Dealing with malnutrition in poor rural communities? Growing your food is better than relying on markets

4 March 2020

Think back over the last month. What types of food have you and your family consumed? Have you eaten a balanced and diversified diet? The answer may not matter; what matters is who or what influenced your food choices. These and more are the questions that researchers from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) set to find out. The study was carried out in Uganda with rural households as the sample population. The researchers wanted to combat malnutrition, but before recommending policy options, they needed to understand how and why people eat what they eat. The study, titled Farm Production Diversity: Is it important for Dietary Diversity? Panel Evidence from Uganda was recently published in Sustainability.

Dealing with malnutrition in poor rural communities

The two existing hypotheses are i) when rural communities grow a variety of crops on their farms, they will have a balanced diet, thus solving malnutrition – especially undernutrition that is prevalent in most African rural. The other hypothesis points to markets as the more important determinant of a varied diet. Haruna Sekabira, a social economist with IITA, together with other researchers, set out to study these hypotheses.  Their results show that the better option for Uganda (where the market infrastructure is relatively poor, and the largest proportion of the population is dependent on agriculture) to combat rural hunger and malnutrition is via farm production diversity.

Moreover, merely having access to a market selling a variety of foods does not necessarily mean that households will consume a diversified diet. According to the researchers, “this is because, access to food is dependent on income access.” They further explain that, “chronic hunger has been attributed to food access being dependent on income access. Therefore, income inequality alienates poor households from food markets” i.e. if you do not have money you will not purchase a variety of foodstuffs even though they are on sale. However, if one can grow a variety of food in their garden, they will enjoy a balanced diet.

With the right pathway to solving rural malnutrition resolved, the study unearthed some other interesting findings that influence food choice at the household level. For instance:

Male-headed households have less diversity in their meals compared to female-headed households i.e. members of a male-headed household are more likely to experience nutrition deficiencies than those in female-headed households.  “This gender disparity may be explained by the fact that males control household incomes, yet females predominantly control feeding patterns and choices.

The head of the household owning a mobile phone also positively influenced household dietary diversity. Mobile phones enable access to information and knowledge about types, content, and quality of foods eaten. Mobile phones also enabled access to remittances (mobile money) which enables consumption.

Education level and adult age: With sufficient education, household heads can learn and understand feeding basics, thus enhancing nutrition knowledge.

Remoteness was associated with better dietary diversity since remoteness is linked to more land available for farming, allowing for more crops/livestock to be produced on the home farm.

Indirectly, therefore, policies that promote farm production diversity in Uganda [and rural Africa] are more relevant in improving food and nutrition security. This is not to say that markets do not have a role to play in dietary diversity. They do, however, growing more crops/animals on a household farm has a larger associated positive impact on household dietary diversity than market access.