This story was originally published on the website of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), which ended on Dec. 31, 2021. 

As a result of HarvestPlus-led delivery efforts, an estimated 9.7 million smallholder households were growing biofortified crops in 2020. Spread across 19 low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, translates to 48.5 million household members benefiting from biofortified crops, though given the growing number of biofortified crops being sold in local markets, the total number of consumers benefiting these nutrient-rich crops is likely higher.

Yet to reach HarvestPlus’s vision of one billion consumers benefitting from biofortified foods by 2030, working with smallholders is necessary but not sufficient. Strategies to penetrate the food system with biofortified seeds, grains and foods involve working with small holders, urban food systems and large scale, international food businesses. Since 2011, HarvestPlus has developed and pioneered country specific delivery models to take seeds, grains and foods to consumers. Looking for ways to scale and reducing binding constraints is often achieved by finding new technological solutions, digital tools, and partnering with global experts in the field.

Technology and digital solutions could be instrumental at each of the eight specific steps in biofortification’s delivery model (Fig 1).  The activities can be tailored to meet the specific country and crop combination, and some recent examples show their promise in providing information, financial resources, and training to value chain actors, for them to transform the supply chains to be efficient, modern digitally integrated and traceable.

Figure 1. Value Chain for biofortified foods

Calling experts into partnerships

In January 2020, HarvestPlus convened a roundtable of digital technology developers and providers to discuss digital solutions to catalyzing biofortified supply chains. Among the participants were representatives from The New Fork (representing open blockchain solutions), Precision Development (PxD – formerly Precision Agriculture for Development [PAD]), Cropin, The World Bank, and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture. The timing of this roundtable was fortuitous, as less than two months later, the COVID-19 pandemic would emerge worldwide, jeopardizing HarvestPlus’s delivery efforts at a time smallholder household in LMICs would need food and nutrient security more than ever.

Digital marketing solutions mitigating covid restrictions

Already in talks about establishing a partnership, PxD and HarvestPlus joined forces to inform 100,000 Pakistani farmers about zinc biofortified wheat seed via text messages, an activity which would otherwise have required gathering thousands of farmers in local farmer field days. This partnership project, along with several other key interventions in Pakistan, resulted in 7 million smallholder households acquiring zinc wheat seed in 2020. Amidst COVID-19 restrictions, other delivery programs led by HarvestPlus have also pivoted to out-of-the-box ideas to continue reaching households with nutritious seeds.

Building long term strategic partnerships to utilize digital solutions

Through a partnership with GAIN under the Commercialization of Biofortified Crops Program, HarvestPlus is working with Marcom Communications on a digital/social media campaign to deliver information about the benefits of zinc wheat and zinc wheat seed availability with an aim to reach 400,000 – 600,000 smallholder households in five major districts of Punjab, Pakistan, through digital/social media.

At the global level, HarvestPlus has partnered with CropIn, whose goal is to create efficiency in the US$3 trillion food economy through digital innovations. Under this partnership the two organizations kicked off programs in Pakistan and Bangladesh to link value chain actors with data-driven transactions and insights. Similar partnerships with PxD, CropIn and others are developing in Uganda, Nigeria, and Kenya. HarvestPlus envisions creation of digital farmer platforms in all its delivery programs with an aim to facilitate global coordination, at low cost and with real-time monitoring of the scaling progress.

Traceability systems

Traceability throughout the supply chain is a barrier to scale but also another opportunity for technological solutions to create secure supply chains for small and medium enterprises SMEs and global food businesses. HarvestPlus seeks several traceability solutions and blockchain or Digital Leger Technology is seen as a practical approach that suits some value chains. HarvestPlus seeks an investor blockchain traceability project in Africa and were finalists in CGIAR’s data innovation challenge. Through a strategic partnership with Grus and Grade, early work has started on zinc wheat supply chains in India.

Digital technology solutions need not be overly complicated. By using one of the most common digital solutions –  virtual meeting software – HarvestPlus was able to gather electronically a group of experts which developed the Publicly Available Standard (PAS) for zinc biofortified grains published by the British Standards Institution in June 2021.

There are, of course, inefficiencies and unknowns to be grappled with when it comes to using digital technologies in LMICs: can/do rural smallholder households have access to mobile phones? How inclusive are these technologies? Will they persist after donor funding ends? What about network coverage? These are important questions that need to be addressed as network coverage and phone ownership are growing at an increasing rate in rural areas of LMICs. Attention now means learning what works, what doesn’t, and what could work better and for all. Where there is a supply chain bottleneck to scaling up biofortification, HarvestPlus believes there is or will be a technical solution to tackle it, and welcomes all ideas and solutions.