Malawi is Africa’s largest producer of pigeon peas. This versatile, low-cost, protein-rich and drought-resistant crop has been maligned in Malawi - regarded as ‘desperation’ food and only eaten when there is no alternative. But with the support of Christian Aid’s local partner, one widowed grandmother is making her children’s dreams come true with this humble pulse.
Esther Saizi is lively, chatty and full of laughter. When we first meet the 54-year-old grandmother, she is baking bread with pigeon pea flour. She shows us the bread oven, opening the front door to reveal the rolls inside and the place where the firewood fits at the back. With the money she earns growing pigeon peas and selling bread made from pigeon pea flour, Esther is helping her elder daughter grow her carpentry business and supporting her younger daughter’s education, hopeful that one day she will become a nurse. The money is also paying nursery school fees for her 4-year-old grandson.
But Esther’s broad smile hides much sorrow and hardship. Two years ago, Esther’s husband passed away and she struggled to come to terms with his loss.
On top of that, Esther lives in Malawi, one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world and smallholder farmers like her are on the frontline, beset by harsh drought and extreme weather.
Thankfully she was spared the worst effects of Cyclone Freddy, the longest-lasting tropical cyclone on record, which devastated Malawi in February and March. However, just a year earlier, Cyclone Ana washed away many of Esther’s crops, leaving her feeling desperate.
Even the war thousands of miles away in Ukraine impacts Esther, driving up the price of staple foods and fertilizer.
Despite these difficulties, Esther has seen a remarkable reversal in her fortunes since 2019 when she joined a pigeon pea cooperative run by Christian Aid’s local partner, the Nandolo Farmers’ Association.
Esther had been growing pigeon peas for eight years before joining the cooperative, but she’d never been able to secure a fair price for her crop. Exploitative middlemen target isolated farmers like her to gain a sale at very low prices. But when Esther started selling as part of the cooperative, she was connected to better buyers and was able to fetch much more. She is one of more than 3,300 farmers helped by the Nandolo Farmers’ Association to get a better price for their crop.
Another benefit of Esther’s membership of the cooperative is that she is able to store her pigeon peas in a communal warehouse, safe from storms and floods. Instead of having to sell her crop immediately after harvest and accept a bad price, the store allows her to wait until prices have improved. The programme also helped Esther to restore her soil fertility and boost her harvests.
Esther, who is now a chairperson of the cooperative, told us: “Before I joined the programme, I grew pigeon peas, but I wasn’t aware that I could make some reasonable money out of it.”
With the profits from her pigeon pea crop, Esther began buying goats and today her herd has grown to 13. The goats provide milk and meat to support her family as well as manure for her crops, which saves on expensive fertiliser. Esther even used her income to buy a sewing machine and now she makes clothes for her family.
Esther isn’t the only businesswoman in her family. Her daughter Ziwone (25) and son-in-law Peter (28) are carpenters and with her pigeon pea income, Esther has bought tools to enable their business to thrive. Esther is also paying for her grandson Nespo (4) to attend nursery school and hopes that she’ll be able to help his baby brother Emmanuel (4 months) go to school too.
Esther’s younger daughter Rashida (17) lives away from home to be near her school. The pigeon pea income is supporting Rashida’s education by covering the cost of her lodgings, a part-time tutor, examination fees and school uniforms. Rashida dreams of graduating from college and becoming a nurse.
Esther hopes that she can continue to support her younger daughter’s education and recalls a memory from her own schooldays: “I was good at mathematics. I remember that the teacher would wait for my exercise book and use mine to mark the others against. It was sad that I had to drop out of school but that is one of my favourite childhood memories.”
Esther tells us that growing pigeon peas has even helped her through the difficult times she has faced since losing her husband. Although she misses her husband greatly, the programme gives her the security to provide for her family.
Pigeon peas are drought-tolerant, so they thrive in the dry fields of southern Malawi. They’re cheap to grow from recycled seed and require only minimal amounts of fertiliser and pesticides, making them an ideal crop to grow in a region where over 60% of families live in poverty. And because pigeon peas fix nitrogen, they improve soil quality, boosting the yields of crops like maize, sorghum and peanuts.
The pigeon pea is an essential part of the diet of millions of people around the world, particularly in India where dhal is eaten as a staple alongside rice and roti. But the pigeon pea has been maligned in Malawi where it’s regarded as ‘desperation food’, eaten only when there is no alternative. Just 10% of the 400,000 tonnes the country produces each year is consumed domestically. The Nandolo Farmers’ Association hopes to rebrand the pigeon pea as quality, healthy food and has produced a recipe book to celebrate this versatile, low-cost, protein-rich, drought-resistant pulse.
Baking bread from pigeon pea flour is just one initiative Esther is involved in to support her family. Recently, Christian Aid provided a machine to process fish food from a blend of pigeon peas and soya, and this busy grandmother plans to start a fish farm, growing fish in small ponds and selling them to earn an additional income.
By giving this Christian Aid Week, you can help more farmers like Esther secure a fair price for their crops and make their children’s dreams come true.
There’s still time for you to join with us this Christian Aid Week (14-20 May). Find out more here about how your gifts can help build better futures for people around the world, and give peas a chance with our family-friendly Big Pea Challenge. You can download a range of resources to help you knit, grow, crochet and cook your own peas to raise funds for farmers in Malawi and beyond.