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April 01, 2013

Malawi Crops and Children Reap Benefits of Legume Mixture

by Kim Lewis

Scientists from Michigian State University (MSU), University of Malawi, as well as healthcare workers, and Malawi farmers have all teamed together to find a way of dramatically increasing crop yields in Malawi.

MSU said the research involved crop model simulations, long-term field trials and on-farm experimentation using combinations of legumes, cereals and corn. The scientists said the experiment was a huge success, as crop yields increased with added nutrition, resulting in weight and height gains in children.

Sieglinde Snapp is a cropping systems ecologist at MSU, and one of the researchers on the project. She explained that the nutrient nitrogen is needed to improve the soil and one of the only ways to make nitrogen available is to grow legumes.

"It’s a type of crop that actually improves the soil while also improving the protein levels of the crop so that it also has human nutrition value as well as crop nutrition value.  We introduced some legumes that provide both soil fertility benefits and human nutrition benefits," explained Snapp.

The MSU researcher said collaboration efforts have been going on since 1995 which included over 100 villages in Ekwendi, northern Malawi. The experiment used pigeon pea mixtures with rotating corn, which makes for a very nutrient rich and soil rich crop.

"In the villages where we worked the longest, the under-five’s, the children are growing a bit better, close to international norms and are not as stunted now," she said. "That is a real achievement that we know is due to the collaboration of nurses, working with soil scientists, and farmers all working together to make sure the kids get a healthier diet."

Snapp noted that the project was something the whole family participated in, and that mothers as well as fathers were delighted in the weight gain among their children.

One of the most exciting aspects of the project is that the nutrient rich legumes have seeds that farmers can save and use again, only buying new ones just every couple of years.

"It is a very sustainable approach. It augments any fertilizer subsidies that they get. So if they get a voucher from the government for fertilizers, this legume they have grown themselves can make much better use of whatever other inputs that they can put together," explained Snapp. 

The MSU ecologist said the pigeon pea is a tropical legume and does survive dry spells and changing climates. She said other parts of Africa, such as Tanzania and Mali, are also interested in using legumes to improve soil fertility.