Empowering Women from the Farm through the Value Chain with Nutrient-Enriched Crops
Destan Aytekin
October 13, 2020

Women play key productive, reproductive, and community roles. In agriculture, they select which crops to farm on their land, grow and harvest these crops, process and cook them, and use them to feed their households. Alongside this, women market their produce, both raw and processed, earning income to meet other household needs. 

Yet women are often disadvantaged when it comes to accessing the information, education, resources, and technologies that would enable them to be more productive in all their roles.  Once women farmers have equal access to the same knowledge, assets, and resources as their male counterparts, they are equally or more productive. In addition, a substantial body of research shows that income earned by women is more likely to be spent on food and other items that support children’s growth and well-being.

Nutritionally enriched crops, produced through the process of biofortification, offer women ways to improve their productivity and provide more-nutritious diets for themselves and their families. HarvestPlus and its CGIAR research center partners ensure that all biofortified crop varieties contain nutritionally-significant levels of vitamin A, iron, or zinc; in addition, these varieties are bred with agronomic traits to make them competitive with the non-biofortified varieties that they are meant to replace in farmers’ fields: they are climate-smart, high yielding, and drought, disease, and pest tolerant.

Including women at all stages 

When crop breeders use participatory breeding techniques and engage women early in the crop development process, it ensures that conventionally bred biofortified crops also include traits that are important to women. For example, some varieties of vitamin A cassava and vitamin A orange sweet potato (OSP) have the right dry matter content to support women’s crop processing operations for making chips, gari, and other foods. Some iron bean varieties are bred to reduce their required cooking time by as much as two hours, freeing up time for women in many countries who typically spend a good portion of their days fetching firewood for cook fuel. 

In the past two years, HarvestPlus has trained nearly 340,000 farmers and value chain actors across Africa, Asia, and Latin America/Caribbean, and about 60 percent of these trainees were women— recognition of the importance of engaging women in rural agricultural economies. These training sessions—delivered through one-on-one or virtual sessions, farmer field schools around demonstration pilots, through radio and other media, or indirectly through visits of extension staff—reach across the whole value chain. The trainings cover good farming practices, processing methods, nutrition and health, data quality assurance, and more. 

For example, training programs in many countries target caregivers, the majority of whom are women, and focuses on food recipes for nutrient preservation. Another example is from Uganda: Thanks to training on good agronomic practices and guidance provided by Volunteer Efforts for Development Concerns, a HarvestPlus field partner, a young female farmer was able to increase her farm-based earnings. After growing OSP for several years, she also decided to expand her production by planting iron beans. With the revenues generated by the iron beans, she bought three chickens and four piglets, which she feeds with the silage from her OSP vines.

HarvestPlus support for women includes nurturing champions. For example, under the United States Agency for International Development Meals for Nutrition in Uganda (MENU) project, the Lead Mothers Initiative  had empowered 970 women by the end of 2019 to be champions for nutrition and health for their own families and other families. They learn about the nutrition and health benefits of biofortified crops as well as common nutrition misconceptions, and good hygiene practices.  These female champions now support other mothers in neighboring communities through training and mentorship to catalyze better nutrition and health through the consumption of biofortified crops. 

Empowering women along the value chain

HarvestPlus also supports women entrepreneurs who use biofortified ingredients to make food products: 

  • In Nigeria, Atinuke Lebible co-founded Cato Foods and delivers innovative food products developed from vitamin A cassava. 
  • In Zambia, Shais Foods, founded and managed by Miriam Chipulu, started using vitamin A maize in their Full Pack cereal blend. Fast forward three years to the present, and Miriam is contracting more smallholder farmers to supply vitamin A maize for her food processing company. She said, “The main objective is to improve food security at the household level and create a sustainable source of income for smallholder farmers, especially women and youth. I am proud to say that 92 percent of Shais Foods workers are women.” 
  • In Bangladesh, Fakrun Nahar started small in 2015 with her seed operations, distributing just 600 kilograms of zinc rice seeds. By 2019, she was selling 14 metric tons and is expecting to sell even more during 2020.

Supporting women nutritionally 

Nutritionally enriched biofortified crops are designed to replace their non-biofortified counterparts in the food system so that people whose diets are dominated by staples foods (primarily due to budget constraints) are able to get needed micronutrients. This is critically important, given that 3 billion people were already unable to afford a nutritious diet prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; this figure has likely increased substantially since the pandemic took hold. 

The essential micronutrients enriched in staples foods are particularly important for women, adolescent girls, and children under age two who have higher life cycle-related nutrient needs than other household members. In societies where women and girls eat last and least, with less access to preferred foods such as animal source foods, nutritionally enriched staple foods deliver critical nutritional benefits. In Punjab province, Pakistan, if all households had access to biofortified zinc wheat, the cost of a nutritious diet for an adolescent girl would be 25 percent less. In Guatemala, the cost of a nutritious diet for adolescent girls would fall by 10 percent if they had regular access to high iron beans.

There is no doubt that a diversified healthy diet is the gold standard, but too many people fall far short of it. When shocks hit—economic, conflict,  and/or natural—they result in compromised incomes and livelihoods, obliging women to change household diets, typically reducing intake of high-nutrient-value foods and increasing consumption of cheaper staple foods. This increases the number of households that cannot afford a nutritious diet, and magnifies the deficit for those who were already in that situation. Shocks which directly impact the food system have their greatest impact on animal source foods, fruits, and vegetables that are more perishable and less resilient to slower supply chains. 

Replacing non-biofortified crops with nutritionally enriched biofortified counterparts contributes to a whole-of-diet food systems approach for all, including women, by making staples more nutritious as opposed to having to rely solely on access to higher-nutrient-quality foods.  

HarvestPlus recognizes rural women’s multiple roles in agriculture and nutrition, and partners with women to ensure that not only are they reached with biofortification resources and knowledge, but they accrue benefits from their participation and are economically empowered in their households and communities.

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