Many Sundays you can find Mackdrina Kooze standing in front of church congregations dotted around Mazabuka in Zambia. Her message is simple. “We need to talk about food safety,” she says. “It’s not just about the taste of the food, it’s about the health of our families.”
Kooze is a small-scale farmer from Shimungalu, a fishing village on the banks of the Kafue River. She is on a mission to raise awareness about the importance of food safety.
After receiving training from the Lusaka-based Solidaridad Network, she has taken it upon herself to visit churches in her area to spread the word. The network’s #SafeFoodZambia initiative is a significant effort towards promoting good practices in food production and consumption, with a focus on fruits and vegetables.
Smallholder farmers make up a significant proportion of the farming households in Zambia, accounting for about 75% of the total.
These farmers operate small farms with an average size of two hectares, relying on family labour and simple hand tools.
However, experts believe that despite their small scale, they have the potential to contribute significantly to food security in the country, especially if they receive the necessary support to drive sustainable production and adhere to recognised standards for farm and food safety.
For Kooze, this is personal – she believes that her parents’ ill health is related to the pesticides they used during their years as farmers. Growing up, her parents farmed a small plot of land, using buckets to draw water from the nearby river to irrigate their crops.
“We used to do a little bit of gardening that we could manage,” she recalls. “But by the time we met our resource supporters who managed to help us with pipes, we were able to buy an engine pump through a loan. That’s how we became big farmers, growing tomatoes, onions, and lots of vegetables.”
A life-changing experience
Kooze’s dedication to farming caught the attention of Solidaridad, who selected her as a lead farmer in their skills transfer network. “They used to come and check what we were doing there,” she explained. “When they saw that we were always busy at the garden, they picked me as a lead farmer because I was able to teach people what I was doing.”
Through Solidaridad, Kooze received training in food safety and sustainable farming practices. It was a wake-up call for her. “I realised that we were doing things that were harming our health,” she said. “We were using pesticides without understanding the risks.”
It was a realization that hit home for Kooze. Her parents, who had farmed for years using the same pesticides without knowledge of good safety practices, were both suffering from chronic health problems. “My mom and dad were farmers from the beginning, using the same pails to draw water and planting vegetables,” she recalled.
“That’s how they educated [my siblings and I]. But I failed to finish my education because of financial issues. Later, when I divorced from my husband, I came back to the farm and joined my parents.”
Karin Kleinbooi, a senior regional programme manager at the Solidaridad Southern Africa, believes that fruit and vegetable producers like Kooze need to improve their practices to ensure the safety of their products for consumers and the environment. They must use information technologies and follow the correct doses of pesticides and fertilisers while observing hygiene during harvesting to prevent contamination and protect themselves.
Service providers also play a crucial role in raising public awareness, educating farmers, consumers, and policymakers on sustainable and safe fruit and vegetable production, basic hygiene and safety requirements, handling, and storage of these goods.
Kleinbooi also emphasises the need for adequate food safety standards to be in place and the importance of complying with the laws and regulations in Zambia regarding hygienic-sanitary requirements for production, transport, storage, inspection, and surveillance to prevent public health threats and risks. Fruits and vegetables must be handled hygienically and free of contamination to protect consumers’ health and safety.
She says, “The #SafeFoodZambia initiative is crucial for reducing foodborne illnesses, improving the quality and hygiene of fruits and vegetables, and protecting the life, health, and physical safety of producers and consumers in Zambia. The campaign will leverage on various initiatives, including hands-on activities, knowledge-sharing, and social media outreach to disseminate information and inspire Zambians, both farmers and consumers alike, to adopt safer food practices.”
Meanwhile, Kooze continues to lead a group of farmers in her community, sharing her knowledge and experience to help them farm sustainably and safely. But she knows that change won’t happen overnight. “It’s difficult to convince people to change their ways,” she said. “But I tell them that we need to think about the long-term. We need to think about the health of our families.”
For Kooze, visiting churches to talk about food safety is a way to reach a wider audience. “People come to church to learn and to listen,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity to spread the word.”
Her passion for the topic is clear, as she implores the congregations to take action. “We need to be more aware of the food we eat. We need to ask questions about where it comes from and how it was grown. We need to think about the health of our families.”