Revolutionary peanut

There is something enormously invigorating about rapidly expanding your knowledge of something you have long taken for granted. I had such an experience with an ingredient that, for me, is synonymous with salt and pubs. Earlier this year, ahead of Fairtrade Fortnight, I travelled to Malawi to visit a collective of peanut — or groundnuts, as the Malawians more sensibly call them because they grow in the ground — growers.

Nutrition, ethics and environmental issues play a huge part in the way we shop, cook and eat these days and now it’s the humble peanut’s turn in the limelight as the new versatile, ethical and nourishing ingredient on the block. More and more of us are going wheat-free, but did you know that ground peanuts are a joy to use as a flour substitute in baking, as well as being a much more effective sauce thickener than flour or cornflour? And groundnut oil is now widely touted as the most healthy fat for frying, since cheffy types have belatedly informed us that olive oil burns at high temperatures and makes everything taste of olives. Yes, peanuts win on so many levels: good for you and good for the not-so-merry-go-round that is world trade.

Because of long associations with salt, sugar (in peanut butter) and high calorie counts, peanuts haven’t enjoyed the same health-giving glory as, say, almonds. But peanuts are actually very good for you, with 85% of their fat being unsaturated and, because of high levels of something called triglyceride, actually have the ability to lower bad LDL cholesterol levels in your body. Peanuts are also a great source of B vitamins, which are especially good for your hair, skin and muscle tone, and they contain the same amounts of antioxidants as strawberries.

Peanuts are an ideal crop for the frequently drought-ridden regions of Africa, as the plants add healthy amounts of fertility-boosting nitrogen to the soil and are one of the most widely grown crops across the continent.

In the 1980s Africa had 50% of world exports of peanuts, but by the early 2000s, facing competition from the United States and China, this had fallen to less than 10%. Lately, however, the US has diversified into producing other crops, such as soya, wheat — to meet the world shortage — and corn for biofuels, while China is using its peanuts domestically for cooking oil, providing African producers with a great opportunity to sneak up their share of world markets again.

In the past few years amazing collectives like the one I visited in Malawi have started to take root, where agriculture provides 85% of the population with its livelihood — and smallholders make up 90% of all farmers. But, with the global market being largely controlled by multi-national corporations, there are still huge obstacles to overcome. Average independent farmers have less than a hectare of land to support themselves and their families. Because of the Aids epidemic, nearly everyone I met has adopted orphans — usually anything between one and three, but I did meet one village elder who had 15.

Judith Harry (35) is a single mother of a teenage girl and looks after two orphans and her mother.

“The guaranteed fair price that comes with Fairtrade is important as we make a profit when we sell our nuts and we can use the money to lift up our lives,” she says. In Malawi you have to pay to send children to secondary school and, although primary school is free, uniforms must be bought or the young pupils risk being turned away.

Historically, these individual farmers, with their relatively small harvests, haven’t had enough clout to negotiate with the traders who bought their nuts, so they were constantly being ripped off in terms of true market price and even weighted scales in the marketplace. But in 1997, with some help from the Norwegian government, the farmers joined forces to start the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi.

And now Liberation — a Fairtrade nut company — has been set up, in which the farmers own 42% of the company and are involved across the business, including at board level. So far only a small amount of groundnut oil is being produced elsewhere in Malawi, but plans are afoot to churn out more to meet international demand.

Not only does the Fairtrade Foundation guarantee them a fair price for their nuts, but it also delivers an extra sum, called the Fairtrade Premium, which is put back into the local community for everybody’s benefit.

I saw shelters where the relatives of hospital patients can stay and bridges vital for getting the nuts to market being repaired.

“In the future,” says Harry, “I would like to see the premium money used to start a clinic which will mean health facilities are nearer so that farmers will have more time to give to their farms and children won’t miss so much school due to sickness. It would also be good to spend premium money on education for older children. There is a lack of buildings for them, which means students in senior classes have to travel long distances to find a school. Some learn outside under trees and in the rainy season they are unable to study. We also need boreholes for cleaner water, closer to our homes.” —

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