Bettering their foods: Peasant production, nutrition and the state in Malawi, 1859–2005 | National Inquiry Services Centre

Bettering their foods

Bettering their foods: Peasant production, nutrition and the state in Malawi, 1859–2005

Peasant production, nutrition and the state in Malawi, 1859–2005

By Bryson G. Nkhoma
Size: 170x 240 mm
Pages: 234 pages
ISBN 13: 978-1-920033-94-1 (softcover)
Published: August 2023
Publishers: NISC (Pty) Ltd
Recommended Retail Price: R 375.00
Cover: Paperback

About the book

Despite the long history of agricultural interventions globally, peasants from Malawi and beyond continue to face the challenge of sustainable food production and nutrition. Bettering their foods: Peasant food production, nutrition and the state in Malawi, 1859–2005 weaves together the political, social, economic, demographic, climatic, ecological and global developments that have informed the various food production and nutrition interventions to account for this development. By bridging the late precolonial, colonial and postcolonial periods, the book presents the history of Malawi through the lens of peasant agriculture, covering important themes such as state formation, slave trade, Christian missions, the colonial state, urbanisation, immigration, trade, conservation, the two World Wars, nationalism and decolonisation, Malawi under Banda’s autocracy, African indigenous knowledge systems, rural development, and democratisation. The study, therefore, offers a critical textbook for undergraduate and graduate students of Empire, rural development, political transformations, economics, anthropology, and African history. For governments and NGOs, the book provides new insights into the dynamics of state interventions, food security, climate change, nutrition, gender, ecological change, and sustainable development. Unlike earlier studies, Bettering their foods contends that while capitalism disrupted local economies, it also made efforts (albeit limited) to transform African capacities to produce nutritious foods. The central drawback was that these efforts were mixed and limited by the derogatory attitudes the implementors had towards African practices. In making this argument, the study demonstrates the extent to which well-intended scientific projects are bound to fall short when providers fail to take into their equation the beneficiary communities, including their history, competitive interests and class diversities.

Reviewer’s Comments

This is an excellent book. It offers a very clear and cogent historical examination of the Malawian state's dispositions and imperatives regarding peasant agriculture as well as the state's shifting priorities regarding large-scale/small-scale (peasant) farming and food crops/cash crops … The work has a very smooth and uninterrupted flow, with the reader able to see how each chapter builds on the previous one in developing a comprehensive story of peasant food production in Malawi over time.

            Professor Kirk Helliker, Department of Sociology, Rhodes University, Makhanda, South Africa


The author has put together a comprehensive study which is a useful intervention in the current period of uncertainty with development models. The peasants are depicted from the beginning as active – not just consumers of state policies. They have a logic or way of approaching issues which in most instances both the colonial and postcolonial states fail to acknowledge, leading to a collapse of many development initiatives. This is original work covering an important topic.

            Dr Tendai Murisa, Executive Director, SIVIO Institute, Harare, Zimbabwe

Part of the African Humanities Series

About the Authors

Bryson Gwiyani Nkhoma is a postdoctoral research fellow with the International Studies Group at the University of the Free State in South Africa. His research interests are in areas of agrarian changes, environmental history, food security, gender relations, irrigation farming, labour and forced migration, intellectual history and diplomatic relations. Some of his work has been published in the Journal of Southern African Studies, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, South African Historical Journal, Southern Journal of Contemporary History, International Journal of African Historical Studies, African Historical Review, Strategic Review for Southern Africa, and Physics and Chemistry of the Earth. He is also an Editorial Board member of African Historical Review and Journal of African Religion and Culture. He has reviewed several articles for the following journals: African Historical Review, Strategic Review for Southern Africa, African Review and Physics and Chemistry of the Earth.


Chapter 1: Early missionaries, white farmers, and African agriculture in southern Malawi, 1859–1882
Chapter 2: Colonial conquest, capitalist economy and peasant food production, 1883–1910
Chapter 3: Global food market, nutrition and contestations over peasants’ food production,1910–1938
Chapter 4: The Second World War and food production in Malawi, 1939–1947
Chapter 5: Post-war state interventions in peasants’ nutrition and food production,1948–1963
Chapter 6: Agricultural development, food production and nutrition in postcolonial Malawi,1964–2005


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