What are the Malawian six food groups?

What are the Malawian six food groups?

The tour of facilities at the grand opening ceremony of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training and Development Centre in Malawi included a review of Malawi’s Six Food Groups.In the hot sun of midday, cooperative members showed us samples of the six food groups, telling us the benefits of each. The cooperative is more than just a savings and loans financial cooperative. They also train the member families in nutrition and encourage a varieties of foods.

Cooperative members show us samples of the six food groups. Small fish from Lake Malawi are an inexpensive form of protein.

So what are the six groups?

  1. Vegetables (leafy greens, kale, tomato, carrots)
  2. Fruits (apples, oranges, lemons)
  3. Legumes and Nuts (groundnuts/peanuts, beans, peas, cowpeas/black-eyed pea)
  4. Animal Foods (meat, eggs, milk)
  5. Fats (cooking oil, soybeans, groundnuts/peanuts, can also include milk)
  6. Staples (grains, maize, rice, cassava)

Vegetables are a good source of vitamins and minerals. Staples and fats provide the body with energy. Proteins from animal foods and legumes are good for muscles, skin, hair, and bones.

Almost all the cooperative members are also farmers. In addition to their small businesses they have farms and kitchen gardens.

On our tours of several member farms, we saw lots of maize (corn) stalks piled in the middle of fields after harvest. We saw sacks of peanuts (groundnuts). We saw chickens running around yards, and goats, cows, and pigs penned behind houses. Peas are planted in between rows of maize. Cassava fields, dry and dusty, thrive on little rain. Of the six groups, I think it’s only fruits that I didn’t see growing in the village.

A cooperative member in Malawi demonstrates how to dig up the cassava roots.

In a place of low food security, cooperative members are proud when they are able to provide varied diets for their families. In her testimony of SIA business success, Love Vinkhumbo told us that she was able to provide for her son’s university education and that, “I am now eating the six food groups!”

Love Vinkhumbo told us that after receiving her SIA Small Business Fund grant, “I am now eating the six food groups!”

Changing Food Guidelines in North America

Learning about Malawian nutrition guidelines made me realize how little I remember about the US Food Guidelines. After some Googling, it seems there is a new set of US guidelines for 2015-2020 with a plate instead of a food pyramid – one that ignores oils, and has dairy as a distinct category.

The 5 food groups in the US Guidelines.

Just this week, Health Canada released their preliminary new food guide for public comment. It seems they are moving in the direction of the Malawi guidelines, encouraging the consumption of legumes and other plant-based protein and removing the dairy category. The new guidelines also affirm that a wide variety of foods are the foundation of a healthy diet.

What do you know about the food guidelines in your area? Do you eat from the five or six food groups regularly? When was the last time you had black-eyed peas?

A Malawian food not part of the healthy food groups…so tasty though!

“I didn’t even have basic soap”

“I didn’t even have basic soap”

When we met Wilson Nkosi at his shop in the Manyamula Saturday market last month, he started by telling us what his life had been like before 2012. “I used a grain bag as a blanket at night. We didn’t even have basic soap for washing. There was no salt for our food.” Wilson, along with his wife, Joyce, and their two children, Ellen (18) and Mateyo (15), were struggling. They tried to get a loan from the micro-loan bank in the nearby city and they were turned away because they didn’t have enough collateral.

In the narrative of their lives, 2012 marks a turning point. That January was when they attended a Spirit in Action Small Business Fund training workshop and put together their business plan for a grocery shop. They wrote on their plan that they could contribute sacks to the business because this is something they already had at home.

Wilson and Joyce used the $100 initial grant to buy bulk quantities of sugar, soap, and cooking oil. After the first month, they had earned $50 in profit, with high demand for these basic necessities in the small town!

“If you are going to do business, you have to write it down. From there you can calculate the profit and see what to invest. That is why our business is growing.”

Reinvesting for Success

By the end of 2013, the Nkosi family had managed to save $180. They calculated that they had reinvested over $400 in expanding the business over the previous two years. Wilson told us about the value of record-keeping for success, “If you are going to do business, you have to write it down. From there you can calculate the profit and see what to invest. That is why our business is growing.” 

Most Small Business Fund (SBF) recruits have never kept records for any of their informal business activities. One of the primary roles of the local SBF trainer and coordinator is to talk to the new business owners about the importance of tracking sales and expenses.

The Tiyezgenawo Groceries Shop we visited now has much more to offer than just soap, sugar, and salt. They also have cooking oil, hair and skin products, snacks, and other treats. The Manyamula Market was buzzing with people and Wilson had many people wanting to buy from him.

On the road into Manyamula on market day. Women carry baskets full of produce from their farms – tomatoes, kale, peanuts. Men ride bikes with chickens tied to the handlebars.

Sharing the Gift

Without prompting, Wilson also told us about how they’ve Shared the Gift with another family. In addition to their shop, the Nkosis also have a tomato farm. (Everyone has a farm in Manyamula.) As a way of paying it forward, they shared tomato seeds and fertilizer with two families. “Those friends are doing well,” said Wilson, clearly honored to have been able to help them.

Telling us how his own life has changed, Wilson proudly told us, “We now have blankets. We take tea and can add sugar.” These simple indicators mark real change in the quality of life for families in the SBF program. Life is a little more comfortable. They are healthier and they feel better about the future. All this, sparked with a $150 SIA grant!

Wilson and Joyce in their tomato field.

“This is not a house of a poor person.”

“This is not a house of a poor person.”

shoes Malawi

Paulos discusses his business with us during our visit to Malawi in 2011.

One of the very cool things about my recent trip to Malawi is that I got to check in again on people I had visited on my previous two trips. Seeing the amazing changes since my first visit in 2011 blew me away!

In 2011, I visited Paulos Lungu at this shoe repair stand in the marketplace. The Saturday market mostly consisted of temporary stands, with a few roughly constructed shops. Paulos and his wife, Sequina, had received a Small Business Fund grant of $150 in 2005. They had invested in a shoe repair business, building off Paulos’ skills.

In 2011, he told me how he wanted to build a home for his family. He was already buying bricks (fired clay, to last longer than packed mud bricks) for their future home.

In 2013, they proudly posed in front of their new home – complete with a thatched roof!

The Lungu family in front of their own home in 2013.

During our visit in 2014, Paulos was eager to have us visit his house. He welcomed us inside, showing off the cement floor (no longer dirt!) and showed us where they were storing the iron sheets. They were slowly buying the corrugated iron whenever they had extra money at the end of the month.

Boyd and I with the Lungu family in 2014. Note the cement floor (rather than dirt), and how the windows can now be opened. Roof is still thatching, which needs to be replaced every year.

Seeing the Change

Just last month – 12 years after that small Spirit in Action grant, six years after my first visit – I had the honor of walking across the threshold of the beautiful, iron-roofed Lungu home. They will no longer live with leaks during the rainy season!

With the Lungu family in May, 2017. The floor is reinforced and they have replaced the thatch roof with iron sheets! They share some of their peanut harvest with us.

Before Spirit in Action, Paulos told us about how his life had been. He had no house of his own. He would stay at a relative’s house as long as they’d have him, then he would move onto another relative.

“This is not a house of a poor person,” Canaan Gondwe, local coordinator and mentor, said proudly of the Lungu home. If you have iron sheets over your head, you are doing well in Malawi. It is a sign that you have made it.

Paulos with one of his daughters. He is also a member of the local savings and loans cooperative, Manyamula COMSIP. His shirt – with the COMSIP logo – proclaims his entrepreneurial spirit.

Spirit in Action is 21 years old now, and it’s inspiring to witness and honor the deep roots we have, and the transformation we see, in places like Manyamula, Malawi.

Postscript: I can attest to Paulos’ good repair skills! When my sandals broke less than a week into the trip, I was annoyed. Then I remembered that I knew a shoemaker! He reattached the toehold to the sole in a matter of minutes. He didn’t charge me for the repair – he said it was the least he could do after the incredible support he’s received from SIA.

In a matter of minutes, Paulos repaired my Kenyan sandals! The fix is holding tight!

The many ways a mill can benefit a community

The many ways a mill can benefit a community

Electricity coming to town changes everything. It provides new business opportunities: cellphone charging stations, welding shops, cafes where you can watch soccer matches. It also forces other businesses to adapt and change.

When the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative (read more about them here) bought their gas-powered maize/corn mill in 2013, it was the best technology available. The mill grinds corn – the staple food – into a fine flour, adding value to the crops and processing the grain for eating.

Cooperative member feeding maize into the grinding mill. The ground corn is then made into a dry polenta-like meal.

People paid to grind their maize in town with the cooperative, with members paying a reduced price. Before the maize mill was there, they would have to walk long distances to other communities to grind. The cooperative took advantage of this business opportunity. In 2013, they earned over $600 from the maize mill facility.

Then the electrical grid arrived in rural Manyamula Village in northern Malawi. Mills that were connected to the grid could grind faster and cheaper. The cooperative saw their profits dropping. And so they adapted. Last year, they moved the maize mill from their building at the centre of town to the Matopoto zone, on the outskirts of town, where there is no electricity yet. The mill is profitable again, earning $35 every week!

Under Local Management…

The maize mill is collectively owned by all 150+ cooperative members. However, the mill is managed by the cooperative members who live in the Matopoto zone. (The cooperative has divided themselves into eight zones.)

Tanya singing with members of the Motopoto Zone.

75% of the profit goes to the main cooperative office, for low-interest loans and other community development programs, such as hygiene and healthy diet programs. The remaining 25% stays in the Matopoto village compound, benefiting the sixteen members and their families. These members also benefit from having the maize mill nearby. They can process their food right outside their homes!

But wait, there’s more!

At the end of 2013, the cooperative used their saved profits to start a “pig pass-on project.” They bought twelve pigs and distributed them to all the zones. The zone members were charged with raising the pigs and then passing on the piglets to the vulnerable members in their group. A pig is a valuable gift.

A grown male pig can sell for $50 and female pigs can have 6-9 offspring, generating more wealth. 

So far, 55 members across all zones have received piglets through the program! The members in the Matopoto zone have shared ten piglets amongst themselves. And the day that I visited them last month, they had another one to share. This time, they were sharing with a young boy in their community. He is not a cooperative member (yet) but they saw that he – who had lost his mother, and whose father drinks all day – could use some extra support.

The blessing of the pig.

It is this community spirit, this generosity, that fills my spirit and inspires me. When we support Manyamula COMSIP they use the funds effectively, they adapt to the changing business opportunities, and they spread the wealth so that everyone is uplifted.

Seeing change in Malawi

Seeing change in Malawi

(Please excuse any formatting errors! This is coming direct to you from my iPhone in Malawi.)

“When God’s Spirit is in action, good things happen,” said Mbueno thoughtfully, as we wrapped up our finally meeting in Manyamula village just a few days ago. When the spirit of generosity and cooperation are in action, good things happen. When the spirit of partnership is in action, good things happen.
This is my third trip to Manyamula, Malawi. I visited in 2011, and 2014, and this time, more than ever before, I can really see the positive change that is happening in the community. I am so proud of the work we are doing there, and I am excited for the future projects we will take on together.

Wednesday, the day we arrived in Manyamula, was the day of the grand opening of the Manyamula COMSIP Cooperative Training and Development Centre! This is a compound of buildings that SIA supported in a cost-sharing agreement with the cooperative. The Mzimba District Commissioner (equivalent to the governor) was there, and was clearly impressed with the buildings and the show of support from the community.


Caption: Tanya holding up the ribbon officially pronouncing the training centre open for business!

In 2014, I did a small ground-breaking ceremony in front of 5-6 members. The grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony was a different story: We were joined by several other top level non-profit partners, and 150+ cooperative and community members!

It was truly an afternoon to remember. This savings and loans cooperative is strong and its future is bright!


Caption: Small Business Fund coordinators from Kenya, Malawi, and Uganda, and the SIA North America team.

The next three days, we held a Small Business Fund Conference and Training. We trained two new coordinators from northern Malawi, and one more from Nairobi, Kenya. The conference was part program review and evaluation, part peer-to-peer learning, and part field visits to see the successful Small Business Fund businesses in the area.


Caption: Tanya meets Sophia Banda in her shop in the Manyamula market. Sophia started a tailoring shop with a Small Business Fund grant. She has already trained two more people about tailoring as part of Sharing the Gift.


Caption: The team visited Uncle Gly’s Computer Services shop which used a Small Business Fund $150 grant to buy a printer and scanner. This is just one example of entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of the electricity that has recently arrived in the town.

One of the most exciting things to see and hear was how strong the culture of Sharing the Gift is tied in with the Spirit in Action programs in Manyamula. Everyone we talked to eagerly told us how they had helped someone else after receiving their grant from SIA. Poodle have shared skills, supplies, piglets, chicks, seeds, time, and more.

We met a group of women who were all part of the same “ripple” of Sharing the Gift. Lackson received the SIA grant and he passed a piglet to the widow Tionenge. She passed a piglet to Meekness. And just this month, Meekness passed a piglet to Winifi. Four ripples away from the “drop” of SIA, the impact continues!


Caption: Tanya with Meekness and Winifi. Meekness has shared the gift of a piglet with Winifi, continuing the ripple of SIA’s impact in the community. 

On Sunday, we said good-bye to Manyamula and all our friends there. I will miss their bright spirits and their beautiful songs. I will cherish their stories. And I will be sharing many more if their stories of success with you in the months to come.

On Friday we fly to Kenya to meet with more Small Business Fund groups, and meet with more of our wonderful, dedicated partners.

Thank you for all your prayers and keep them coming!


Caption: Dressed in our Sunday finest! Boyd and Tanya Cothran, and SIA Advisory Board members and all-around support team, Mike Hegeman and Dana Belmonte.

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