Zambia cooks up solutions to hunger and climate change
Andrew Zimmern ducked into a greenhouse at Gwembe Primary School in southern Zambia to check out the next harvest. Beds of vegetables packed the interior, some sprouting from plastic bags, feeding off enriched soil and minimal irrigation; others relying merely on sun, water and nutrients.
"Do you talk to your parents about the greens here at school?” Zimmern, an award-winning American chef and World Food Programme (WFP) Goodwill Ambassador, asked the students surrounding him.
“Yes!” the children shouted.
Getting the lowdown and sharing tips on nutrition and sustainable growing practices backdropped Zimmern’s trip to Zambia earlier this year, where he saw firsthand how WFP partners with schools, communities and the Government to build resilient and healthy food systems amid a deepening climate crisis.
Buffeted by both floods but especially recurrent droughts, the southern African nation has seen its annual rainfall steadily decrease over the past decades — even as average temperatures are expected to soar by up to 3℃ by 2050.
How Zambia and other countries can survive and thrive in the years to come is high up on the agenda of the COP28 climate talks now underway in Dubai.
“The weather crisis, the climate crisis has affected food security in a country that can feed itself,” Zimmern said. “Can Zambians feed themselves healthier foods? Because you are what you eat — food is medicine.”
WFP works with Zambian authorities and other partners to give farmers weather and climate information that can guide their choices about what and when to plant, and ways to diversify their livelihoods to better withstand climate shocks.
We have also partnered with schools to pilot water-saving hydroponic greenhouses in more than 70 Zambian educational establishments like Gwembe Primary. The students, who run the operations, pass on their new farming and nutritional knowledge to their parents.
“I told my mom we had a greenhouse at school,” one Gwembe student told Zimmern, “and she was like, ‘wow!’”
“WFP is trying to support the Government to put in systems that work in responding to the climate crisis—whether they’re for smallholder farmers or schools,” said WFP Zambia Programme Policy Officer Olipa Zulu. “We’re also pushing for the use of technology and innovation to drive results.”
One seed, no waste
Gwembe Primary’s greenhouse was built in 2021 - after Zambia had weathered yet another searing drought. “It showed schools but also communities that they could actually grow food despite very little water,” Zulu said.
For the school’s 1,300 pupils there’s another benefit; the vegetables diversify and add a nutritional boost to Government-supported school meals, which are traditionally based on staple maize and beans.
On a sunny day, Zimmern and the students planted seedlings in trays for the next harvest. “One seed, one plant, no wastage,” he said.
A mix of climate shocks, a struggling economy and the fallout of COVID-19 have deepened food insecurity in Zambia, where half of the country’s 18 million people live below the poverty line and struggle with hunger. More than one-third of kids under 5 are stunted.
It’s a toxic mix of ingredients that Zimmern, a TV celebrity who has traveled the globe to spotlight hunger — savoring local cuisine, from Ugandan cane rat to Mexican stink bugs, along the way — has seen before.
“Helping Zambia is about giving Zambian solutions so that Zambians can help Zambians,” he said.
In many cases, that means working with the country’s 1.5 million smallholder farmers, who produce 90 percent of Zambia’s food. Most are women.
In Monze district, a few dozen kilometers north of Gwembe, Zimmern stepped out of a WFP car and gave a smiling woman a bear hug.
“You must be Emeldah,” he said, as her fellow female farmers sang and clapped in welcome.
Like other smallholders in Zambia, 44-year-old Emeldah Hichoombolwa depends on the skies to irrigate the crops she grows on her 5-hectare plot. But rains are becoming scarcer and more erratic with climate change.
In 2017, she joined a farming group WFP supports to boost production and earnings, access drought-tolerant seeds, reduce often sizable post-harvest losses and better link to markets. She began diversifying her crops from traditional water-consuming maize, adding hardier cowpeas, peanuts and sunflowers to the mix.
“The knowledge of conservation agriculture has helped me increase production and improve my family's income,” she said.
Hichoombolwa also joined a WFP-backed nutrition group and savings cooperative, whose all-female members pool their money and interest payments—which they later withdraw for business investments. She plowed her funds into a new startup: selling cowpea sausages. The protein-packed legume is considered a highly nutritious, sustainable, hunger-fighting ‘superfood.’
“This is the future of food,” said Zimmern, as he watched Emeldah and her colleagues fry up the sausages and later sampled some with relish.
“These are small solutions,” he added, “that can have real global impact.”
Special thanks to World Food Program USA for contributing to this story.