Thousands of Children in Malawi Are Learning How to Grow Food at School

©. K Martinko -- Josie Redmonds (right) accepts the Lush Young Projects Award in London on May 16, 2018.

The Malawi Schools Permaculture Clubs, a recipient of the 2018 Lush Spring Prize, provides basic gardening kits and lesson packs to teachers in order to teach valuable agricultural skills.

This past week, TreeHugger was invited to attend the second annual Spring Prize for Social and Environmental Regeneration, hosted by Lush Cosmetics in the UK. The first two days were spent at beautiful Emerson College in East Sussex, where the prize winners and other guests gathered for workshops and discussions; the final day was the award ceremony in London.

During this time I spoke with many of the winners to learn more about their projects and why they were selected for the Spring Prize, and over the next few weeks I will share these stories on TreeHugger. I came away from the event feeling inspired and hopeful. These projects are all fighting to create a world that's more resilient, self-sustaining, and nourishing, and thanks to the Lush Spring Prize, that fight has become a bit easier.

One could say the Malawi Schools Permaculture Clubs started almost by accident. In 2015, a single school in the Nkhata Bay district of northern Malawi decided to teach kids how to grow food, so it launched a gardening program. The program did so well, engaging the children and piquing the curiosity of their parents, that an end-of-year open day resulted in four more schools begging to join. Since then an additional five schools have joined, and Malawi Schools Permaculture Clubs is poised on a verge of national expansion!

Well, not exactly, but if founder Josie Redmonds has her way, it will be soon. Redmonds, who attended the Lush Spring Prize on behalf of her organization to collect a Young Projects Award (worth £20,000), spoke with TreeHugger about why Malawi is such a good place for a permaculture gardening project:

"Malawi has the potential of sustainability. It's still got community, people are still on the land, there's not a lot of government involvement, so you actually have a space for change, in a way."

Malawians, however, are always told they are poor -- and they are when wealth is measured only in terms of GDP. Sadly this means that they, too, have begun to view themselves as poor. But as Redmonds told me, they may be "monetarily poor, but banana rich. Mango rich. Avocado rich." There is water, the climate is great, plants grow when tended. "Malawi is rich with things and resources, but not money; and yet they have everything they need, if they knew it."

The Permaculture Clubs are self-selecting, meaning that the schools, all of which are locally-run (not by NGOs), choose to participate if they want. Once they do, they receive a very basic gardening kit that consists of a few tools, some trees, seeds (right now they're "crappy hybrid seeds" but Redmonds hopes to get some nice organic ones soon), and stationery to allow teachers to write lessons on paper flip charts. There is no monetary benefit to participation, which sets it apart from the countless handouts from charities that set up shop in Malawi and fuel what Redmonds describes as "a real culture of expecting things."

Redmonds creates lesson packs that provide the framework for teaching, and then schools are left to take their Permaculture Club in whatever direction they want. The different results have been very interesting to see, Redmonds said. Some schools have focused more on the theory, while others have transformed their school grounds within a year, going from bare earth to fruit trees and lush banana plants.

The Lush Spring Prize will go toward printing more detailed lesson packs that will allow the curriculum to expand to five satellite locations across Malawi (hence the "national expansion" I mentioned earlier), organizing teachers' meetings twice a term, and, of course, assembling more gardening kits. The money, Redmonds said, "takes the weight off. We know we can provide what we said we would [to other schools in Malawi], and develop it further."

The project is a wonderful example of tremendous change being driven by minimal material inputs. The main benefit of this project is knowledge, Redmonds said. "When people ask, 'What's in it for me?', we say 'knowledge'." This is knowledge that the students' ancestors had, but recently it has been superseded by advertising and a different way of life. Fortunately, in Malawi, it's not too late to reclaim that agricultural knowledge, and Redmonds is on an admirable mission to ensure that happens.