Zambian meals revolve around maize. People regularly eat it two or three times a day, prepared and cooked it in a variety of ways. The crop can be quickly boiled and folded into a tasty treat, turned into a porridge, fermented, or fried into something more substantial.
But maize’s centrality in the Zambian diet has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. A severe drought in 2018 caused maize production to fall by 34%, raising concerns about the crop’s susceptibility to droughts wrought by climate change. Since the agricultural sector employs 70% of the country’s labor force, droughts of this magnitude have repercussions throughout the economy.
More pressing, malnutrition is widespread in the country. More than 40% of children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition, which can lead to stunting, and another 15% live with acute malnutrition, which can lead to wasting.
Maize can be a great source of nutrients, but only when a part of a diverse diet — and only if it’s not over-processed, which strips away nutritional value. An increasing proportion of maize products in the country are heavily processed and have diminished health benefits, according to the BBC.
Getting a balanced diet is not always easy in Zambia. An estimated 54% of the country lives in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 per day. As climate change disrupts the agricultural sector, incomes go down and food prices go up.
Maize isn’t a fixed certainty in Zambia’s future. The country’s land is fertile and rife with potential. A growing movement of activists, farmers, government officials, and everyday people are questioning maize’s primacy amid a larger cultural shift toward holistic well-being. They’re promoting diet diversity, encouraging farmers to plant new and old crops, and spurring local entrepreneurship.
Hivos, a Dutch development agency, recently arranged an exhibit in the capital Lusaka highlighting 10 Zambians working for greater food security and nutritional standards.