Paul Ilona, the country manager of HarvestPlus Nigeria, was standing on a dirt path near a busy road in Ibadan, Nigeria. He was across the road from the campus of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), where the fifth annual HarvestPlus Nutritious Food Fair had concluded the previous day.
Ilona was taking a few HarvestPlus colleagues to see a small shipping container that had been converted into a store selling several products made from biofortified ingredients, such as vitamin A cassava flour and snack foods. The proprietor, a young mother of two named Funmi Akinola, shuttled between the store and her cottage snack-making operation located around the back.
“In Nigeria, the HarvestPlus model to scale up access to biofortified foods is to ensure that we bring together biofortified products from different companies to points of sale that are readily accessible to consumers.” said Ilona. “We have helped develop hundreds of these establishments.”
This small retail business is an example of a key message shared at the Nutritious Food Fair (NFF), which took place Nov. 13-15: Scaling up biofortification is about a lot more than researchers developing staple crops rich in iron, zinc, or vitamin A, and distributing the crop seeds to smallholder farmers. Scaling up is equally about developing farm-to-table value chains that support and sustain biofortified food systems. In this respect, Nigeria is becoming a model for others to follow.
Nutrition is everyone’s business.
Speaking at the NFF, HarvestPlus CEO Arun Baral told attendees: “It’s about getting the biofortified food on the table” with market-based approaches that also benefit farmers and others who are vulnerable to micronutrient deficiency, also called hidden hunger. More than 2 billion people are currently affected by it, with a large concentration in Africa and Asia; many of these people live in rural areas and they do not have access to food fortification or supplementation. Biofortification is a way to provide the micronutrients they need in the staple crops they already grow and eat daily.
To build biofortified food systems, multiple types of stakeholders need to get involved—government, private businesses, NGOs, funders, women’s groups, educators, and more. HarvestPlus Nigeria has developed partnerships within all these sectors, and all were well represented at this year’s NFF, which had the theme: “Nutrition is Everyone’s Business.” The NFF’s many offerings included conference sessions, an open-air exhibition space where farm, seed, and food businesses displayed their wares, academic poster sessions, and the annual NutriQuiz nutrition knowledge competition for teams for school children.
HarvestPlus staff presented the research evidence showing that biofortification works: eating biofortified foods improves nutrition status, farmers want to grow these crops, and consumers want to buy and eat biofortified foods. Biofortification has also been shown to be a highly cost-effective approach to addressing hidden hunger.
At this stage, “our goal in Nigeria, and globally, is to significantly scale up biofortification with the help of the public sector, the private sector, donors, and others. We can’t do it alone,” said Baral “It’s a big problem, so we’re looking for many more like-minded partners” to join in.
There is a strong need for bolstering nutrition strategies in Nigeria. Despite notable progress in addressing malnutrition in recent decades, current statistics still tell a worrisome story. Sixty eight percent of children under age 5 suffer from anemia (for which iron deficiency can be a contributing factor) and one third suffer from vitamin A deficiency. Twenty percent of all Nigerians are deficient in zinc. HarvestPlus Nigeria currently focuses on vitamin A cassava and maize but there is interest from several stakeholders to expand the crop range. HarvestPlus also promotes iron beans and pearl millet, zinc rice, wheat, and maize, and vitamin A orange sweet potato globally.
In addition to the health toll of hidden hunger and its damage to human potential, malnutrition also takes a significant toll on national development. “If nobody was malnourished in Nigeria, it would add $1.5 billion annually to gross domestic product,” said Baral.
Public, private stakeholders voice support
The presentations, speeches, and exhibits at the NFF showed how Nigeria is making progress in a multisectoral approach to scaling up biofortification—with catalytic work by HarvestPlus Nigeria. Leaders in all sectors attested to their broad enthusiasm for this food-based nutrition strategy, and how partnerships with HarvestPlus have added value to their efforts.
The Honorable Senator Bima Muhammed Enagi, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, spoke for government decisionmakers when he said that “[Biofortification] is a good thing for everyone who consumes food—and that of course means everyone full stop! I think this solution will go a long way to enhance nutritional value in the country. It is not enough just to eat food, but to eat food that is nutritious, that will be of good value to improve your physical and mental abilities.”
Sen. Enagi said that the work of HarvestPlus Nigeria “is aligned with the policies of the current administration…We need more biofortification.” He singled out national school feeding programs as a potentially powerful conduit for using biofortified foods that could reach millions of Nigerian children.
Food businesses are already very active in Nigeria’s biofortification space. One example is GraceCo Industries Ltd., a private-sector partner of HarvestPlus Nigeria. Tunji Kalajaiye, the company’s director of business development and strategy, explained that they “decided that nutrition was important to us. We have nutritious crops—vitamin A corn and cassava—in our product line, and we see growth potential in this area.” GraceCo makes a porridge (or pap) mix made from vitamin A maize, and the cassava-based Tasty Bites snack. [Learn more about how private businesses in Nigeria are promoting biofortification].
To be sure, making biofortification work for everyone, including those most at risk and lacking resources, is not solely a private sector endeavor. On the farmer side, NGO partners play a critical part in engagement—including with many women farmers—because the NGOs have established networks and relationships with these low-resource smallholder communities that are often in hard-to-reach locations.
Dr. Jude Ohanele is program director of Development Dynamics, an NGO that works with thousands of smallholder women farmers and their families in southern regions of Nigeria. Development Dynamics is a HarvestPlus partner in the distribution of biofortified crop seeds and assistance in helping integrate farmers into food value chains through better production, processing, and storage techniques. Dr. Ohanele said the biofortified crops provide an ideal package for their beneficiaries, thanks to both their excellent growing attributes (such as high yield) and their high micronutrient content. Development Dynamics has so far directly reached 37,500 farming households and about 115,000 households overall. “I see biofortification as the future of nutrition if we want to get to those at the base of the pyramid,” he said.
Raising nutrition awareness
Making biofortified crops and foods widely available is of course a high priority, but so is raising the general level of knowledge about nutrition and eating right so people make healthy choices in the home, store, and restaurant.
The HarvestPlus-initiated SmartMother campaign, launched at this year’s NFF, is educating and rallying mothers around the need to ensure good nutrition for themselves, their young children, and everyone in their families. Several women, plus several men who are supporting the campaign, came to the NFF clad in custom outfits made from vibrant cloth adorned with the SmartMother logo. Erick Boy, the head of nutrition research at HarvestPlus, stressed how critical it is that mothers are on board with a nutritious approach to food for the family. “You can only have a healthy, productive society if you have healthy, productive families, and mothers are the foundation of families,” he said. “We need to break this vicious intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.” Boy explained to the NFF audience the particular importance of good nutrition during pregnancy, noting for example that a woman’s iron requirements can increase 10-fold during this period.
Government, NGOs, businesses, and more: it takes a team effort to make biofortification succeed. HarvestPlus’ Baral also noted that biofortification is not a standalone solution to hidden hunger, but a complement to multipronged strategies that include promotion of dietary diversity, nutrition education, food fortification, and supplementation. “The best solution is a diverse diet, but a lot of people cannot access or afford that. So other strategies like biofortification help solve the nutrition puzzle,” he said.
The biofortification message also seemed to resonate with funders present at the NFF, who want to see nutrition strategies such as biofortification fully scaled and securely anchored in program countries. “Thank you HarvestPlus for making philanthropy look good. Thank you for bringing dignity to food. It’s one thing to eat, it’s another thing to eat very well,” said Amina Salihu, a senior program officer at the MacArthur Foundation Nigeria office. HarvestPlus was one of four finalists in MacArthur’s 2017 100&Change competition and was awarded a $15 million grant by the foundation to scale up biofortification in Africa.