The breeding and introduction of more nutritious varieties of vegetables, grains and pulses, known as bio-fortification, is relatively new in Africa, but is being seen as one of the best ways to fight malnutrition over the coming decade. IRIN highlights the work of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), which operates a programme called ‘HarvestPlus’. Under this programme, new varieties of crops grown in Africa, such as sweet potato, cassava, plantain, corn and rice, are being bred which are enriched with micronutrients such as vitamin A, zinc and iron. According to the World Health Organisation, people in developing countries are often lacking in these essential nutrients. This deficiency is called “hidden hunger”, since unlike stunting, the consequences are harder to detect. However, without essential nutrients like Vitamin A, zinc and iron, children can develop life-threatening illnesses or go blind.
A study published this year by the IFPRI, the Global Hidden Hunger Index, revealed data which shows that 18 out of the 20 countries where people have the highest micronutrient deficiency rates are in sub-Saharan Africa.
‘Affordable nutrition’ in Senegal
In Senegal, rates of hidden hunger are classified as “severe” by the IFPRI study, with three-quarters of children under the age of five deficient in iron. Anaemia (caused by a lack of iron) can cause lethargy or in more severe cases, impair a child’s physical and mental development, or even kill.
To address the problem, Yaajeende, a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) supported by USAID, has teamed up with HarvestPlus to reintroduce sweet potatoes into the country. For some reason, the growing of sweet potatoes died out in Senegal, but these orange-fleshed tubers are rich in Vitamin A. And since they’re sweet, they also make an ideal ingredient in meals for children. Yaajeende also wants farmers to replace the traditional millet seed with an iron-enriched pearl millet and to introduce zinc-enriched rice and Vitamin A-enriched orange maize.
A spokesperson for the NGO said that by distributing seeds and plants to small-scale farmers, many of whom are women and can be reached through mother-to-mother clubs, they hope that in 5-10 year’s time, bio-fortified crops will have become commonplace and the existing millet will have been replaced by bio-fortified millet. The experience in Senegal shows that once people grow more nutritious crops, they “will eat them”. For the sake of Senegal’s children, the team intend to do all in their power to extend the use of bio-fortified crops, since they see this kind of “affordable nutrition” as one of the best solutions to hidden hunger.