Zambia’s Barotse floodplain is a landscape of extremes, cycling between annual floods and periodic droughts.

For the 250,000 people living in the region, 80% of whom survive on less than USD 1.25 per day, accessing nutritious foods throughout the year can be challenging.

With little income, most cultivate crops, keep livestock, catch fish or harvest wild foods from the surrounding plain.

Understanding how the changing landscape influences the varieties and availability of foods is key for the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems (AAS), which is working in partnership with communities here to sustainably increase food and nutrition security.

“During floods, plants like sweet potatoes are transplanted to the upper land and maize is also grown there. However, this year’s maize and sweet potatoes dried up because of drought,” explains mother of three Namakando Mubiana from Mapungu village.

“In this village only one person grows green vegetables. Some also tried it but were discouraged because our gardens were flooded before our vegetables were ready,” she says.

Faced with these challenges, including limited knowledge about nutrition and low farm productivity, undernutrition is widespread in the area, with more than half of all children under the age of five experiencing stunting. This is due to the fact that children are mostly fed staple foods like nshima, a stiff porridge made from maize flour and water, and which generally contain only small amounts of micronutrients.

In 10 communities, including Namakando’s, researchers and community members have developed tools to help improve diets year-round.

The program takes a participatory action research approach that treats communities as partners, whose challenges and visions for the future guide the program’s interventions. Communities help conduct research and jointly lead the program work in their village, increasing their ownership over the process and capacity to continue to improve their lives in the future.

Local knowledge was used to create seasonal calendars that show which foods are available and abundant during each month. Based on this information, infographics were developed that highlight the key nutrients in each food type. This helps families to plan and balance their diet throughout the year and guides farmers on the best crops for each season.

Through the sessions, participants also learned about nutrition and the importance of dietary diversity, which helps increase the consumption of a variety of nutrients and improves overall health and wellbeing.

“We didn’t know that one food can be mixed with other foodstuffs and be eaten at the same time. We thought each food was to be cooked separately and eaten on a particular day,” says Namakando, who explains that traditional dishes in Barotse are very simple, and in the past children were often given only boiled sweet potato for breakfast.

“But we now know that in the same sweet potatoes we can add cooking oil, onion and milk. We’ve also mixed pumpkin with their leaves and ground nuts or pumpkin seed," she adds.

To share their knowledge and new nutritionally balanced recipes, men and women have held cooking demonstrations using seasonal ingredients in public spaces.

“[The demonstration] was really welcomed. A lot of the people came along to learn with us. The majority of the village took part in the learning and were excited about it … They now use the new cooking methods in their homes,” recalls Namakando.

A landscape cookbook containing recipes for each season is now being developed with the communities. To improve access to nutritious foods, communities have also begun working with the program to trial the cultivation of certain nutrient-dense crops in their villages.

These developments are key steps towards increasing the ability of families in the Barotse floodplain to better use their surrounding natural resources to improve their food and nutrition security.

17 November 2015

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