Women have integral roles in rural societies as farmers, wage earners, and entrepreneurs. They also take significant responsibility for the well-being of their family members, including food provision and care for children and the elderly. However, women in rural areas often face constraints to engaging in economic, educational, and training activities–because of gender-based biases, social norms, and unequal access to education, training, and financial services.

The CGIAR’s HarvestPlus staple crop biofortification program is committed to helping women unleash their full potential and thereby contribute to sustainable economic growth, better livelihoods, and improved food and nutrition security. Since its start about two decades ago, Harvestplus has focused on ensuring that women are able to holistically benefit from nutrient-enriched staple crops and the foods made with them, thereby improving their own lives while creating better futures for their families and communities.

The focus on women starts at the crop breeding stage: the nutrient targets for biofortified crops are set to address the specific nutritional needs of women and adolescent girls, as well as young children of both genders. This is also confirmed through peer-reviewed, published scientific evidence.

A randomized control study conducted in Rwanda showed that biofortified iron beans significantly increase ferritin, hemoglobin, and total body iron in young women aged 18 to 27 within fourth months of consumption. The study also demonstrated that the beans improve memory retrieval and attention.

Biofortified crop varieties are also bred to have other characteristics beneficial to women, such as shorter cooking time for some iron bean varieties, and higher dry matter in vitamin A cassava varieties, which helps women who produce cassava-based food products. These nutrient-enriched crops are also especially valuable to communities and cultures where food quantities and qualities are disproportionately distributed among men and women of the house—adding more nutrients to staples ensures that they will reach women and girl household members.

Unlocking the power of women farmers

HarvestPlus has partnered with a variety of organizations to harness farming women’s income-earning potential. Such collaborative programs have provided women with real business opportunities and strengthened their capacities as agri-preneurs.

Dinavance Kyomuhendo from Uganda is one of the beneficiaries of HarvestPlus under the USAID Meals for Nutrition Biofortified Solutions in Uganda (MENU) project. She was once homeless and struggling before receiving training in nutrition and agricultural practices. Post-training, she took a small loan, rented two acres of land, and brought her training to use by planting vines. In the first planting season, she was able to generate extra income. With the success in the first season, she expanded her garden of biofortified orange sweet potatoes (OSP) and started to sell vines to her neighbors, and later scaled up to the extent that she began to supply to farmers in her sub country.

Dinavance bought more farmland and kept on scaling the business. Today she manages a total of 8 acres of farmland. HarvestPlus has enabled Dinavance and many other female farmers like her to set up a regular stream of sustainable income that can support their businesses and families.

“I use OSP vines to feed the pigs and rabbits. I also use OSP flour to feed the fish. When feeding my poultry, I mix chicken feed with OSP flour. The added nutrition in the OSP flour helps my poultry mature very fast. I have now emerged as one of the key suppliers of chickens in the whole district,” she beamed.

Another beneficiary from the MENU project, Nakyanzi Ruth from central Uganda, has been working on providing iron-rich beans to her community to combat iron deficiency and anemia, which are endemic amond children in Uganda. In her first season selling these beans, Ruth bought 200 kilograms (kgs) of seeds at a subsidized rate through HarvestPlus and was able to sell 80 percent of those. In the following season, she purchased 600 kgs of seeds and was no longer in need of a subsidy since her setup had become self-sufficient from the profits earned.

Said Ruth: “While the main driver of bean purchases is their high yield, when I mention to my customers the health benefits, they decide to order more”.

Vidya Rani, a female farmer from Khesrahiyan village of the Indian state of Bihar, planted biofortified zinc wheat varieties on two plots of 1.5 acres each. The following year, she harvested around 5,000 kgs of zinc wheat from each field, for a total of 10,000 kg. Moreover, she was able to sell the biofortified produce at a more significant profit margin of INR 2110 (USD 29) per 100 kg compared to INR 1500 (USD 20) per 100 kg she made from selling regular wheat varieties. 

“I was thrilled with the returns, and my family has been very supportive in whatever I do. I want more women to take up biofortified farming. I have even shared 15 kg of our home-grown zinc wheat seed with two other female farmers from my village. Both have planted the biofortified wheat on 0.5 acre of land. Through my efforts, the word is spreading, and more women are taking up biofortified-crop farming in our village,” explained Vidya.

Women’s contributions as family members

HarvestPlus leads various initiatives to encourage women to help make better and healthier choices for their families. Under the Lead Mother Project in Uganda, groups of women called lead mothers were selected. These lead mothers serve as nutrition and health champions who encourage the consumption of biofortified crops in their respective communities. They communicate the importance of OSP and iron beans to beneficiary households.

This support program have proven to be a catalyst for change. It not only improves the health and livelihoods of lead mothers but also encourages the development of women farming groups within the region and triggers new livelihood projects for women as well.

Similarly, the SmartMother initiative in Nigeria provides education to mothers on the importance of healthy nutritious diets for themselves and their families. The platform helps support and encourage these SmartMothers to organize sensitization and education programs to build a community with other mothers of shared knowledge and guidance on sources of nutritious food and preparing food from biofortified crops.

Empowering women through vocational training

HarvestPlus has supported women by developing various frameworks and partnerships that have enhanced women farmers’ capabilities. For example, under the Canadian Government-funded project, “An Integrated Food Systems Approach to Build Nutrition Security“, HarvestPlus is providing access and support to growing biofortified staples crops to farming families in Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Malawi, Pakistan, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Through this project, HarvestPlus intends to assist 7.8 million people. One of the primary focuses of this initiative is to enable and motivate engagement of women in a participatory breeding processes and provide training on farming practices and technologies, as well as supporting women-led enterprises in seed and food value chains.

HarvestPlus also provides extensive capacity-building programs and training to women on the technical and sustainable aspects of farming. For example, HarvestPlus, in partnership with Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) under the Commercialisation of Biofortified Crops (CBC) Programme, HarvestPlus has been working on increasing accessibility to biofortified seeds, grains and food products in Bangladesh, Kenya, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Tanzania, countries with high levels of malnutrition.

In India, HarvestPlus partnered with Grameen Foundation under the CBC Programme to provide training and capacity building for smallholder farmers (with at least 30 percent women farmers) with special emphasis on awareness sessions for women on the cultivation of biofortified crops and enhancing their knowledge of pre-harvest and post-harvest loss and its management.

Prabhat Labh, CEO of Grameen Foundation India, has high hopes from the partnership, commenting that, “By working closely with the Farmer Producer Organizations and progressive farmers, we are popularizing the adoption of biofortified seed varieties, which will go a long way in addressing micronutrient deficiency. Biofortified wheat produced on 1,600 acres in this rabi season will be adequate to meet consumption and nutrition supplement needs of over 60,000 individuals”.

In collaboration with the Government of the DRC, HarvestPlus has been working on the World Bank-funded Multisectoral Nutrition and Health Project to expand sustainable growth and consumption of biofortified staple crops in response to increasing levels of malnutrition. Over three years’ time frame, the project aims to benefit 100,000 farming families currently producing non-biofortified variations of the same crops. A primary focus of this initiative has been the empowerment and participation of local women farmers. Farmers will receive awareness and training programs on agronomic and health benefits of nutrient-enriched biofortified crops and provide help in linking these farmers to relevant markets for their products.

Investing in women-owned small businesses

HarvestPlus works with enterprising women worldwide who aspire to or have already created businesses with minimal resources. We support women entrepreneurs who use biofortified ingredients to make food products.

For example, in 2016, HarvestPlus Zambia began working with Miriam Chipulu, owner of Shais Foods, an agro-processing enterprise. HarvestPlus provided Shais Foods 1000 kgs of vitamin A maize as raw material to produce Full Pack Cereal Blend. HarvestPlus then introduced the Full Pack Cereal Blend at national exhibitions, including a trade fair in Ndola and a 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 to meet market demand for the product.

By 2018, Shais Food had 350 farmers on contract around the capital of Luska to grow vitamin A maize for the company. The next year, Chipulu trained 600 farmers in Kaputa district and gave 100 farmers starter packs of 10 kgs of vitamin A maize seed as well as millet and soybean seeds to help supply raw materials for her company’s production. She aims to raise the number of her regular suppliers for vitamin A maize to 5,000. Seventy percent of Shais food’s current raw materials come from these smallholder farmers in the rural areas of Zambia. This also helps smallholder farmers to gain access to a market for crops that gain higher profits than traditional crops. Shais Foods was soon able to expand, and today, it is processing and delivering 20 metric tons of millet meal to one of the worst-hit drought areas in the Mwandi district in Zambia and has acquired 1,500 hectares of farming land in Muchinga to increase its generation of vitamin A maize, cassava, sorghum, millet and iron beans.

“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”, expressed Chipulu.

Similarly, Lilian Murangariri, a woman farmer from a rural district in Zimbabwe, relied on farming as her family’s prime source of livelihood. She could barely manage her household’s expenses on the family’s meager income.  Lilian’s life changed radically when she got involved in the Livelihoods and Food Security Programme (LFSP), in which HarvestPlus was the biofortification technical partner. After being 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 has also spread the word on the benefits of nutritious foods that are rich with micronutrients such as the vitamin A biofortified maize and iron beans. 

HarvestPlus has supported SMEs in Nigeria run by women, including one run by Hassana Hassan. Her Rahama Cassava Snacks business is a successful social enterprise that not only produces healthy snacks but also helps improve the livelihoods of the women who work there. Hassan’s vitamin A cassava business flourished after she 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. Hassan received extensive training on value addition and other business opportunities in vitamin A cassava production, processing, and marketing. Today her business is able to sustainably enhance rural income and food security and make women self-sufficient by enabling access to nutritious foods.

Responding to COVID-19 with a women-centric approach

During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, HarvestPlus and its partners have taken measures to address the gendered dimensions of the pandemic. In Malawi, under the “An Integrated Food Systems Approach to Build Nutrition Security” project, funded by the Government of Canada, beneficiaries included women with HIV/AIDS and pregnant teens. Due to the closure of schools in Malawi for seven months in 2020, over 12,000 cases of teenage pregnancies were recorded. Most of these girls were suffering from destitution and severe malnutrition. The girls’ families were mostly low-income; they had difficulty providing for the girls and were not ready to meet the challenge of pregnancy.

In collaboration with Malawi’s Ministry of Education, HarvestPlus’ implementing partner Nascent Solutions worked to ease the burden on Malawi’s public health system by providing food assistance to school pupils, including these pregnant teens. Nascent Solutions delivered food supplies to the schools and ensure that each pupil received a 50 kg bag of grain. The pregnant girls could take their bags home to meet their dietary needs.  The program supported 940 pregnant teenage girls and their families (in total around 4,700 people) under the school feeding initiative. This intervention through Nascent helped ensure these women received essential food and nutrition during this important prenatal period, and were supported to return to school after breastfeeding.

The project also aims to target and benefit vulnerable populations in Zimbabwe whose access to good public health facilities and livelihoods have been disrupted due to COVID-19. Biofortified food will be available to be eaten at orphanages such as Vimbainesu Children’s Home which houses around 50 children. With the help of Zimbabwe Agricultural Technical and Extension Services (AGRITEX) around 5,000 kgs of VAM grain, 300 kg of iron beans, and 500 kg of vitamin A OSP will be made available to the orphanage which is sufficient amount to feed all the children at Vimbainesu Children’s Home for six months. HarvestPlus is also donating seeds to approximately make available 1,000 kg of VAM grain, 100 kg of iron beans, and 250 kg of OSP with AGRITEX to the Mazowe Dambatsoko Shelter in Mazowe village. The shelter provides short term residence to around 35 victims of gender-based abuse and violence.

Within the last two years, HarvestPlus has been successful in training around 340,000 farmers and value chain actors in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and over 60 percent of these trainees were women.

Trainings involved one-on-one or virtual sessions, farmer field schools around demonstration pilots, through radio and other forms of media or direct visitations of extension staff. The training sessions included good farming practices, processing methods, nutrition and health and data quality assurance. The total number of households growing biofortified crops, through the efforts of HarvestPlus, has risen from 216,000 in 2012 to around 13,000,000 by 2021. Going forward, HarvestPlus and its partners will continue to build on these achievements to empower women farmers and sustain the impact of the various programs for the millions of smallholder farming families.