Morogoro, Tanzania – Abdullah Yahya’s farm sits above the dirt road that is unfriendly to cars after it rains.
Corn stalks remain in the ground, withered by a lack of recent rains. The morning rain is a good sign. Abdullah will soon uproot the failed crop and plant wit the hopes of a successful harvest.
He lives in a two-room home with his wife Zainabu, their four year-old son Idrisa and one year-old daughter Ailat (rhymes with violet). Another son lives with Zainbu’s brother. Idrisa is tiny and shy. By appearances he looks smaller than the average boy his age. Ailat, on the other hand, is full-faced and engaging with everyone around her.
Zainabu says the difference is because she continues to breastfeed her daughter, but did not do so for the boys. She learned through the Mwanzo Bora Nutrition Program (MBNP), implemented by the NGO AfriCare, that she should continue breastfeeding for the first two years of Ailat’s life.
While the measurable impact of the scheme on stunting is not available, the participants appear to be happy with the program so far. Mothers said their children are gaining weight, reported breastfeeding infants longer and said their children are noticeably healthier.
One measure is getting better. Child weights are improving from month to month over the past year. Six percent of children were characterized as wasted (critically below healthy weight for the appropriate age group) in September 2012. Last month, that number reached zero after a steady decline. More children are considered on target now than a year ago by more than 10 percentage points.
“We fed the other babies differently,” said Zainabu as she held a restless Ailat. Malaria led to a hospitalization for Idrisa in June, but Ailat has yet to experience any illness beyond the common cold.
However notable gaps exist. The government does not ask health workers to collect information on heights. When asked for the recent information on stunting, the nurse-midwife at the Towero Clinic was unable to produce data. A pilot program is underway, said a Mwanzo Bora staffer, but measurements for children should not transition to country-wide until next year.
Mwanzo Bora also had little information to provide. A piece of paper posted on the office wall accounted for regional coverage. Sixty-one percent of health facilities in the region are covered by the nutrition program. Yet no information is available on how the program is improving farms and increasing nutrition.
Zainbu learned about the program after seeking pre-natal care at the government-run Towero Clinic. There, women were provided education about the importance of nutrition for their children and themselves. Mwanzo Bora is funded by the United States for International Development’s Feed the Future program. It sets out to reduce childhood stunting and maternal anemia by 20% respectively.
Groups of twelve to fifteen men and women were formed across the region. More than 700 groups have been wormed, reaching nearly 8,000 people. Behavior change is one of the core goals of the program. MBNP uses different strategies to improve nutrition for families.
Mothers were not only taught how to feed their children better, but were encouraged to plant more nutritious foods. A community plot was established a year ago with some other families. The small parcel of land grows crops such as kale, onions, tomatoes and sweet potatoes. Labor is divided every Friday when the group meets. The harvest is divided up among the families and money earned from the sale is used to buy more seeds for a new round of planting.
The lessons from the plots are then applied to farms at home. Crops like sweet potatoes, rich with the valuable vitamin A, are now grown on family farms. Some of the work got started in the community garden and was transferred directly to the individual farms, making it a sort of nursery for the families.
An informal credit and savings scheme exists within the group. Money is held by the treasurer who offers 3 month loans at 5% interest. A bank account is of interest down the line, but the present goal is to get the loans repaid and back out quickly.
“The money is not held for long,” said the group leader.”We try to borrow as soon as it comes in.”
Situated in the Uluguru mountains, Morogoro is located in the southern highlands of Tanzania. The city is right in the middle of the Southern Agricultural Corridor of Tanzania, a focal point of Tanzania’s agriculture and nutrition improvement efforts.
The city itself is at the base of the mountains, but may farmers live along the hillside. Abdullah has a main cash-crop situated higher in the mountains. He says that the rain and irrigation are better up there. For his home plot, Abdullah relies on regular rains, controlled irrigation ditches that wind down the mountain and a running river that lies a few hundred feet below the property.
Fertilizer, bought at the nearby university and carried by head back up the mountain, has helped Abudullah’s crops. He says yields are up two to three times since he started using the manure-based fertilizer on his farmland. Raising rabbits helps to further diversify the family’s income generating opportunities, but all is reliant upon the crops.
Is Mwanana Bwanzo helping to improve Abudullah’s fields and the health of Zainabu and Ailat? It is hard to know for sure, but they think things are better.
“Yes, we are doing better than our neighbors,” whispered Zainabu when asked how their farm compared to others since joining the program.
Tom Murphy reported this story in Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).