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"Christian Aid Believed in Our Dream"

"Christian Aid Believed in Our Dream"

Monday May 15 2023

Marking the start of Christian Aid Week, Thomas Baldwin spoke to the chair of one partner organisation helping poor farmers in Malawi to break free from dependence on aid.


This Christian Aid Week, Susan Chimbaya has a message for supporters: thank you, but we hope not to need your help in future. 

Susan is the founder and chair of Nandolo Farmers Association (NFA), a co-operative supported by the aid agency, which is improving the lives of thousands of small-scale Malawian pigeon pea farmers.

The pigeon pea (also known as the yellow split pea) is a phenomenally useful crop for a poor farmer: every part of the plant is good for something, whether that’s human or animal consumption, firewood or being returned to the soil as nitrogen-rich ‘green manure’. This means that farmers can grow it as a cash crop as well as to feed themselves, which is often all they can manage with the more traditional staple crops such as maize.

Additionally, the plant doesn't require fertiliser, and is both flood- and drought-resistant - essential in a time of increasing climate uncertainty.

“There have been so many success stories (with pigeon peas) in Malawi,” says Susan, citing a lady with five children who had been abandoned by her husband. “She had nothing. She couldn’t send the children to school. Since we introduced pigeon peas to them, as a crop that can bring in cash, their lives have changed. She’s managed to build her own house, her children are able to go to school, she can feed them properly, she can even afford to take them to hospital if they get sick.”

However, there are still many challenges for the individual farmer. Ninety per cent of the market for pigeon peas is in export, chiefly to India, and the farmers are at the mercy of the commodity markets. Living a hand-to-mouth existence, and with nowhere to store their crop even if they could afford to wait, many smallholders are forced to sell their produce at a low price.

This is where the NFA (‘nandolo’ is a local word for pigeon peas), established in 2015 with Christian Aid’s help, comes in. A co-operative of over 10,000 farmers (and rising), the association ensures that producers get a good price for their crop, paying for it at market rates when the peas are delivered but also passing on future profits. They have built warehouses so they can store the product in bulk, and are also investing in the machines to turn peas into dhall, infant food, and animal feed pellets.

They are also trying to raise the popularity of pigeon peas as a foodstuff locally, and have published a book of recipes for everything from dhall and porridge to biscuits and cakes made with the pigeon peas.

The long-term aim, Susan says, is to get away from dependence on aid – permanently. “This is something which can work. Christian Aid believed in our dream, and we have seen what has happened to the lives of many, many Malawians who want to get away from being ‘given’.”


Find out more about pigeon peas and the NFA at www.nandolofarmersassociation.org 
Christian Aid Week: https://www.christianaid.org.uk/appeals/key-appeals/christian-aid-week? 

A longer version of this interview appears in May's Life and Work. Buy here.