TEDMED: The Barefoot Technologists

Last year, I gave a TEDMED talk about some of the people we’ve been following at the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities Project in Northern Malawi. Here’s the talk, and accompanying post, courtesy of TEDMED. See more of the footage at the GenerationFoodProject.org

Interviewer: “Have you ever done anything to help your family have enough food or to make food last a long time?”

Child: “Yes.”

Interviewer:“What do you do?”

Child: “I normally don’t eat it that much.”

(Source:Fram et al 2011:1117)

It was a hard country. Amid abundant mineral resources and great natural beauty, some of the nation’s poorest women skipped meals so that their children could have enough to eat. The kids were no slouches. They knew what was happening. In a heartbreaking turn, the children skimped on food too. So that there’d be more left for their families. So that they wouldn’t be reduced to begging from their neighbors.

Luckily, I was leaving this country for one filled with entrepreneurs and technologists who’d cracked the problem of hunger.

Luckily, I was leaving the United States for Malawi.

It may seem jaundiced to compare the lot of women in the  world’s poorest country with one of the world’s richest. Few would argue that Malawi has ended hunger. Four in ten children there suffer ‘stunting’ – a privation of nutrients in the first 1000 days of life that breaks bodies for a lifetime.

Yet it’s true that, when faced with the choice of feeding themselves or their children, mothers around the world skip meals so that their kids don’t go hungry. In the United States, one in seven people struggle with hunger, and in some of those families, mothers skip meals for their kids. It’s true in the United States, and it’s true in Malawi. It’s hard to hear that what we think as third world problems are first world ones too.

The other thing that’s true: people who face hunger can be incredibly smart about solving it. The American child interviewed at the top of this story did what anyone would do for someone they loved. Given their constraints, they shouldered a burden to make it easier for the ones they care about. What I learned from some parents in Malawi is that great technology can, and should, change those constraints.

In Malawi, one of the constraints is that there’s not enough dietary diversity. If breakfast, lunch and dinner is some variation of corn, bodies can break. To solve this, the Soils Food and Healthy Communities Project in Malawi used ideas that are both cutting-edge, and very old: a peer-to-peer network of research and experimentation to find the best crops for human and soil health, the best planting patterns, and the best farming techniques, to get more from the land.

Once they broke through that constraint, they confronted a far deeper one. The new farming practices require more harvest work. Women want to harvest because then they control the crop, and control who it gets sold to. But women also cook, clean, fetch water and firewood – work that is fundamental to rural households in Malawi.


You can watch the TEDMED talk to find out how the farmer research teams broke through this constraint, in spectacular style. What matters more, though, is how they found and addressed the problem. Those of us with access to lab coats can proudly point to years of scientific training, but one of the hardest-won skills – one that my students find hardest to do – is peer review.


Malawian farmers do it better than doctoral students. They run trials, compare findings, confront each other in meeting after meeting and argue, because unlike for academics, this isn’t academic. The results matter. There are plenty of strong personalities at the Soils, Food and Healthy Communities project, but no-one knows who exactly came up with their eventual solution to the problem of hunger. It emerged through a series of meetings, as an exercise in collective technological innovation. Attribution matters less than results, because the stakes are so high.


That’s the great gift of grassroots technologists like those in Malawi. They’ve developed networks of problem-solving skills that have gone on to address other constraints, like limits to grain storage facilities, lack of access to banks, and even climate change. (A women’s collective has emerged to make stoves that use considerably less wood than in an open fire – and the stoves are  called “Climate Change stoves”.) Whether in the US, Malawi or anywhere else, these ideas can help the world feed itself. Of course, it’s important not to be starry eyed – there are many reasons why things work well here, from an absence of interference by large corporations, to state neglect, a benign village headman and some terrific activism from local leaders.


Yet the lessons remain clear. Too often, experts in white coats won’t believe that people without shoes can develop technology. But if I’ve learned anything from working with farmers in Malawi, it’s that a little humility, ingenuity and a great deal of local science can stop mothers, and children, from ever skipping a meal again.