Children and Wild Foods in the Context of Deforestation in Rural Malawi
Children and Wild Foods in the Context of Deforestation in Rural Malawi
H. Maseko 0 1
Charlie M. Shackleton 0 1
J. Nagoli 0 1
D. Pullanikkatil 0 1
0 WorldFish - Malawi , P. O Box, 229 Zomba , Malawi
1 Department of Environmental Science, Rhodes University , Grahamstown 6140 , South Africa
2 Charlie M. Shackleton
There is growing recognition of the contribution of wild foods to local diets, nutrition, and culture. Yet disaggregation of understanding of wild food use by gender and age is limited. We used a mixed methods approach to determine the types, frequencies, and perceptions of wild foods used and sold by children in four villages in southern Malawi that have different levels of deforestation. Household and individual dietary diversity scores are low at all sites. All households consume one or more wild foods. Across the four sites, children listed 119 wild foods, with a wider variety at the least deforested sites than the most deforested ones. Older children can name more wild foods than younger ones. More children from poor households sell wild foods than from well-off households. Several reasons were provided for the consumption or avoidance of wild foods (most commonly taste, contribution to health, limited alternatives, hunger, availability, local taboos).
Age; Children; Consumption frequency; Diversity; Food security; Wild foods; Malawi
Wild foods are components of diets and local economies the
world over, from rural Africa
(Ncube et al. 2016)
(McLain et al. 2014)
. Whilst most people eat wild foods,
diversity and frequency vary greatly between and within
households, villages, countries, and regions. Thus, while for
some the collection or consumption of wild foods may be a
daily occurrence, for others it is a seasonal or rare delicacy.
Nonetheless, with over 7000 edible plant species and a similar
number of edible animal species, the contribution of wild
foods to peoples’ diets should not be underestimated
(Bharucha and Pretty 2010)
. In many regions wild foods
contribute significantly to household food security, dietary
diversity, and nutritional wellbeing (Kajembe et al. 2000) because
they add diversity to the mostly starch-based, staple diets of
households throughout the world
(Uusiku et al. 2010; Powell
et al. 2011; Ncube et al. 2016)
. Without wild foods, global and
national levels of food insecurity would be significantly
(Bharucha and Pretty 2010)
and consequently they
need to be an integral part of any international and local
policies and strategies to address food insecurity.
The high variation in use and acceptance of wild foods is a
reflection of their availability and local food cultures
. In many regions diets are in transition as a consequence
of globalisation and increasing market access
Damman et al. 2008; Ncube et al. 2016)
. The former is
associated with declines in agrobiodiversity, dietary diversity, and
knowledge of wild foods and local cultivars. The latter brings
exposure to and convenience of new foods that may be easily
and constantly available
(van Vliet et al. 2015a)
. At a local
scale changes in knowledge and consumption patterns of wild
species have been linked to land use change, deforestation,
migration from rural areas, and mass schooling
et al. 2016; Sylvester et al. 2016)
Land use change and deforestation are particularly
pertinent to debates on ecosystem services provision, food
security, and the role of wild foods. The expansion of agriculture is
often at the expense of forests and other natural landscapes
that are noteworthy sources of ecosystem services, including
wild foods that diversify diets and contribute essential
(Poppy et al. 2014)
Powell et al. (2011)
showed that rural households in Tanzania close to patches of
trees or forests had higher dietary diversity and more nutrient
dense foods than households far from patches of trees. In
found that household food
security was greatest in the least deforested zones. Similarly,
Ickowitz et al. (2013)
reported, after examination of national
scale data, that there was a positive relationship between tree
cover and dietary diversity and fruit and vegetable
consumption for 21 African countries.
Yet, the nexus between forests, land use change, wild foods
and nutrition are poorly understood or explored
et al. 2016)
. This is especially so at the local scale, where the
benefits of land use change and agricultural intensification are
not uniformly enjoyed. Many households continue to
experience limited access to land, have to work on lands of
poor quality or are economically marginalised and therefore
unable to purchase the necessary inputs for intensive
agriculture. Such households therefore depend on a diversity
of food sources, amongst which wild foods remain key. And
there are also those who simply prefer wild foods for their
taste or cultural meanings. Consequently, changes in land
use that deplete the diversity or abundance of wild foods
potentially jeopardise food security and nutrition of some
households. For example,
van Noordwijk et al. (2014
showed that consumption of bushmeat and wild vegetables
declined markedly, as did protein intake, with agricultural
expansion and intensification in northern Laos, whilst
argued that in Malawi, forest resources need to be
secured to allow many rural households to cope with the
ravages of HIV/AIDS.
Nonetheless, there is some academic debate on how
deforestation influences wild food availability. Wild food use varies
spatially and temporally because availability and use are
affected by seasonality, abundance, preferences among different
(Garcia 2006; Uusiku et al. 2010;
Heubach et al. 2011)
, climatic changes, and environmental
(Kamanga et al. 2009)
. Some argue that forest
cover influences availability as noted by studies that reveal a
decline in the diversity of wild foods in the diet during the
conversion of complex woodland systems to simplified crop
land or reduction of forests and woodlands
(Scoones et al.
1992; Jonhson et al. 2013)
even though this does not apply
to all wild food categories. For instance, in three Tanzanian
villages there is a negative correlation between the diversity of
edible plants being eaten and the degree of deforestation
(Scoones et al. 1992) with higher tree cover associated with
high diversity of wild food. Similar findings were found in
(Jonhson et al. 2013)
(Powell et al. 2011)
and in Kenya where the last 20 years of land use change to
agricultural systems have reduced the availability of Mbeere
wild food collection and use
(Scoones et al. 1992)
Ickowitz et al. (2013)
reported a strong positive relationship
between forest cover and household nutrition.
On the other hand,
indicated that in some
contexts deforestation may not significantly affect availability
of selected wild fruits because people tend to be selective
during land clearing for agricultural production. He showed
that the abundance of fruit trees, as measured by percentage
canopy cover, showed no relationship to frequency of wild
fruits used. This indicates that people living in climax
woodland or other complex systems are not basing selection of
fruits on mere abundance of fruit trees; they are actively
selecting for certain fruit species
(Campbell 1987; Kalaba
. In many African countries rural households
intentionally retain fruit trees in their fields or intensify their density
around the homestead
(Schreckenberg 1999; Kalaba 2007;
Shackleton et al. 2008)
. In Malawi, the prevalence of cultural
restrictions governing the use and exploitation of indigenous
trees enables the maintenance of wild fruit species such as
Parinari curatellifolia, Strychnos cocculoides, and Uapaca
kirkiana around homesteads or crop fields (Syampungani et al.
2009). Thus, despite significant changes in woodlands and
their use, their contribution to maintaining health and
providing people’s basic needs appears to remain important
, albeit quantities available and consumed may be
affected. In terms of wild vegetables, many species are prominent
‘weeds’ in agricultural fields and so are promoted in more
(Powell et al. 2014; Kidane
et al. 2015)
. This points to the need to disaggregate responses
by different food types.
In understanding use of wild foods and their contribution to
diets and food security it is imperative that all user-groups are
considered. While considerable research has looked at poor
rural households as major beneficiaries of wild foods
(Paumgarten and Shacketon 2009; Heubach et al. 2011;
, such data need to be further disaggregated
using other social classifications such as age, gender,
education, and location. Children are often overlooked in this
dynamic and rarely feature in dietary surveys and even
ethnobotanical research on wild foods
(McGarry and Shackleton
2009a; van Vliet et al. 2015b; Sylvester et al. 2016)
. Yet they
are important actors in some situations because they spend a
great deal of time outdoors interacting with nature
et al. 2015)
and are also direct collectors and consumers of
(McGarry and Shackleton 2009a; van Vliet et al.
2015b; Sylvester et al. 2016)
. Some wild food species are
regarded as solely or largely children’s foods
. Some children engage in collection and
sale of wild foods to earn income for themselves or their
(Challe and Price 2009; McGarry and Shackleton
. Children’s use of wild foods is often just part of the
family’s broader food procurement strategies
and Price 2007; Sylvester et al. 2016)
. But in some instances,
such as child-headed households, or where parents are migrant
labourers for long periods, or too infirm or elderly to farm or
generate income, children may play a leading role in sourcing
(Setalaphruk and Price 2007; Challe and Price
2009; McGarry and Shackleton 2009a)
. This is particularly
common in areas with high HIV/AIDS rates.
Rural Malawi typifies many of these dynamics, which have
impacts on local and national strategies to attain food security.
Much of rural Malawi has high human population densities,
underlying increasing needs for land for agriculture and high
reliance on forest products
(Kamanga et al. 2009; Timko
. Clearing land for subsistence and cash crop agriculture
is a major driver of deforestation, with Malawi having one of
the highest deforestation rates in sub-Saharan Africa,
approximately 2.5% p.a.
(Fisher et al. 2010; Ministry of Environment
and Natural Resources 2010)
. Deforestation potentially
reduces the supply of wild foods. For example,
report how the richness and abundance of
wild fruit trees declined with deforestation in southern
Malawi. Simultaneously, Malawi has suffered high rates of
HIV/AIDS, which have debilitated the labour supply in many
households and increased dependence on forest resources
In Malawi, food security is typically seen as equivalent to
adequate production of maize, the country’s staple accounting
for more than 60% of total food production
(Ecker and Qaim
. Standardised surveys indicate that the diets of
Malawians are poorly diversified, with over 60% of total food
consumption consisting of starchy food, primarily maize
(Ecker and Qaim 2010; Chilimba et al. 2012)
, although few
s u r v e y s h a v e e x p l i c i t l y i n c l u d e d w i l d f o o d s .
Undernourishment affects approximately 3.5 million people
(one in five) (FAOSTAT 2017), 37% of children under the
age of five are stunted, 3% are wasted, and 12% are
(Chirwa and Ngalawa 2008; Government of Malawi
. The situation is exacerbated by the high prevalence of
(Department of Nutrition, HIV and AIDS 2009)
and the high incidence of poverty. With such worrisome
statistics attaining food security is a concern for policy-makers,
health practitioners, and agriculturalists and yet strategies
remain focused on promoting the availability of staple foods
(Mazunda and Droppelmann 2012; Kerr et al. 2016)
clear neglect of micronutrient sources.
Within this context, we present here a study of wild food
procurement and consumption by children in four villages of
differing deforestation status in southern Malawi. Specifically,
we sought to answer the following questions: (1) What wild
foods are used by children? (2) What is the frequency of
consumption of wild foods by children? (3) What are the reasons
children consume wild foods? And (4) are these patterns
influenced by local level deforestation status?
Our study focused specifically on children. Harvesting of
wild foods by adults has been covered in several studies
(Cavendish 2000; Vaughan 2007; Shackleton and Gumbo
2010; Paumgarten and Shacketon 2009; Heubach et al.
2011; Maroyi 2011)
; however, research on harvesting of wild
foods by children is limited. Children have usually been
ignored in rural environmental research despite being a
significant user group and are invisible actors in this field of research
(Challe and Price 2009; McGarry and Shackleton 2009a;
Alexander et al. 2015)
. In this regard, children’s consumption
of wild foods in their environments and during play
(Campbell 1987; Garcia 2006)
, or as snacks and meals, is
hardly quantified and explored despite the awareness that
these foods may contribute significantly to their well-being
(Lowore 2006; McGarry and Shackleton 2009a)
. We address
this knowledge gap by focusing on children’s as opposed to
adults’ harvesting activities.
The study was conducted during later summer (Feb – May)
2013, in the Zomba District, southern Malawi, as part of a
larger study examining ecosystem services trades-offs,
namely BAttaining Sustainable Services from Ecosystems through
Tradeoff Scenarios^ or ASSETS
(Poppy et al. 2014)
. As part
of the larger project, four sites were selected along a gradient
of woody vegetation cover and deforestation from Lake
Chilwa in the east, through and beyond the Zomba forest
reserve in the west (Table 1). Land use and cover images
showing changes between 1990 and 2010 were used to make
Among the four villages (Makombe, Kasonga, Mtuluma,
and Mpheta; Table 1), Kasonga has higher number of
households who are better off compared to the rest, and Mpheta has
the least number of better off households. Economic activities
vary, but agriculture is the dominant occupation in all four sites.
The mean annual rainfall in Zomba is 2000 mm, making it
one of the wettest and agriculturally rich locations in Malawi
. The economy of Zomba district is
agrobased, with maize for subsistence and sale being the most
common crop, along with tobacco as a cash crop in some areas
(Zomba District Assembly 2009)
. Other common crops
include rice, cassava, potatoes, beans, and pigeon peas.
Livestock production is mainly for subsistence, based on
cattle, goats, pigs and poultry
(Zomba District Assembly 2009)
The population density within the district is approximately
231 persons per km2. Formal employment is limited, and
24% of adult males and 28% of females in the district are
A mixed methods approach was adopted in each village, using
a combination of household 24-h dietary recall surveys,
a (hh status was determined via participatory, self categorisation)
b NSO ( 2014)
c Number of children attending the last class of primary school (excluding repeaters) divided by number of children of primary school completion age
(age appropriate to final class of primary school)
d Number of children attending the last class of primary school during the previous school year who are in the first class of secondary school during the
current school year divided by number of children attending the class of primary school during the previous school year
participatory methods, key informant interviews, and focus
group discussions. Standard 24 h recall methods were used
to ascertain the number of meals eaten per day, the Household
Dietary Diversity Score (HDDS) and the Individual Dietary
Diversity Score (IDDS)
(Swindale and Bilinsky 2006; FAO
. The person responsible for food preparation in the
household, most commonly the mother or adolescent girls,
was interviewed to provide details of all foods prepared in
the household in the last 24 h. These interviews were held
firstly in the months of January and February during what
are regarded as the end of the food insecure period and
secondly in the months of March to April during periods of food
security. Foods consumed were coded according to a set of 12
food groups and the HDDS calculated.
The participatory approaches included food diaries and
transect walks with children in each village. After ethics
approval was granted via Rhodes University and permission was
granted for the work by each local village authority and the
parents, 150 children (8–18 years old) were selected using a
stratified sample across the four villages. Accounting for the
different number of households in each village, every fourth
house in Mphetha was sampled, every third one in Kasonga
and Makombe, and every second one in Mtuluma. Each child
within the target age cohort in a sample household was
provided with an interactive food diary that they were encouraged
to complete on a daily basis for two one-week periods. The
first week was in February 2013 and the second in late April
2013, to represent food insecure and food secure periods,
respectively. The purpose of the diary was explained to all
members of the household and instructions and trial runs were
conducted for each household individually. A local assistant
from each village was also trained and helped to encourage
and motivate completion of the diaries by visiting households
every 1–2 days. Data on relative socioeconomic status of each
household were available from the larger ASSETS study.
Transect walks were conducted with one or two groups of
3–8 children in each village. The route of each transect walk
was planned to cover as many of the vegetation types and land
use areas in and around each village as possible. Walks lasted
between two and three hours in the afternoons (after school in
the mornings). However, several female participants opted out
partway through and so were not present for the entire walk.
During the walk participants pointed out wild plants and
animals that they consume, provided the local name and general
information about the species, and how they catch or collect it
and eat it. Samples of identified plants were collected for
formal identification at the National Herbarium and
Botanical Gardens in Zomba. The identification of wild
animal species was done through local experts and desk research.
The identification of birds was done with the help of the Bird
Hunter’s Association from Mpheta. The transect walks could
only reveal the species available at that time and would not
account for wild species collected in other seasons. In a few
instances wild foods named by children could not be validated
by community members or experts. For instance, bird names
such as daniele and sisisi were only used by children and
identification of these species could not be done.
Meanwhile, plants such as lububa (Rumex abysinicus) were
only known to children and not adults in the village, but could
be identified by experts through the samples collected.
Focus group discussions were also conducted at each
village. These consisted of general discussions and activities
around wild foods with at least two groups comprising 8–15
children. Prior to the general discussion, each child was asked
to list as many wild foods as they could within a three minute
period. Thereafter, groups were separated by gender and open
discussions were held about wild foods, where they are found,
how they are accessed, and general attitudes towards them.
Quantitative data collected from the field were entered in
Excel and imported into SPSS for analysis. Comparisons of
continuous variables between villages were done via
ANOVA, and between food secure and food insecure periods
via a t-test. Proportion data were compared using a
Childrens’ Diets in Rural Zomba
At a household level women and older girls are responsible for
the preparation of meals. The consumption and dominance of
cereal-based diets were common during both food secure (FS)
periods (Mar – Apr) and food insecure (FI) periods (Dec –
Feb). In the morning a typical meal was tubers or a processed
cereal such as wholegrain porridge with or without any
beverage, such as tea. In the afternoon/evening a child’s typical
meal consisted of a processed cereal, mostly nsima, with
vegetables and/or pulses, and sometimes meat products. A meal
of nsima, made from maize flour, was widely believed to be a
satisfying meal regardless of the presence of other foods.
Various African Leafy Vegetables (ALVs) and pulses were
recorded as common side dishes taken to complement nsima
and other grains. Data from the food diaries showed that
common ALVs consumed by children across the four villages
included leaves from pumpkins, green beans, and lentils and
wild species such as Amaranthus, Bidens or Cleome. From the
24 h food recall, the percentage of children who consumed
ALVs were 59% in Makombe, 63% in Kasonga, 27% in
Mtuluma, and 65% in Mpheta.
There was no significant difference (t = 0.36; p > 0.05) in
the number of meals taken by children at home during the FS
and FI periods, averaging above two in both (Table 2). During
the FI period, a smaller group of households (4%) only had
one meal a day, while the lowest number of meals at
household level during FS period was two. Children from
Makombe, Mpheta, and Kasonga all received porridge (made
from soya beans) at their school during school days, which
added to the average number of meals taken by children in FS
and FI periods. In Malawi, the School Feeding Programme
was introduced in primary schools to accelerate the
achievement of the Millennium Development Goal 2 on Education to
increase enrollment, attendance, and retention of children in
(Department of Nutrition, HIV, and AIDS 2009)
Despite the insignificant difference in the number of meals
taken by children at home, children indicated that there was a
difference in the quality of meals during the FI and FS periods;
food eaten during the FS period were satisfying and of good
quality. This was supported by the HDDS and IDDS with both
scores being significantly lower during the food insecure period
than the FS period (t = 4.47, p < 0.0005) (Table 2). There were
significant differences among the villages in the number of
meals, HDDS, and IDDS (Table 2). In both FS and FI periods,
Kasonga registered the highest DDS, followed by Mpheta,
Mtuluma, and Makombe. However, the difference was
insignificant between Mpheta and Mtuluma. Makombe reported the
lowest dietary diversity scores for both FS and FI periods.
Children complemented the meals taken in their homes
with other foods outside their home, because the IDDS was
always greater than the HDDS in all study sites and both food
availability periods (Table 2). These other foods were
consumed as meals or snacks at school, at the market, during play,
and in their friends’ homes. Snacks reported in children’s food
diaries included biscuits, sweets, drinks, and fruits (both wild
and conventional fruits). There was a high correlation between
a child’s IDDS and household affluence, with children from
better-off households reporting higher IDDS than children
from poor households (t = 4.72: p < 0.001).
Diversity of Wild Foods Consumed by Children
Every child participant in each village consumed at least one
type of wild food, but there were inter- and intra-location
variations. Across all four villages, the children recalled a total
of 119 species (Fig. 1)
(see Maseko 2015 for full list)
, with the
largest groups being fruits (33%), birds (20%), and wild
The lowest numbers of wild foods (44) were reported in
Makombe and Mpheta where forest cover was the lowest. In
contrast, 59 species were reported in Mtuluma and 48 in
Kasonga (Fig. 2). However, the composition of the types of
species varied. The Shannon-Weiner index for the two most
forested villages (Mtuluma – 1.79; Kasonga – 1.78) were
marginally higher than those for the two least forested villages
(Makombe – 1.65; Mpheta – 1.63), indicating a higher
diversity of wild foods. Wild fruits were the most species rich group
in all villages except Mpheta, where wild birds were the most
species rich group. In Mpheta, 33% of all wild food species
recalled by the children were birds and no bushmeat was
reported for the village. On the other hand, 34% of wild foods
reported in Makombe were fruits, 25% were vegetables, 18%
were birds, and the remainder bushmeat species (Fig. 2).
There was no difference (t = 0.60; p = 0.55) in the number
of wild foods reported in group-rankings between boys
(7.3 ± 3.4) and girls (6.9 ± 3.5), or by socioeconomic group
(F = 2.49; p = 0.07).
There was a weak positive relationship (r2 = 0.062;
p = 0.011) between child age and the number of wild foods
listed in three minutes (Fig. 3). Children aged ten years or
younger listed on average 5.4 ± 2.9 wild foods, whilst those
15 or older listed approximately 50% more (7.6 ± 3.5).
Wild Food Consumption during Food Secure and Food
On a 24 h recall basis, 23% of children consumed at least one
wild food. However, over a longer period, captured by means
of the weekly food diaries, 82% of children consumed at least
one type of wild food during the FS and FI periods (Table 3).
There was no variation in the overall proportion of children
consuming wild foods during FS and the FI periods other than
in Mpheta where no wild foods were listed during the food
insecure period. However, wild vegetables were consumed
more during the FI period (Table 3). During the FI periods,
Birds Bushmeat Insects Small Fruits Tubers Vegetables
Fig. 1 Number of different types of wild food species identified by
children in four villages in the Zomba district, Malawi
(n = 21)
(n = 20)
some children relied strongly on wild food, such as insects or a
mixed dish of wild vegetables as a meal. For example, one girl
from Mpheta commented:
When we do not have other food, we grind okra to create
flour and prepare it just as nsima, then we have it with
Amaranthus as a relish. Sometimes we simply mix okra
and Amaranthus to have a vegetable soup and take it as a
Consumption of wild vegetables and wild fruits was
common in all the sites with an average of 64% and 58% of
children consuming wild vegetables and wild fruits,
respectively. Over a seven day period wild vegetables were the most
consumed food type, with 70% of children consuming them
during the FI period and 58% during the FS period (χ2 = 3.1;
p = 0.08). Consumption of mushrooms was also higher during
the FI period (17%) than the FS period (2%) (χ2 = 13.1;
p = 0.0003). In contrast, there was little difference (χ2 = 0.5;
p = 0.47) in the consumption of wild fruits between the FS
(60%) and the FI (55%) periods (Fig. 4).
Children commonly consumed a variety of bushmeat and
small mammals in Kasonga, with a low frequency in both FS
(11%) and FI periods (13%). These included hare, mice,
duiker, monkey, and bushbuck. Consumption of crabs was also
recorded in Kasonga and Mpheta, with 10% of children
consuming them. On the other hand, consumption of insects was
low (2%) in all villages. Consumption of birds was common
in Mpheta, with up to 11% of children eating birds during the
FI period and 7% during the FS period (χ2 = 1.0; p = 0.32).
Consumption of honey was reported in Kasonga.
There was a clear distinction in the consumption of wild
foods, both in frequency and intensity (Table 4), over longer
periods of time, such as a year. The children were asked how
often they consume wild foods to determine the level of
continued dependence or non-dependence on wild foods by. In all
sites, wild vegetables were commonly eaten several times a
month or several times a week. Only a few respondents stated
that they never ate wild vegetables. Most children in Makombe,
Kasonga, and Mtuluma reported consuming wild fruits.
Children from Mtuluma reported the highest frequency in the
consumption of wild fruits with at least 53% of children
consuming them weekly, while 65% of children in Kasonga stated
that they consumed wild fruits several times during the month.
In Makombe, approximately one-third of children (35%)
consumed wild foods frequently, a slightly larger proportion (39%)
rated their frequency of consumption as low. In Mpheta, 38%
of children reported a low frequency in the consumption of
wild fruits, and an additional 38% did not consume wild fruits.
Across all sites, bushmeat was often consumed several times a
year with highest frequencies in Kasonga and Makombe. Most
(76%) children in Mpheta did not consume bushmeat.
However, birds and insects were commonly consumed several
times a year in all study sites (Table 4).
Wild Food Gathering and Consumption
Children’s consumption of wild foods was determined by
several internal (those inspired by children) and external (those
not made by children) factors (Table 5). Many children
indicated that they consume wild foods because the foods
contribute positively to their nutritional status and Bgive them good
health.^ According to the children, wild foods were fattening,
y = 0.3016x + 3.2521
r² = 0.063
fdo im 8
Child age (yr)
Small mammals Fruits
provide energy and strength, protect the body from diseases,
and supplement the blood. In addition, the children said that
wild foods provide nutrients such as iron, carbohydrates,
vitamins, and proteins. Forty-five percent indicated that wild
fruits provide good health and nutrition, with the
corresponding figure for wild vegetables being 28%. While older
children (13–18 years old) were able to provide some details
regarding the nutritional information of wild foods, younger
children (8–13 years old) simply indicated that the wild foods
contribute to good health. Some children also indicated that
they consume wild foods to satisfy the six food groups to be
healthy, as taught at school.
On the other hand, some wild foods, such as some insects,
birds, and bushmeat, were consumed because they were
regarded as delicious and provide variety to the diet and are
locally termed Bzakudya za nkhwiru^ (a delicacy; nutritionally
valuable and tastier) (Table 5). This was common for
animalbased wild foods. They are considered a delicacy and provide
alternatives to commonly consumed side-dishes, at the same
time providing fats and proteins.
Convenience was another reason that influenced children’s
use of wild foods. It was clear that children considered wild
fruits to be tasty and sweet and was a common snack to take
when hungry and fruits were observed (Table 5). When
children go to school, for play, to fetch firewood or water, to
conduct farm activities or go to the market, they consume wild
fruits along the way.
A lack of other alternative foods in the household was also
mentioned as a factor prompting some children to collect and
consume wild foods, suggesting that household
socioeconomic status plays a role. Thirty-three percent of children stated
that they consumed wild vegetables because their household
lacked other alternatives (Table 5).
A number of reasons were provided by some children for
not consuming certain types of wild foods. The first was that
they disliked the taste or smell. For instance, Aloe meynharthii
and Bidens are not consumed by some children because they
taste bitter, while to others, Amaranthus species had an
Wild foods commonly consumed by children during a one week period during the food secure (FS) and food insecure (FI) in the four study
Amaranthus spinosus & hybridus
unpleasant smell. Nevertheless, when asked by their parents to
collect these vegetables, they complied. Secondly, some
children indicated that they do not consume particular wild foods
due to medical reasons. For instance, some girls do not
consume Bidens because they suffer from what is culturally
known as Bmutu waukulu^ (migraine). Thirdly, a common
reason was the perceived stigma associated with some wild
foods. During focus group discussions, one girl indicated that,
Bsome children do consume the mentioned wild foods in their
homes but are too shy to reveal and are afraid that others will
0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
FS FI FS FI FS FI FS FI
Makombe Kasonga Mtuluma Mpheta
Wild Fruits Wild Vegetables Bushmeat Birds and Insects
Fig. 4 Consumption of wild foods by children in a 24 h period during
food secure (FS) and insecure (FI) periods in the four study villages
laugh at them.^ These notions differed between wild foods in
different sites indicating that perceptions of wild foods are
mediated by sociocultural norms.
While one wild food was associated with the Bpoverty
complex^ at one site, the same food might be highly valued
at another site. For example, mice and vervet monkeys were
considered food for the poor in Makombe, whilst some children
in Kasonga considered them delicacies. Similarly, wild foods
that were deemed to be associated with poverty in Kasonga
(such as Bidens and Amaranthus) were highly valued and
commonly consumed in Mtuluma. Lastly, some children mentioned
particular beliefs, taboos and faith. For instance, it was stated
that most Muslim children do not consume mice, whereas some
children in Mtuluma indicated that they do not consume vervet
monkeys because they resemble humans. On the other hand,
some children from Kasonga and Makombe did not consume
caterpillars because they felt that they looked scary.
All children in all study sites consumed at least one or more
types of wild foods but there were inter-and intra-location
variations in wild food use. There were clear similarities in the
consumption patterns of certain wild foods (such as wild fruits)
from children who lived near each other by comparing their
food diaries hence suggesting that these wild foods were
consumed as snacks outside their homes. The food diaries also
revealed that some wild foods such as wild vegetables,
Table 4 The percentage of children in four villages reporting a given
frequency of wild food consumption within a year
Makombe Kasonga Mtuluma Mpheta
bushmeat, some birds and insects, were taken as part of the
meals as side dishes and complimented cereals or in some cases
The trends in the frequency in consumption of wild foods
by children across the study sites and between different food
categories differed. In all study sites, wild vegetables were
commonly taken several times a month or several times a
week. Only a few respondents admitted to never eating wild
vegetables. Most children in Makombe, Kasonga and Mtuluma
reported consuming wild fruits. Children from Mtuluma
reported the highest frequency in the consumption of wild fruits with
at least 53% of children consuming them weekly while children
(65%) in Kasonga consumed wild fruits several times during
the month. In Makombe, while some children (35%) consumed
wild foods more frequently, other children’s frequency in
consumption was low (39%). In Mpheta, 38% of children reported
a low frequency in the consumption of wild fruits, and an
additional 38% did not consume the fruits at any time in a year.
Most children in Kasonga consumed bushmeat and the village
recorded the highest frequency of consumption. Across all sites,
bushmeat was often consumed several times a year with highest
frequency in Kasonga and Makombe. Most (76%) children in
Mpheta did not consume bushmeat and the lowest frequency in
consumption was reported in the village. Similarly, birds and
insects were commonly consumed several times a year in all
Commercialisation of Wild Foods by Children
In each village, some children sell one or more types of wild
foods, ranging from 14% of households in Makombe to 35%
in Kasonga, and 37% in both Mtuluma and Mpheta. Poverty
appears to be a significant driver of engagement in the sale of
wild foods because 40% of children from poor households
stated they sell wild foods, whereas only 7% of children from
the better-off households did (χ2 = 30.3; p < 0.0001).
Wild fruits are the most common wild food sold by children
(18%), with trade in Uapaca kirkiana being the most
widespread. Children in Kasonga sold Uapaca kirkiana at the local
market and tourist destination sites on Zomba Plateau, where a
plate of Uapaca kirkiana is sold for on average between
MK500 - MK2000 (± US 10 - 40c) depending on how wealthy
the tourist appears, but sells for only M K50 in the local market.
Children in Kasonga and Mtuluma also sell mushrooms. A
wide variety of wild vegetables are sold by children at the local
markets, with the most common being Amaranthus in all
villages and tubers (Chikande; Disa sp.) in Kasonga.
Children participate in the sale of wild foods for several
reasons: mainly to obtain basic items and utilities for the
household (33%), personal items (29%), supplement food (21%), and
purchase school items (17%). Household basic items include
groceries for the household such as soap, sugar, salt, matches,
and cooking oil. Individual items purchased include clothes,
body oils/lotion, and snacks for themselves, whereas school
materials included notebooks, pens, and pencils.
The gathering and consumption of wild foods are highly
diverse activities with respect to species harvested, locations,
purposes, preferences, and collection habits. Gathering ranges
from infrequent and ad hoc collection during the course of
other activities, through to purposeful and extensive collection
for the household table or for sale to earn income. As such, it
was influenced by a number of factors, including food security
of the household (children gathered more during food insecure
periods), convenience of gathering, availability, alternatives,
and personal attributes such as age and taste preferences. It is
clear that this diversity requires greater investigation and
disaggregation. The most important would be to understand
contextual factors because they are shaped by broader social and
economic influences and decisions that may unwittingly affect
food availability; for example deforestation.
Social connections are important for wild food gathering
practices, as children often learn from their elders and peers
about locations to gather and the different varieties of wild
foods. As reported elsewhere
(Challe and Price 2009)
children often accompany elders to gather wild foods and are
taught about particular wild food species and their cultural
significance (if any). Forty-three per cent of children indicated
that they learned of wild foods from their mothers while 24%
acquired this knowledge from their grandparents. Peer-group
learning was also extensive as children frequently play in and
explore local environments in groups.
Our study reveals the low dietary diversity of households
and children in the four villages, with HDDS being below four
in all but one instance, and IDDS mostly below five. Narratives
from the children’s food diaries and focus groups corroborated
this, with a standard meal being nsima (maize porridge) with or
without a side relish. Consequently, consumption of wild foods
adds significantly to dietary diversity. On a 24-h recall basis,
23% of participants had consumed wild foods. When measured
over a full week, 82% had consumed wild food, and when
asked about consumption frequencies of a full year every child
reported that they eat wild foods. Thus, dietary diversity is
increased through the consumption of wild foods, which likely
contributes positively to higher nutrient adequacy and nutrient
density across multiple nutrients
(Powell et al. 2011)
. A wide
diversity of wild food species were identified by the children,
totaling 119 different species, ranging from 44 to 59 across the
four villages. We view these as conservative counts as the
surveys and transect walks did not span all seasons of the year. The
two villages currently with the highest forest cover had the
highest number of wild food species listed by children and the
highest diversity (Shannon-Weiner index), and the two with the
least forest cover had the lowest total number and diversity,
corroborating the findings of
Ickowitz et al. (2013)
. Wild fruit
comprised the largest number of species (39), followed by birds
(24) and wild vegetables (19). However, the proportional
contributions of different wild food types were not uniform across
the four villages. The proximity of Kasonga to the Zomba forest
reserve may have contributed to the greater number of animal
wild foods there. Likewise, we interpret the large number of
bird species listed for Mpheta to be a reflection of it being
adjacent to Lake Chilwa, which supports large populations of
resident and migratory water birds
. The two
villages with the highest tree cover tended to have more
bushmeat and fruit species, whereas the two with the least forest
cover had the most vegetable species, suggesting that the effects
of deforestation were not uniform across wild food types.
Although the DDS were higher in the FS period than the FI,
we found no difference in the incidence of wild food
consumption between these two periods, except in Mpheta, where
very few species were listed during the food insecure period.
Previous research in other southern African countries has
revealed differential use and dependence on wild foods during
different seasons and in response to food scarcity and periods
of household shock
(Hunter et al. 2007; McGarry and
Shackleton 2009b; Chidumayo and Marunda 2010; Ncube
et al. 2016)
. In Malawi, Fisher et al. (2010) report that forest
dependent communities made up to five times greater use of
forest resources, including wild foods, during climate related
shocks, such as droughts. Of the foods consumed only during
famine periods, 25% are wild foods, and mpama, a drought
resistant forest yam, is often used
(Fisher et al. 2010)
finding that wild food consumption is no different during the
FS and the FI periods may be a reflection of the seasonal
availability of some species and/or different needs of
household labour in those seasons.
The main reasons children gave for consuming wild foods
were good health and nutrition. The respondents indicated that
wild foods supplement their diet, prevent diseases, provide
energy, and provide proteins and vitamins. However, this study
could not determine if this knowledge affects their selection
and use of wild food and their overall interest them. There is
sufficient information on the superior nutritional value of
selected wild foods
(Campbell 1987; Grivetti and Ogle 2000;
Kajembe et al. 2000)
. Such information is, however, available
for only a few common species, while the nutritional value of
many species remains unknown
(Ruffo et al. 2002)
addition, children described certain wild foods, especially protein
sources such as bushmeat and insects, as delicacies and highly
sought after. Knowledge of the health benefits of wild foods
could lead to increased consumption of wild foods with
concomitant improved nutritional outcomes
The importance of wild foods to children (and
households) was further demonstrated through one-third of the
children reporting at times selling wild foods on local
markets and to tourists, and this activity is more common
amongst poorer households. Local trade in wild foods has
been extensively reported in southern Africa, although
rarely acknowledged or aided by authorities. Participation
of children in such trade has been noted in other studies
(Shackleton 2004; Challe and Price 2009; McGarry and
, but the real extent and financial
benefits to children and their households have not been
Most households in the four villages have diets of low
diversity, dominated by maize porridge dishes. Much of this
diversity is provided by wild foods, of which a large number of
species are consumed across a range of food types. Children
actively participate in the collection and hunting of wild foods,
their consumption and trade. The differences according to
deforestation status were not marked, with children making
use of what wild resources were suited to the local habitats.
However, use of larger wild game species and wild fruit was
reduced in areas with low forest cover. Small game, insects,
some wild fruits and wild vegetables thrive well in
agroecosystems and therefore were minimally affected by
deforestation but rather by management practices of those systems,
and their abundance can possibly be improved through the
promotion of agro-ecological farming systems.
Acknowledgements We acknowledge financial contributions for the
fieldwork and bursary (to HM) from the ASSETS project funded under
the ESPA programme of NERC and DFID, as well as the National
Research Foundation (South Africa). We are grateful to Dr. Dalitso
Kafumbata and to Nafy, Bessie, Maggie, and Peter for field assistance,
and M. Patella for identification of plant specimens. Our heartfelt
appreciation goes to the children and communities of Makombe, Kasonga,
Mtuluma, and Mpheta for welcoming us into their homes and community.
Funding We acknowledge financial contributions for the fieldwork and
bursary (to HM) from the ASSETS project funded under the ESPA
programme of NERC and DFID, as well as the National Research
Foundation (South Africa).
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest All authors declare that they have no conflicts of
interest pertaining to this work.
Informed Consent The work complied with best practice ethical
guides and ethics approval was granted via Rhodes University. Since
the research involved minors, informed consent was obtained from
parents or guardians.
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