Sustainable and Nutritious: Kitchen Gardens Reduce Malnutrition in Rwanda and Afghanistan
This blog is written by Yvette Neisser, a technical writer at DAI who participated in the SPA Program evaluation in Rwanda in 2018 and Rich Magnani who was the Chief of Party for the RADP-North project.
Last year, when I walked into a health center in Eastern Rwanda to talk to participants in a nutrition program, one mother after another approached me with infants in arms to tell me how much weight their child had gained thanks to the introduction of soy in their diets. Indeed, developing countries are increasingly focused on combating malnutrition by providing children with the proper nutrients in the critical first 1,000 days of life. Recent U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded programs in Rwanda and Afghanistan—countries with high rates of stunting and malnutrition—have achieved positive and sustainable nutrition outcomes through a simple community-led gardening model. And in each case, the key ingredients to success have been local leadership and local modeling of methods.
My visit to Rwanda was part of an evaluation of the USAID/Peace Corps Small Project Assistance (SPA) Program which identified community buy-in and leadership as the most critical factor in ensuring long-term sustainability as exemplified in successful gardening-for-nutrition projects in Rwanda and Malawi. In Rwanda, these projects were co-led by Peace Corps Volunteers and selected local health centers—government facilities that provide care for catchment areas of 15 to 20 villages—and implemented with community health workers (CHWs), who serve as primary care providers and health educators in their communities.
In projects that introduced kitchen vegetable gardens and soymilk production, Peace Corps Volunteers trained CHWs in gardening techniques and the nutritional value of the foods they could grow. CHWs then began producing soymilk and/or building their own vegetable garden, and—of critical importance—sharing the products with their neighbors, particularly mothers of young children.
CHWs—initially accompanied by Volunteers—led gardening workshops in their communities, and subsequently incorporated the training into their weekly or monthly community cooking classes and regular visits to community members, especially mothers. The evaluation revealed that these initiatives were still ongoing three to five years after the Volunteer had left the community. Although collection of specific health and nutrition indicators was not built into the projects, the evaluation team met with CHWs and health center staff who reported significantly reduced cases of malnourished children in their catchment areas—from approximately 15-20 before the program to only a few at the time of the site visits.
"The program has had immense benefits for the community, especially mothers who are now able to maintain high health starting at conception. The number of malnourished children has drastically reduced due to these trainings."
—Health Center staff member and SPA grantee, Rwanda
The success of the kitchen garden model is further exemplified by a recent program in northern Afghanistan. From 2014 to 2019, the USAID Regional Agriculture Development Project-North (RADP-North) trained 13,000 women beneficiaries in hygiene and nutrition and supported 7,000 kitchen gardens across four provinces. Follow-up visits in 2019 revealed that 90 percent of these gardens have been maintained. Furthermore, women beneficiaries reported taking an active role in sharing nutrition principles within their communities.
Key lessons learned for sustaining kitchen gardens include the following:
- Secure buy-in from community elders or leaders before initiating the program. Gaining the endorsement of local leaders takes time, but it is crucial. In northern Afghanistan, diligent coordination during the first 18 months of RADP-North was required to gain acceptance of the nutrition training in each village, starting with a community consultation (shura) with elders and other local stakeholders. Once the community leaders became convinced, the program gained broad community support.
- Educate both leaders and beneficiaries of the nutritional benefits of behavior change. In Rwanda, Peace Corps Volunteers trained CHWs in the nutritional value of the vegetables they were growing and of soy as a source of protein, as well as the critical importance of protein in an infant’s development. Likewise, in Afghanistan, RADP-North conducted extensive nutrition training with beneficiaries prior to introducing the kitchen gardens. Training participants in both countries reported feeling both empowered by this knowledge and motivated to make nutritional changes for their families.
- Engage women. RADP-North targeted women as the primary recipients of training because of their role as household caretakers and food preparers. Similarly, in Rwanda, CHWs focused on training mothers of young children.
- Train community members—who have adopted the methods—to be trainers and models. In Afghanistan, training participants were carefully selected for their ability to communicate lesson principles to others. Their example led to grassroots adoption of the approach on a household-by-household basis.
- Incorporate cooking classes into the gardening training to ensure that beneficiaries know how to prepare the foods they are growing and to integrate them into family meals.
- Follow up regularly to ensure continuity of interventions. In Rwanda, initially CHWs and Peace Corps Volunteers conducted joint follow-up visits to mothers who had been trained, both to monitor the continued use of the techniques and to measure children’s health outcomes (such as increases in height and weight). Eventually, the CHWs integrated the new techniques and habits into their routine visits and health activities. CHWs and health center staff reported that reinforcing the nutrition lessons on a regular basis encouraged women to maintain the new gardening, cooking, and family meal habits—especially when they could see the improvements in children’s growth.
- Model new methods. Visible pilot gardens and cooking demonstrations help to convince communities of their effectiveness, thus engendering broader community buy-in and motivation to sustain and even expand the projects, according to the SPA program evaluation. For example, prior to introducing kitchen gardens to community members, Volunteers developed a sample kitchen garden on the grounds of the local health center, which they tended together with CHWs. Although community members were initially skeptical about growing soy, they became convinced when they saw the CHWs growing soy themselves and feeding it to their own and their neighbors’ children, with good health results.
Household kitchen gardening is a simple, inexpensive means of improving nutrition that embodies USAID’s approach of strengthening both the commitment and the capacity of local actors to own development outcomes and sustain results. Indeed, the principles of local engagement and leadership essential to the launch and take-up of the gardening-for-nutrition programs are the very factors that are sustaining these gardens over the long term.