In Zambia, maize is a commonly grown crop and children are regularly given a meal called ‘nshima’, a stiff maize porridge. Over recent years, Zambia’s Agricultural Research Institute (ZARI) has collaborated with the HarvestPlus organisation to conduct research into the types of maize varieties which can be grown. Most farmers in the region cultivate white rather than yellow maize, because its taste is preferred by locals. In addition, yellow maize has a kind of stigma attached, since it is frequently distributed as food aid and is perceived to be a “drought food”.
But ZARI and HarvestPlus are now promoting the benefits of an orange variety of maize. This type of maize contains beta-carotene, the natural substance which gives vegetables like carrots their orange appearance. The orange maize variety can contain 10-15 milligrams of beta-carotene for every gram. Beta-carotene is extremely beneficial for the body, because it is easily converted into vitamin A.
The Zambian National Food and Nutrition Commission identified that over half of children under five in the country suffer from vitamin A deficiency. This increases the likelihood of children becoming ill, as well as retarding growth and in extreme cases causing blindness. In response to the findings, the Zambian government tried fortifying margarine and sugar with vitamin A. But neither of these attempts to improve nutrition succeeded well, since Zambians in rural areas rarely buy margarine and in sugar, vitamin A degenerates quickly. Since transportation of food can take a long time, there was often little trace of the vitamin A left in the sugar by the time it reached rural areas.
Instead, the Zambian authorities are now putting hope in new advances in biofortification of food, where higher levels of essential nutrients such as vitamin A, iron and zinc are achieved through specialist selection and breeding of crops. Food researchers are promoting the orange maize variety, because of its high beta-carotene content. Seeds will be sent out to around 10,000 farmers in the Eastern, Central and Southern provinces. If the findings look promising next year, further seeds will be shipped to around 25,000 farmers in 2012.
Already, at a biofortification conference held on the 9th November in the US, the researchers were able to report that in the orange maize, the beta-carotene was converted to vitamin A at a higher level than from vegetables such as carrots and spinach. So now, it may simply be a case of persuading locals to adopt the orange maize as their preferred choice. Women play the key role in the foods consumed by households and are likely to choose the orange maize if it has a good flavour, is easy to cook and is popular with their families. Women’s groups could be targeted with information about the maize by radio or when seeds are distributed to small-scale farmers. One of the food researchers is confident the orange maize will find favour. Unlike the white variety, orange maize “has a sweetish taste which the children loved”. If the taste is popular with children, then the orange maize should prove popular with mothers too.