File photo of a woman farmer in Niger with iron-biofortified pearl millet Chakti in 2018. Photo: ICRISAT

Addressing hidden hunger through agriculture

African leaders discuss progress on biofortification in West Africa

File photo of a woman farmer in Niger with iron-biofortified pearl millet Chakti in 2018. Photo: ICRISAT

File photo of a woman farmer in Niger with iron-biofortified pearl millet Chakti in 2018. Photo: ICRISAT

Biofortification of staple crops remains one of the best options to address micronutrient deficiencies in Africa. Several African leaders met virtually to discuss the issues and opportunities involved in leveraging agriculture for better nutrition in West Africa.

The webinar ‘Addressing Hidden Hunger through Agriculture and Reflecting on Progress with Biofortification in West Africa’, was organized on 15 September 2021, by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the African Leaders for Nutrition (ALN) and HarvestPlus.

Dr Ramadjita Tabo, Regional Director, West and Central Africa, presented the progress of ICRISAT’s biofortification initiatives in Africa, including scaleup of the crop value chains. He highlighted the holistic model for biofortification, right from crop breeding, seed system development, dissemination of agronomic practices, to product development through private sector partnership and processing for wider reach.

In his opening remarks, Dr Martin Fregene, Director, Agriculture and Agro-Industry, AfDB, highlighted major interventions of the bank in food and nutrition security with regard to micronutrient deficiency in Africa, and outlined its commitments to increase resources for biofortification and other sustainable strategies towards achieving ‘Continental Nutrition Goals’.

Dr Tabo showcased sorghum varieties with high iron (Fe) and zinc (Zn) content released in Nigeria: SAMSORG 45 with 60% higher Fe concentration and SAMSORG 46 with 62% higher Zn compared to the average 35 ppm Fe and 25 ppm Zn found in sorghum. Also, he talked about Chakti, a pearl millet variety which already has over 65 ppm Fe content compared to popular varieties. Other pearl millet varieties GB 8735 and ICTP 8203 have been selected for fast-track improvement and release in Niger, Ghana and Senegal, he said.  Dr Tabo described ICRISAT’s efforts to boost the seed sector through the millet and sorghum compact of TAAT, funded by the AfDB. Moreover, he emphasized the importance of partnering with the private sector for product development, processing and wider upscaling. “We promote the value chain of underutilized climate-smart food crops, nutri-rich and resilient varieties that are good for the consumer, the planet and the farmer,” he said.

Dr Howarth Bouis, Founder, HarvestPlus, focused on linking agriculture and nutrition through an overview of biofortification. On diversifying diets with non-staple foods, he suggested to start with the specific foods that can make a difference in the nutrition status, and then work towards removing pricing constraints and those that limit expansion of supply. He remarked that one of the key issues in implementation of nutrition-smart agricultural interventions is the long gestation period often required. He said that positive examples were needed to encourage further investments in this area.

Dr Rose Omari, Senior Research Scientist, CSIR – Science and Technology Policy Research Institute, (CSIR-STEPRI), Ghana, presented the nutritional status in Ghana and also the national strategies for combating micronutrient deficiency in the country, including biofortification. She informed the group that while vitamin A deficiency is seen in 20% of Ghanaian children, it’s rarely present in women; also, iron deficiency is responsible for over 50% of anemia incidences. “Among interventions contributing to improvements are food fortification, supplementation, diet diversification and other public health interventions,” she said. “Biofortification is an option to be considered based on nutrition evidence from other countries”. Dr Omari recounted some of the challenges encountered in scaling up biofortified crops, such as the misconception among the public that all biofortified crops are genetically modified (GM) crops, the inability of consumers to differentiate between some biofortified crops and traditional crops, concerns about loss of nutrients during post-harvest handling and cooking, lack of awareness about and unavailability of biofortified crops, lack of testing facilities for micronutrient content, etc.

Dr Richard Pendame, Regional Director Africa, Nutrition International, talked about micronutrient deficiency in Africa, current coverage and compliance of food fortification. “Fortification is a low-cost, high-return investment,” he said. Talking about anemia prevalence, he informed that 27 countries in Africa have mandatory legislation for at least one cereal grain and/or oil and of these, a majority (>75%) have reached scale. However, 10 countries have less than 75% coverage of fortified foods and can still benefit from better enforcement, accountability, coverage.  Also, only 22% of industrially milled grains and a much lesser proportion of industrially milled oil is currently fortified. “There is a huge opportunity to improve fortification in industrially milled grains,” he said.

Other speakers included Dr Jonas Chianu, Manager, TAAT, who talked about biofortified crops being supported and funded under the TAAT initiative; Mr Seth Osei-Akoto, Director, Directorates of Crop Services (Crop Fortification); Dr Ahmed Kablan, Senior Nutrition and Public Health Advisor, who provided insights on USAID’s Large Scale Food Fortification (LSFF); Ms Paulina Addy, Director, Women in Agricultural Development Directorate Ghana, who spoke about scaling industrial fortification and the need for investment in infrastructure and regulation for food fortification; and Dr  Yusuf   Dollah, HarvestPlus Nigeria, who  showcased the high-iron pearl millet Chakti developed by ICRISAT and partners and released in Niger as a nutrition source for the drylands. “The ECOWAS rules allow this variety to be      cultivated in any member country,” he explained.

Dr Babatunde Omilola, Manager of Public Health, Security and Nutrition Division, AfDB, and Dr Esi Amoaful, Director of Nutrition and Country Lead for Nutrition at the Ghana Health Service, and HarvestPlus Board Member, moderated the event.  It was a very interactive webinar where participants had the opportunity to contribute on what makes biofortification a reliable technology to address micronutrient malnutrition, through a Mentimenter survey.

“As leaders, we have a great responsibility towards the health, welfare and security of our people. We are aware that micronutrients are necessary for growth and good health. Therefore, we have a duty to see how we can support biofortification in our country,” said Senator Muhammed Bima Enagi, who has over the past two years promoted the cause of biofortification at the Nigerian Senate.

The African Leaders for Nutrition (ALN), an initiative by AfDB and the African Union Commission (AUC), was endorsed by the Assembly of Heads of State and Governments of the African Union (AU) in 2018. The ALN Initiative is led by a group of ALN Champions, comprising current and former Heads of State and Government and eminent leaders with the power to catalyze and sustain high-level political leadership and commitment to increase financial resources to end malnutrition in Africa.

Reported by: Agathe Diama
Head, Regional Information, ICRISAT – WCA

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