Healthy diets from sustainable food systems all year round – a case study captured on film in Zambia

A 3-year research-for-development initiative in the Barotse floodplain brought scientists and community members together to improve food and nutrition security. Find out more and meet the people involved, courtesy of two new videos

A 3-year research-for-development initiative in the Barotse floodplain, Zambia, supported by the CGIAR research programs Aquatic Agricultural Systems and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, brought scientists and community members together to improve food and nutrition security all year round.

Activities included assessing seasonal food availability, dietary intake patterns of the population, nutrient gaps across seasons and how to increase the use of seasonally available foods. Find out more in the report below, and virtually meet the community members who took part, courtesy of two new videos about the initiative.

The Barotse floodplain is the second largest wetland in Zambia. It is home to approximately 250,000 people, mainly subsistence farmers, who depend on the floodplain for food and livelihoods, adopting migratory farming approaches due to annual flooding of the Zambezi River. When the waters are low, the floodplains are used for cattle-grazing and for growing crops such as maize, rice and sweet potato. When the waters are high (the peak happens around April), the people and their cattle migrate to the less fertile uplands. Fish is a very important ingredient in the traditional diet, but fish supplies are subject to seasonal availability and have recently begun to decline for a variety of socio-ecological pressures.  

Much of the population live below the poverty line. There is also a high prevalence of malnutrition, especially in children under five years of age. Climate change, reduced crop yields, livestock disease and the diminishing supply of fish are adding to the challenges that these communities face. 

Bioversity International, working closely with partners and local communities, has been carrying out a 3-year project to look at food availability across different seasons and find locally acceptable and culturally appropriate food resources to improve diets. The area is rich in biodiversity and natural resources that could be better used by local communities to diversify local agricultural production, livelihoods and diets to increase the availability of nutrient-rich sources of food all year round such as seeds, nuts and legumes, and strengthen the resilience of farming systems in the challenging local environment.

Women cooking outdoors in the Barotse floodplain, Zambia.
</p><p>Credit: Bioversity International/E.Hermanowicz

The research took a ‘whole diet – whole year’ approach which means taking a holistic approach to identify dietary patterns and nutritional gaps across the seasons. Rather than focusing on a single nutrition problem, such as vitamin A deficiency, it considers that an individual or household can have many nutritional problems at the same time – for example, lacking more than one essential micronutrient, over-consuming high-energy staples, or a combination of both.  And these problems can vary at different times of the year, or at different times in a person’s life, such as during pregnancy.

Activities carried out in the Barotse floodplain include:

  • analyzing current dietary patterns and identification of seasonal gaps in dietary intakes, carried out over three seasons
  • working closely with the communities to assess with them what foods are available, to classify these foods into nutritionally important food groups by season and to identify which of these foods can be used during different seasons to fill identified gaps – for example, nutritious cowpeas which are easy to grow even with little water and also can be dried and stored for months of the year when staple food stocks are running low. 
  • organizing cooking demonstrations with local nutrition groups as a way to both assess nutrition knowledge and as part of nutrition and food hygiene education, for example, members explain why they have chosen particular recipes to showcase, how they think it relates to nutrition, and through the training, adapt their recipes using different ingredients that could make it more nutritionally balanced, such as by adding groundnuts or dried fish.
  • developing seasonal calendars to help each community visualize which combinations of foods can meet requirements during different months of the year
  • carrying out community awareness and group learning activities in addition to the cooking demonstrations, including introducing learning plots where communities can experiment with growing different crops and perhaps different combinations of crops, and hosting advocacy events such as a Food Fair to raise the profile of local knowledge and food culture.


Dishes prepared on site for a food fair held in the Barotse floodplain, Zambia. The food was judged in a competition for the most nutritious dish.
</p><p>Credit: Bioversity International/E.HermanowiczYou can see many these community-based activities in this new video including the nutrition group members taking part in cooking demonstrations, sharing what they learnt and encouraging others to form similar groups.  Watch it here.

There is also a second video that has been made in the local Lozi language with English subtitles which will be shared back with the community as a learning tool. In the video, nutrition group members explain why diversified diets are important and encourage others to form similar groups.  Watch it here. 

 The research interventions have really shown an increase in knowledge about nutrition in the communities, and an increased appetite for using different available ingredients across the year to eat a healthier, more balanced diet. 

As Sharon Akufuna, Community Facilitator says in the video: “This programme of nutrition brought us together, sometimes we sit together, discuss with the other women, even men have joined the group – they now like cooking more than in the past, as in the past they thought cooking was only for women”. 

This research approach is one that can work anywhere, as it is adapted to a particular community – it is not specifically focused on one crop or one nutrition problem.

In the Barotse Floodplain, there are still barriers to overcome, including low-level farm productivity, gender equity when it comes to decision-making about what to grow and sell on the land, and insufficient income to give them access to good healthcare, pay for children’s schooling and to buy nutritious foods that they cannot produce themselves.  More work needs to carried out with these communities to address these barriers.

But diversifying diets also means diversifying production, which is a ‘win win’, not just for healthier diets but also for more sustainable food systems, all year round.

For more information, contact:
Gina Kennedy 

Watch the videos:

See photographs from the Barotse Floodplain

This research is carried out in partnership with Worldfish, and contributes to the CGIAR Research Program on Aquatic Agricultural Systems, and Agriculture for Nutrition and Health

It also is part of Bioversity International’s Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems Initiative, and delivers on the Sustainable Development Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture; Target 2:1:  By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.

Woman cooking outdoors in the Barotse floodplain, Zambia 
Dishes prepared on site for a food fair held in the Barotse floodplain, Zambia
Credit: Bioversity International/E.Hermanowicz