Peanut butter that saves lives

Mkulila sells peanut butter at an Oxfam-supported peanut processing cooperative in Lilongwe, Malawi, and also uses it at home, adding it to porridge for her children. Since adding it to their diets, she reports that they are growing and gaining weight. Photo: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/Oxfam

A program in Malawi tackles malnutrition through healthy eating education and protein-powered cooperatives.

Peanut butter: Love it or hate it, you can't deny its draw. It's protein-packed, relatively cheap, and a good source of magnesium, a mineral that's essential to a healthy immune system. Put it in just about any meal, savory or sweet, and it makes a filling addition.

Plus, it's portable and can be stored on a shelf for long period of time, two qualities that make it invaluable in environments where food is scarce.

That's why for the past decade and a half, health providers have been feeding it to malnourished children in Malawi, where, according to UNICEF, more than one-third of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Lotina, a mother of four in rural Lilongwe, came to rely on these peanut butter and soya powder distributions to manage her children's health. But the closest hospital is in the big city, and she tells us that getting there was time-consuming--time that could be better spent tilling her land.

For mothers like Lotina whose children are constantly getting sick, depending on hospital providers is no solution. Wouldn't it be better to prevent children from becoming ill in the first place?

That's where Oxfam comes in. In 2016, Oxfam kicked off its Scaling Up Nutrition program in four rural districts of Malawi that have been feeling the effects of climate change. Flooding in 2015 and a drought in 2016 wiped out crops, leaving communities without enough food.

Half of all pregnant women and 29 percent of nursing mothers in Malawi are anemic. The Scaling Up Nutrition program focused on children under five and nursing moms in an attempt to diversify and improve household nutrition--and critically, reduce the number of deaths of kids under five by as much as 10 percent.

Thanks to your support, Oxfam and its partner, the Catholic Development Commission of Malawi (CADECOM), have established demonstration gardens where women learn solar-powered irrigation and crop diversification techniques. We've also set up community groups where mothers teach each other about balanced diets, food hygiene, and community health.

The project aims to reach 26,000 households, or roughly 143,000 people: 16,000 households with children under age five, and 10,000 with lactating and pregnant mothers.

It's the sort of intervention that sets Oxfam apart from other aid providers. We work with organizations on the ground to develop solutions that will help communities get through current crises and become more resilient in the future.

Lotina is not just participating in training about nutritious cooking and better sanitation practices--she's also leading a mother's group. She's growing vegetables in her garden, and is intent on feeding her family a diet of fruits, vegetables, porridge, and protein.

She reports that she hasn't visited the hospital since September of last year. "If I had known what I know now about eating a healthy, balanced, and nutritious diet, I could have avoided the malnutrition my daughter suffered, and given birth to healthier babies."

Sofereti (left) and Daisi Besamu sort through a tray of peanuts before roasting them outside the Mwayi Wathu Peanut Butter processing plant in Lilongwe, Malawi. Photo: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/Oxfam

A peanut butter cooperative

Oxfam and CADECOM also support the Mwayi Wathu Peanut Butter Processing Group. The Lilongwe-based cooperative received solar panels, batteries, and a solar-powered machine for peanut butter processing, as well as training on operating the machine.

Chikadza Jabesa, the group's chairman, estimates that the cooperative produces about 50 bottles of peanut butter a day. Small bottles sell for 50 kwacha ($0.70) and large bottles sell for 1,000 kwacha ($1.40). Members divvy up the profits.

Mkulila, 26, shells and roasts the peanuts, known locally as groundnuts. She's also in charge of marketing and sales; she and two other members of the cooperative sell the peanut butter at local markets.

Since adding the peanut butter to the porridge she feeds her four children, Mkulila has noticed they've started gaining weight, especially her youngest. Prior to joining the group, she took her children to the hospital when they were not gaining weight, and she noticed their cheeks and feet were swelling. The hospital officials would diagnose her children as malnourished, put them on a feeding program, and send them off. They'd come home without any real knowledge about nutrition.

Members of the Mwayi Wathu Peanut Butter Processing Group, including Sofereti (right), bottle and package peanut butter in the factory in Lilongwe. "Most people would dismiss us when we first started this project," she says. "They then realized later that this was serious business. I am now able to pay school fees for my three children." Photo: Aurelie Marrier d'Unienville/Oxfam

Now sales route includes the hospital. Doctors are stocking up on the Mwai Wathu Peanut Butter Processing Group's products, and directing their patients to the co-op. The co-op also sells to local schools.

Everyone is reaping the benefits. Members are learning how to make a living and save money, and those with children are using the profits to send their kids to school. And now they are looking to branch out--they're setting their sights on a cooking oil processing machine.

"Our lives have been transformed," says Jabesa, the co-op chair, who has watched the peanut butter improve his children's diets. "This has benefited the whole community."

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