondwe
24 June 2020

Sophilet Mwale and her husband earn a living by farming the land around their modest house. They grow maize, groundnuts and tobacco. But when the harvest is insufficient the family can go without and often can’t make enough money to cover their basic needs.

“When we have a shortage of food my husband and I do piece work to try and make ends meet,” says Sophilet, a mother of three. “But it isn’t easy to find work and I sometimes worry about how I’m going to feed my family.”

Despite the challenges, Sophilet has been able to keep her infant son Joseph well nourished. At two and a half years old, he now weighs just over 12 kg. He is full of energy and healthy.

Part of the reason Joseph is doing so well is that Sophilet is a beneficiary of the Tadala care group in Kambulire village, Dowa District, where she’s been taught best practices with regard to proper nutrition.

“I was taught how to cook and prepare different foods at the care group cooking demonstrations,” says Sophilet, “I planted pumpkin, bean and amaranthus in my garden, which I add to Joseph’s porridge.”

Sophilet says she also planted an orange tree by her house and ensures her son receives meals containing the six food groups.

Sophilet in her backyard garden
World Relief/2020/Joseph Gondwe
Sophilet in her backyard garden

Care groups across Malawi are a critical part of the Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) programme, a global initiative being implemented in Malawi by the government with the support of UNICEF and the  German Development Bank KfW.

The groups are designed to help reduce stunting and promote nutrition among children under the age of five using a range of community-based activities including cooking demonstrations (also known as thanzi sessions), the promotion of backyard gardens, the distribution of livestock as a source of protein, and the use of micronutrient powders.

In Sophilet's case, SUN provided her family with a number of rabbits and she says the new backyard garden has gone a long way in helping keep the family healthy.

“Now we rely on our backyard garden and the rabbits to put food on the table even during the hard times. We no longer walk long distances in search of vegetables as we can easily access them at home.”

Health surveillance assistant Robert Ngala says the arrival of the SUN programme in the region has lifted the nutritional status of many local families.

“There has been a lot of positive progress in addressing malnutrition in this area,” says Ngala. “Oedema was common in the community before the programme was rolled out. We would see an average of six local children diagnosed every year. For the past year, no child has been diagnosed with the condition.”

He added the number of children being admitted in community-based management of acute malnutrition (CMAM) programmes at the local community health center had decreased significantly.

Joseph washing his hands by the handwashing facility at his family home
World Relief/2020/Joseph Gondwe
Joseph washing his hands by the handwashing facility at his family home

Under the SUN programme parents are also taught about good breastfeeding practices, sanitation and hygiene. The sanitation and hygiene practices, in particular, have been beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Care group cluster leader Teresa Malaki says beneficiaries had already learned to wash their hands frequently with soap and water, and now with coronavirus the care group has intensified the promotion of handwashing.

“We’re encouraging households to be responsible and to listen to the radio for information on coronavirus, as well as pay attention to posters that have been distributed,” Teresa says.

Lucky for Sophilet, she had put together a handwashing facility at her home after receiving guidance from the Care-group cluster leader even before coronavirus hit Malawi.

“We feel like we are safer than those that have not yet adapted to the handwashing interventions that we were taught. Washing hands with soap regularly is our daily routine with or without COVID-19,” she explains.

Sophilet is grateful for what she had learned through the SUN programme, which she says has had a positive impact on the community. “The programme means a lot to us. It has made me realise that some of the illnesses that we worry about are preventable. I know that with good nutrition my child even has higher chances of doing well in class and going far in life.”