Bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion of crops of­fers a bowl of hope for Africa’s mal­nour­ished

The Star Early Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - WED­NES­DAY, NOVEM­BER 26 2014

MANY peo­ple who live in Lira dis­trict in north­ern Uganda con­sider Per­petua Okao a farmer and a life saver – and it is easy to know why. Her neigh­bour’s son was mal­nour­ished and of­ten sickly. But after feed­ing him a diet of vi­ta­min A-rich orange-fleshed sweet potato, the boy’s health im­proved dra­mat­i­cally in just a few days. Okao is among some 126 000 Ugan­dan farm­ers grow­ing the orange-fleshed sweet potato, a new va­ri­ety of potato en­riched with vi­ta­min A through bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion is a process by which crops are bred in a way that in­creases their nu­tri­tional value. The idea be­hind bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion is to breed nu­tri­tious plants, a process that ex­perts con­sider much cheaper than adding mi­cronu­tri­ents to al­ready pro­cessed foods. It is a smart method to fight mal­nu­tri­tion, say agri­cul­tur­ists and nu­tri­tion­ists. The Food and Agri­cul­tural Or­gan­i­sa­tion (FAO), a UN food agency, con­sid­ers mal­nu­tri­tion-caused by a lack of es­sen­tial mi­cronu­tri­ents such as io­dine, iron, zinc and vi­ta­min A in di­ets a threat to mil­lions of African lives.

Uganda’s ex­am­ple

Bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion can mit­i­gate the ef­fects of vi­ta­min A de­fi­ciency in peo­ple, re­ports Har­vestPlus, a re­search cen­tre com­mit­ted to fight­ing global hunger. Mi­crosoft co­founder and phi­lan­thropist Bill Gates pro­vides fi­nan­cial support to Har­vestPlus.

The or­gan­i­sa­tion fur­ther notes that vi­ta­min A de­fi­ciency is a se­ri­ous health prob­lem in more than 90 coun­tries but more acutely in Africa and Asia. The de­fi­ciency causes pre­ventable blind­ness in chil­dren and in­creases the risk of dis­ease and death from se­vere in­fec­tions. It also causes night blind­ness in women and in­creases the risk of ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity.

In Africa, Har­vestPlus es­ti­mates that 42 per­cent of chil­dren un­der the age of five and women be­tween 15 and 49 years of age suf­fer from vi­ta­min A de­fi­ciency. Uganda, which is se­verely af­fected, is ex­ten­sively pro­duc­ing the orange-fleshed sweet potato va­ri­ety rich in beta-carotene, an or­ganic com­pound that con­verts to vi­ta­min A in the hu­man body.

In 2012, Har­vestPlus and the US Agency for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment (USAid) launched a “Feed the Fu­ture” pro­gramme and in­tro­duced the new sweet potato va­ri­ety. Okao, along with the Ugan­dan gov­ern­ment, USAid and Har­vestPlus, pro­vided en­riched sweet potato plants to breed with the lo­cal white or yel­low va­ri­ety to more than 10 000 farm­ing house­holds.

The re­sults so far in­di­cate that 60 per­cent of the house­holds re­placed a third of the tra­di­tional sweet potato va­ri­eties. Thanks to the new sweet potato va­ri­ety, vi­ta­min A lev­els have in­creased among Ugan­dan chil­dren, mak­ing them health­ier than be­fore, ac­cord­ing to Har­vestPlus.

Africa con­fronts chal­lenge

But mal­nu­tri­tion is not just a Ugan­dan prob­lem; it is wide­spread in Africa, says the FAO. The agency es­ti­mates that 30 per­cent of Africa’s chil­dren are mal­nour­ished and stunted, have re­duced learn­ing and earn­ing po­ten­tial, and are vul­ner­a­ble to in­fec­tions and early death.

The quest for more nu­tri­tious foods for Africans was the sub­ject of a three-day con­fer­ence on bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion last April in Ki­gali, Rwanda. At that con­fer­ence, more than 275 top gov­ern­ment, business and civil so­ci­ety lead­ers dis­cussed ways to start a con­ti­nent-wide adop­tion of

FAO es­ti­mates that 30% of Africa’s chil­dren are mal­nour­ished and stunted, have re­duced learn­ing and earn­ing po­ten­tial and are vul­ner­a­ble to in­fec­tions…


Ak­in­wumi Adesina, Nige­ria’s agri­cul­ture min­is­ter, wants his coun­try to be­come Africa’s lead pro­ducer of bio­for­ti­fied foods. Un­der its agri­cul­ture-forhealth pro­gramme, Africa’s most pop­u­lous coun­try wants to de­velop vi­ta­min A-en­riched cas­sava va­ri­eties to ad­dress mi­cronu­tri­ent mal­nu­tri­tion.

Nige­ria has in­cor­po­rated pro-vi­ta­min A cas­sava and orange-fleshed sweet pota­toes in its Growth En­hance­ment Support Scheme, whose goal is to reach 2.5 mil­lion farm­ing house­holds.

Like Nige­ria, Zam­bia has in­tro­duced pro-vi­ta­min A cas­sava and maize. In Rwanda, about half a mil­lion farm­ers are grow­ing new va­ri­eties of beans rich in iron. Farm­ers us­ing th­ese va­ri­eties are har­vest­ing more yields per hectare and earn­ing more in­come sell­ing the sur­plus.

Martha Birungi, a farmer in Rwanda’s east­ern dis­trict, is cur­rently grow­ing nu­tri­tious and high-yield iron-rich beans and earn­ing a higher in­come than be­fore.

“The new va­ri­eties of beans are big in size and when you cook them they ex­pand and are very de­li­cious. They have higher iron con­tent when com­pared to the in­dige­nous ones we were used to,” Birungi said.

She added that the en­riched-iron beans pro­vided more than three tons per hectare com­pared with less than a ton from in­dige­nous bean va­ri­eties.

Scal­ing up ef­forts

Har­vestPlus and part­ners plan to de­velop more va­ri­eties of crops that will pro­vide ad­e­quate vi­ta­min A, zinc or iron to more than 2 bil­lion peo­ple world­wide. “We’re just be­gin­ning to scratch the sur­face… We want to in­crease ac­cess to th­ese nu­tri­tious crops as quickly as pos­si­ble,” Howarth Bouis, the di­rec­tor of Har­vestPlus, said.

He added: “I think we have had un­equiv­o­cal suc­cess in Africa with the orange flesh sweet potato.”

Yas­sir Is­lam, the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s spokesman, told Africa Re­newal that they had scaled up in­ter­ven­tions in about 15 African coun­tries, in­clud­ing in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of the Congo (DRC), Kenya, Mozam­bique, Rwanda, Uganda and Zam­bia, with most of the work car­ried out by the In­ter­na­tional Potato Cen­tre, a Peru-based re­search cen­tre.

Is­lam said Rwanda was the first tar­get coun­try be­cause beans were one of its most im­por­tant sta­ple foods. Har­vestPlus moved on to Uganda and the east­ern DRC, even as they planned fur­ther in­ter­ven­tions in more African coun­tries.

The World Food Pro­gramme (WFP), a UN agency, has no­ticed the suc­cess sto­ries in the mal­nu­tri­tion fight in Uganda, the DRC and Rwanda. The WFP now buys more than $1 bil­lion (R11bn) worth of food each year from de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, and has 77 tons of iron-for­ti­fied beans for its food support pro­grammes, ac­cord­ing to Ken Davies, the WFP’s global co-or­di­na­tor.

“The po­ten­tial for in­tro­duc­ing mi­cronu­tri­ent and bio­for­ti­fied foods into the WFP’s food bas­ket is im­mense be­cause small­holder farm­ers in many coun­tries are chal­lenged by mi­cronu­tri­ent de­fi­cien­cies,” noted Davies, who added that there was still a long way to go in the fight against mal­nu­tri­tion.

Ac­cepted re­al­ity

Jeff Waage, the tech­ni­cal ad­viser at the Global Panel on Agri­cul­ture and Food Sys­tems, an ex­pert group tack­ling chal­lenges in food and nu­tri­tion se­cu­rity, said the ben­e­fits of bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion in crops were ob­vi­ous. What re­mained was un­lock­ing the po­ten­tial for bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion to en­gen­der bet­ter agri­cul­ture and food poli­cies that pro­moted nu­tri­tion.

The World Bank’s vice-pres­i­dent Rachel Kyte con­curs and high­lights the bank’s com­mit­ment to boost­ing pro­duc­tion of bio­for­ti­fied crops. Bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion, Kyte said, pro­vided a path­way to nu­tri­tional se­cu­rity for Africa’s food sys­tem. She said sci­en­tific re­search on the pos­si­bil­i­ties of bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion was no longer up for de­bate; it was an ac­cepted re­al­ity.

Con­cerned about mal­nu­tri­tion rates in the re­gion, African pol­i­cy­mak­ers and for­eign part­ners were be­gin­ning to ap­pre­ci­ate the value of the sci­ence be­hind bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion, said Robin Bu­ruchara, the re­gional di­rec­tor for Africa at the In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Trop­i­cal Agri­cul­ture, which works with 30 coun­tries in east and south­ern Africa. “We are flip­ping the con­ver­sa­tion from: ‘Is it is pos­si­ble, can we do it, is it safe, do we get greater yield?’ to ‘How do we get this into the bowl and hands of chil­dren across the con­ti­nent in Africa’.”

With in­creas­ing for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment flows in Africa and a grow­ing gross do­mes­tic prod­uct driven in part by a min­ing boom and agri­cul­tural growth, filling empty stom­achs in Africa is ur­gent, ex­perts say. Bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion is an area in which Africa is tak­ing the lead.

“This [bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion] is one of the great­est in­no­va­tions in the world and it is be­ing driven by Africans from Africa and it will be Africa in the fore­front,” Kyte told Africa Re­newal. “This is not Africa fol­low­ing the rest of the world, this is Africa say­ing we are go­ing first.”

This fea­ture is pub­lished with per­mis­sion from the UN’s Africa Re­newal fea­tures ser­vice.


A woman har­vests beans high in iron in Rwanda. Farm­ers us­ing this va­ri­ety are har­vest­ing more yields per hectare and sell­ing the sur­plus.

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