Zambian meals revolve around maize. People regularly eat it two or three times a day, prepared and cooked in a variety of ways. The crop can be quickly boiled and folded into a tasty treat, turned into a porridge, fermented, or fried into something more substantial.
But maize’s centrality in the Zambian diet has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. A severe drought in 2018 caused maize production to fall by 34%, raising concerns about the crop’s susceptibility to droughts wrought by climate change. Since the agricultural sector employs 70% of the country’s labor force, droughts of this magnitude have repercussions throughout the economy.
More pressing, malnutrition is widespread in the country. More than 40% of children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, which can lead to stunting, and another 15% live with acute malnutrition, which can lead to wasting.
Maize can be a great source of nutrients, but only when a part of a diverse diet — and only if it’s not over-processed, which strips away nutritional value. An increasing proportion of maize products in the country are heavily processed and have diminished health benefits, according to the BBC.
Getting a balanced diet is not always easy in Zambia. An estimated 54% of the country lives in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 per day. As climate change disrupts the agricultural sector, incomes go down and food prices go up.
Maize isn’t a fixed certainty in Zambia’s future. The country's land is fertile and rife with potential. A growing movement of activists, farmers, government officials, and everyday people are questioning maize's primacy amid a larger cultural shift toward holistic well-being. They’re promoting diet diversity, encouraging farmers to plant new and old crops, and spurring local entrepreneurship.
Hivos, a Dutch development agency, recently arranged an exhibit in the capital Lusaka highlighting 10 Zambians working for greater food security and nutritional standards.
Here are their stories, courtesy of Hivos.
Mr. Goodfellow. M Chiboleka / Farmer / Chikwangala
“We eat nshima [maize porridge] because this is the food we grew up eating. What our parents fed us when we were young is what we have continued to eat,” said Mr. Goodfellow. M Chiboleka.
Not only does Mr. Chiboleka know exactly what he eats, he also understands the nutritional value. When asked how food in Zambia has changed over the years, he said that the old ways were better, as foods had more nutritional benefits and less artificial chemicals. He further advised people to refrain from eating certain foods such as broiler chickens (chicken bred and raised specifically for meat) because of the chemicals and feed that are used to boost their growth.
“Some food has brought us diseases," he said. "Especially if you look at the amount of cooking oil people use to prepare these foods. People are starting to have heart problems because of that.
“In my time, people would get to their 80s and still look 21," he added. "Nowadays, a 21-year-old is complaining about their legs, their back, and their heart or having high blood pressure, which was mainly found in old people back in the day."
Johannes Mativenga / Farmer / Chongwe
Johannes Mativenga is a 63-year-old farmer from Shishobeka village in Chongwe. He produces seasonal crops as well as irrigational crops such as maize, soybeans, cabbage, tomatoes, and cucumbers.
Mativenga acknowledges that farming comes with a great responsibility to the land. He plants various crops and switches them because he knows that some crops like beans enrich the soil. Adding chicken manure also helps protect the land.
“I wouldn’t want to change my diet, most of my family members don’t suffer from any serious noncommunicable diseases and I strongly feel it’s because of our diets,” he said. “Being a farmer is much better because we grow what we eat”. I have a variety of crops for the diet of my children to keep them healthy. This is why I enjoy agriculture because that is where I get most of my food, and what I feed my children and take my children to school."
Hon. Dora Siliya / Former Minister of Agriculture
“Maize is the number one crop in the country," said Hon. Dora Diliya. "This is not just a threat to food security, but also to nutrition, which is the most important".
As the former Minister of Agriculture, Diliya was doing everything possible to return to some of the traditional crops that people were used to: cassava, sorghum, millet and even rice and potatoes.
“People only think of the maize, the nshima, with whatever they eat it with, as the only food," she said. "But we have realised that if the country is going to go forward in terms of agriculture development but also in terms of nutrition, we have to diversify. Why do Zambians or myself, why do we like so much to eat nshima? I think the honest answer is habit. Food becomes a habit. It becomes something that you grow up with and you become nostalgic about it and that's what most people know.”
She strongly believes that if Zambia is going to have sustainable diets, diets that are good for the health of our citizens, crop diversification is key.
Hon. Attractor Malungo Chisangano / Member of Parliament for Gwembe Constituency
A nutritionist by training, Hon. Chisangano chooses meals which are locally available.
“I have a garden where I grow a variety of vegetables," she said. "If what I may want to eat is not found in the garden then I will go to the market. I keep chickens so these are readily available when I want to eat them. And when I want to eat beef that’s when I go to supermarkets, butcheries or any other shops that sell meat. By eating these local foods I know that am supporting a local farmer, but more importantly I can relate with where this food is coming from.”
Malungo is substituting maize nshima for nshima made from millet or sorghum.
“I come from a valley that is increasingly experiencing droughts," she said. "Maize has failed to grow due to these droughts but sorghum and millet stand a chance to survive in the drought prone areas.”
For Malungo, a sustainable diet consists of a variety of foods that are easily accessible, affordable, and can be easily be prepared.
Mr. Everisto Banda / Paralegal and farmer / Lufunsa District
Mr. Everisto Banda is among the few farmers who practice conservation farming. He grows cassava, sorghum, maize, ground-nuts among other crops. He has opted for using less fertilizers and more compost manure. Being a multi-purpose farmer, from crop production and livestock production to fish farming, he says that living a chemical-free life is easy.
“The food we have today causes diseases and young ones affected have no idea that it is because of the food they eat," he said. "This change in diet is terrible and that is why I am maintaining my traditional diet.
“In the past, if we heard that someone had high blood pressure or was having a heart-attack, we would get scared and question ourselves about what would have gone wrong," he added. "But now, we have come to learn that these diseases are normal, even in children.”
Mwila Musonda ‘Slapdee,’ a.k.a King Dizzle / Hip-hop artist / Lusaka
As a music icon, Slapdee’s days are filled with high activity and he is required to be on the road for long stretches of time. So, protein is critical.
“Protein is the kind of food that fills you up, and gives you the energy and burns longer," he said. "It keeps my muscles and vocal cords from being overwhelmed, unlike with fats and oils.”
Slapdee has always thought of taking a keener interest in knowing the sources of his food. This influenced him to become a nutrition champion with Civil Society Scaling Up Nutrition (CSO-SUN). In this role, he acknowledges the importance of teaching kids about healthy food.
“A lot of what kids take in is learned habits," he said. "If we get it right while they are young, I think they will be set for life. CSO-SUN has exposed me to the benefits of such early intervention. The food system could deliver multiple benefits if we diversify what we farm and effectively what we eat. I think we definitely all need to be demanding variety on our plates.”
Loveness Bwalya / Restaurant owner / Makeni Compound
“My favorite meal is dried fish, nshima, and pumpkin leaves. Why? Because they are healthy,” said Loveness Bwalya.
Bwalya was lucky to grow up learning how to eat healthy foods. In today’s world, most people’s diets consist of genetically modified foods (GMOs). They eat fast foods to match their fast way of life.
“I honestly don’t feel the need to eat all the spicy and fancy foods because I know those foods may be tasty and delicious, but they have little to no nutritional value,” said Bwalya.
She acknowledges that most Zambian men and women grow up eating nshima and know very little about other foods and their nutritional value. She questions why that is.
“Could the food people eat be associated with social status or wealth?" she said. "Their knowledge of the food? Or is it maybe just sticking to tradition and not having the need to change foods once in a while?”
Elias Phiri / Youth / Chongwe District
Elias Phiri, a youth member from Chongwe district, says he would love to get people to reduce their consumption of meat products because he believes that causes many diseases.
“To me, a healthy meal is not all about vegetables cooked with tonnes of oil," he said. "Eating dried vegetables from my own garden and some healthy meat from a trusted source is my go-to healthy diet."
Phiri explains that although most foods are expected to be prepared with cooking oil, it is important to keep a limit on the amount of oil one uses.
“Why put oil on meat when it is naturally fatty?" he said. "People need to start thinking twice about what they consume.”
Mr. Bishop Zulu / Farmer / Chongwe District
Mr. Bishop Zulu is a farmer in Chongwe district and an active member of Chikondi agricultural group. Born and raised in a village setup with his mother, who could only afford homegrown, home-prepared food, Mr. Zulu ate foods like pumpkin leaves and mushrooms, and had no idea what cooking oil was.
“I will not lie, from birth, till date, I have never set foot in a hospital. Do you know why? Because my whole life, I’ve consumed nothing but organic foods, free from all the toxins,” he said.
Though he was born in 1973, Mr. Zulu feels that he looks much younger because of the food choices he has made over the years.
“Homegrown food is the way to go,” he said.
Daisy Phiri / Mother and hotelier owner / Avondale Lusaka
Daisy Phiri is a mother of three and she is a hotelier by profession. In her line of work, she is used to welcoming guests and she enjoys cooking for them too.
"It's an art," she said. "Cooking is an art and it excites me a lot, especially when I cook my favourite meals and people appreciate what I have done.
"I learned from my mum that every meal, should be a balanced meal consisting of all the nutrients that the body needs. To nourish the body, to make it function normally, in the correct way.
"In my growing up with a nutritionist mom, I learned how to always incorporate vegetables at every meal. And how to always incorporate different kinds of foods, especially for children. I make sure that we stock up with some millet meal and also cassava meal so that we have alternatives to maize nshima.
"What I would like to say is the practice of good nutrition begins with me as a mother and as a wife. Teaching my children how to eat a balanced diet and how to eat healthy. If they grow up with that, then even the future I see a healthier nation.”