Women-Led Biofortified Food Businesses: Advancing Nutrition and Health
Mahwish Khan, with HarvestPlus Country Programs Staff
June 16, 2020

HarvestPlus is proud to be working with enterprising women around the world who have created businesses from the ground up, often with very limited resources initially. They chose to invest in better nutrition for their families and their communities and take the mission forward by producing and selling nourishing biofortified products. Here are stories of some of these strong women who are making access to nutrition a priority.

Click here to explore our digital feature on women-led biofortified food businesses.

Shais Foods in Zambia

Miriam Chipulu is all smiles when she talks about the humble beginnings of the now very successful Shais Foods Company. She is the founder, owner, and CEO of the agro-processing enterprise producing food products made with drought-resistant, nutritious crops that are grown locally. 

In 2016, HarvestPlus Zambia started working with Shais Foods by providing 1000 kilograms (kg) of vitamin A maize as raw material to produce the Full Pack Cereal Blend that also included pearl millet and soya beans. HarvestPlus hosted seed companies and processors (including Shais Foods) during major exhibitions in the country. The signature Full Pack Cereal Blend was introduced on the market at national exhibitions, including a trade fair in Ndola and an agriculture and commercial show in Lusaka.  The product was a hit with consumers, and this prompted Shais Foods to start directly engaging farmers to grow vitamin A maize in order to meet market demand for the product.  

Fast forward to 2018: Shais Foods engaged 350 farmers on contract in rural areas around the capital of Lusaka to grow vitamin A maize for the company. In 2019, Chipulu expanded her business to recruit more farmers: she trained 600 farmers in Kaputa district in Northern Zambia and provided  starter packs of 10 kg of vitamin A orange maize seed to 100 farmers that showed interest in growing it, along with millet and soybeans to increase the supply of raw materials for her production.

Today, Shais foods is developing partnership schemes in rural Zambia by engaging smallholder farmers to provide 70 percent of the company’s raw materials needs. This enables the rural farmers to have easy access to markets for crops that yield higher financial returns than traditional crops. 

According to Chipulu: “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.” 

Full Pack Cereal Blend is a popular product for children under five and people with diabetes, but also very good for making a locally brewed non-alcoholic drink called Tobwa (also known as Munkoyo or Maheu). Shais Foods also sells vitamin A maize rice and meal; sorghum meal; cassava meal; millet meal; maize blend; and bean varieties (NUA45/Mbereshi iron bean, Solwezi Beans, and Kabulangeti beans).

Shais Foods is currently processing and delivering 20 MT of millet meal to one of the worst-hit drought areas in Mwandi district in Zambia. Chipulu has procured a medium-size millet milling plant from India, which will enable the company to produce at a much higher capacity, but 50 percent of production will always be dedicated to vitamin A maize as raw material volumes increase through successful out-grower contracts with farmers. 

As Chipulu reflects on the growth trajectory of her business, she recognizes the fast pace her company is growing in providing highly nutritious products in Zambia, thanks in large part to technical assistance and high exposure on various exhibition platforms provided by HarvestPlus.  

VRDS Zinc Rice Seed and Grain in Bangladesh

Fakrun Nahar holds a Masters in Soil Science from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. For the past 11 years, she has been running her own nongovernmental organization, the Voluntary Rural Development Society (VRDS). Being an expert in soils and with qualified professional staff in her organization, she implemented various agricultural programs funded by different donors in the country.

In 2015, Nahar started supplying Bangladeshi farmers with biofortified zinc rice seed, which is procured directly from multipliers under contract with VRDS to ensure product quality.

Nahar started small with 600 kg of rice seed and offered rice pack samples to her colleagues, relatives, and friends free of charge. When her personal contacts responded positively to the products she had supplied, she was encouraged to make her seeds available for commercial delivery. Her business grew by leaps and bounds; in 2019, she sold 14 metric tons of seed for BRRI dhan74 zinc rice, and sales are expected to surpass that figure for 2020. 

The zinc rice supply chain developed initially by word-of-mouth marketing through lead farmers in her working area in the Pabna, Sirajgonj, and Tangail central districts of Bangladesh. Her team of lead farmers collected the grain from the best-producing farmers in the region, then they milled it and supplied it to VRDS.

Nahar believes in making a difference in her community through her business. She created a sales force of 30 women from different regions of Dhaka city to help commercialize her products in the urban area.  There are set targets and commissions paid out to these women employees. Generating income for her workers is one way she is engaging women in her community and creating awareness about the benefits of biofortified rice—a staple in Bangladesh. She strongly believes that her business is helping raise the nutritional status of undernourished vulnerable people in her community.  

VRDS is utilizing HarvestPlus’ technical support in creating linkages with seed retailers and other nongovernmental organisations, to participate in farmer field days, and other opportunities that are helpful in scaling up the business by identifying new prospects.

“I hope VRDS branded zinc rice seed and grain business will be sustainable and successful and I want to give earnest thanks to HarvestPlus for inspiring and helping me to start the business for the good of my community,” said Nahar.

Sunshine Group in Zimbabwe

Currently the owner of a successful catering business with diverse biofortified food options, Lilian Murangariri started her company with the purchase of a simple solar dryer. Lilian lives in the rural district of Makoni in Zimbabwe, with her husband and three children. Prior to starting her business, Lilian, like most people in her community, barely managed the household’s expenses on the family’s meager income.  The family relied solely on farming as their source of livelihood and struggled to meet the basic needs of their children such as clothing, education, and food to last until the next harvest. The rainy season was a time of abundance, with plenty of food and indigenous vegetables, but most of these often went to waste due to poor handling and storage practices.

Lilian’s life has changed radically since her involvement in the Improved Nutrition Sustainable Production for Increased Resilience and Economic Growth (INSPIRE) project, which is one of the  consortiums active in the UKAid-funded Livelihoods and Food Security Programme (LFSP).  HarvestPlus is the technical partner on biofortification in LFSP. 

Lilian was one of 15 farmers in the area who learned how to mobilize their own financial resources and manage viable income-generating projects, through an approach known as the Internal Savings and Lending Methodology (ISAL).

In addition to financial skills, Lilian also learned about nutrition, which helped her to grow more-nutritious crops and process them using the solar dryer. 

“My neighbors and I formed an ISAL group called Sunshine because we had received the light in the form of knowledge on how to raise capital and better manage projects that could generate more income for us,” commented Lilian. They started off by combining individual farmer contributions of USD 5 per month, but later increased these to USD 10 as the group gained more experience. 

Lilian constructed her own solar dryer and used it to dry assorted vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbages, squash, and okra for home consumption. Her family and neighbors enjoyed eating the dried vegetables and encouraged her to supply them with more dried products. Word travelled fast, and many neighboring farmers knocked on Lilian’s door to buy dried vegetables, especially during the offseason. As a result of surplus demand for her products, Lilian seized the business opportunity and borrowed money from her ISAL group to purchase packaging material for her dried products. 

To date, she has accumulated income of more than USD 1200 from the sale of dried vegetables. She used the proceeds to pay college tuition fees for her daughter at Magamba Training Centre as well as buy clothes and nutritious foods for her family. Lilian later diversified into production and packaging of biofortified maize meal and samp, which her family both consumes and sells surplus to her fellow villagers.

Lilian now provides catering services at various functions and gatherings. They serve a variety of dishes prepared with biofortified foods such as maize sadza, fritters, cakes, samosas, and traditional drinks (maheu). Lillian showcases her products and recipes at agricultural shows and has been awarded prizes in the form of agricultural inputs and equipment. Her future plans include purchasing a plastic sealer and water pump for watering horticultural crops in her garden. 

Trained on basic nutrition principles, food processing, and food preservation using a simple technology—the solar dryer—Lilian managed to create a successful enterprise in her village that has provided her fellow community members with a source of employment, and also spreads the goodness of nutritious foods that are rich with micronutrients such as the vitamin A biofortified maize and iron beans. 

Even so, she has had her fair share of challenges: “As a mother, wife, farmer, and now a businesswoman, it has been very difficult juggling all these roles. It is only with my husband’s and my group’s tireless support that I have soldiered on,” she said. 

Lilian already has plans to diversify into the production of small livestock such as chickens, goats, and rabbits. She said: “I have plans for expanding the Sunshine Group, but we will always produce biofortified foods as that has the potential to save thousands of families from hidden hunger”.

Rahama Cassava Snacks in Nigeria

Hassana Hassan, 52 years old, lives in Kontagora, a major town on the south bank of the Kontagora River in northwest Niger State, Nigeria, with her six children. Hassana's journey into cassava production started in 2015 from the need to have easy access to value-added products from cassava like garri and fufu in her community. With a little startup capital and some technical support, she started growing and processing cassava right from her home.

“There was no farmer processing cassava into garri in my community, and instead of buying and transporting garri from major cities like Ibadan and Lagos, I saw an opportunity to start processing cassava into garri and other value-added products for the people in my community,” she said.

In 2016, Hassan was introduced to biofortified crops through an initiative organized by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) Value Chain Development Programme (VCDP), in partnership with HarvestPlus Nigeria. The program trained over 60 women, including Hassana, from six states on value addition and other business opportunities in vitamin A cassava production, processing, and marketing. The objectives of the intervention program were to sustainably enhance rural income and food security, and make women self-sufficient by enabling access to nutritious foods. 

With the intervention from IFAD-VCDP and technical support from HarvestPlus, Hassan was able to start a vitamin A cassava farm and also set up a mini-processing center to transform vitamin A cassava into value-added products like vitamin A garri, flour, fufu, and various nutritious confectionaries under the brand name of Rahama. 

“In 2015 I had no knowledge of biofortified crops and their health and economic benefits to my family and community, but with the training from IFAD-VCDP and the technical support from HarvestPlus Nigeria, women in Kontagora now grow and process vitamin A cassava into different edible food items,” she explained.

As her vitamin A cassava business reaches its fourth year, Hassan has recorded great successes. She has trained many women and youths in her community on vitamin A cassava production and processing, some of whom now work in her processing center. Her yearly production and processing output of vitamin A cassava into finished products has increased by 75 percent. She now distributes over 90 tons of vitamin A garri and other nutritious products to customers in major markets in Kontagora and neighbouring communities. 

Hassan considers vitamin A cassava production a major source of nourishing food readily available to the people of her community as well as a source of income for women and youth: “A lot of young people and women are now employed in the cassava value chain. They also feed their families with products from vitamin A cassava especially the snack (Combobites), which is very affordable, nutritious, and good for children.” 

Hassan has experienced great support since she started producing vitamin A cassava. “Since I started my vitamin A cassava business, many people in my community are now aware of the benefits of consuming biofortified cassava and its key role in improving the health of our people,” she said. Through her women’s network, Hassan plans to educate more women and children on the importance of consuming more nutritious food like vitamin A garri. 

Hassan has created a successful business with a social mission to improve the health and livelihoods of the women who work there. 

Securing gender-equity across food value chains

HarvestPlus partners with hundreds of entrepreneurs worldwide who, like these women, help expand the reach of biofortified foods. Women-owned enterprises are a key link for food and nutrition value chains. “As ‘nutri-preneurs’ women overcome a range of traditional and interlocking constraints in access to capital, assets and market networks,” said Rewa Misra, Policy Advisor and Gender Focal Point at HarvestPlus.

HarvestPlus and its partners ensure that the reach and benefits of biofortification are gender-equitable by making more micronutrients available in staple crops eaten by the whole family. We strongly encourage both men’s and women’s involvement in biofortified food production and family nutrition. We also advocate for policies and programs that are gender-equitable and responsive to women. 

Our trainings increase awareness, notably for men, of the importance of meeting the nutritional needs of their families and how biofortified crops can help. Women are prioritized in our training programs: 63 percent of the 143,000 farmers trained by HarvestPlus in 2019 were women.

Empirical studies have shown that it is important to take gender roles into account to achieve equitable nutritional outcomes from agricultural development programs. For example, women tend to perform much of the agricultural work, food preparation, and child-care duties in rural settings in low- and middle-income countries. These women also often have inequitable access to and control over resources; they lack decision-making power within the household and hold fewer leadership positions in the community.

As these stories illustrate, many women entrepreneurs support local economies through trade and job creation, and deliver improved nutritional outcomes for communities. If we are to nourish our communities, it is critical to support businesses initiated and led by women. HarvestPlus will continue to empower them, support them, and cheer them on. 

Contact us for more information about our work to  advance biofortification throughout the value chain: Harvestplus@CGIAR.org

 

Stay up to date with us
Stay Up to Date