By Tendai Chara
Smallholder farmer Musiyiwa Musonza, 77, is triumphant as he shows a thriving Vitamin A orange maize crop in his field despite high temperatures experienced in his area that destroyed most plants at germination.
‘’It has never been this hot in this area. I was pleased the variety is drought-tolerant. Despite dry conditions in January and February, my orange maize variety was able to yield a good harvest. I’m preparing my maize field to plant it again during the coming agricultural season,’’ says Musonza.
Musonza lives in Mazowe district in Mashonaland Central Province of Zimbabwe. He is one of the thousands of farmers participating in a malnutrition reduction programme. He is also sure of another maize harvest despite the poor agricultural conditions experienced across most parts of the country.
‘’I have now proved that the orange maize can give us a better harvest, and I will continue to grow this kind of maize because it can even help me and my family have a better life, “said Musonza.
Musiyiwa Musonza says he’ll continue to grow vitamin A orange maize because of its immense benefits, such as nutrition.
Maize is the country’s staple food crop and a key ingredient for the national staple sadza (stiff porridge).
“My community likes the orange maize because it contributes to reducing the number of people with stunting due to vitamin A deficiency,’’ Musonza said.
White maize is limited in minerals and vitamins and doesn’t contain carotenoids, the orange-coloured nutrients that are the building blocks of Vitamin A.
In Zimbabwe, malnutrition is prevalent among children under five as well as women of reproductive age – mostly between 15 and 49 years. This results in serious negative health consequences contributing to lower IQ, stunting, and blindness in children.
According to the World Bank, malnourished children are more likely to drop out of school and have lower incomes as adults, and contributes to reduced overall economic growth. Zimbabwean children under the age of five constitute 20 % of those who have Vitamin A deficiency, and one out of every three children is anaemic.
Almost 33,000 children in the country are in need of urgent treatment for severe acute malnutrition, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Also according to the 2018 Zimbabwe National Nutrition Survey, 26 % of children were experiencing stunted growth, while malnutrition was rampant across all the country’s 10 provinces. The majority of rural households in Zimbabwe do not meet minimum dietary diversity, relying on a cereal-based diet, where meat is a rarity, says the Zimbabwe Food and Nutrition Council.
Despite stunting prevalence has declined from 33% in 2010, it remains above the acceptable global threshold of 20%. For example, in Chimanimani District in Manicaland Province, the proportion of stunted children was 35 % nationally, says the 2018 Zimbabwe National Nutrition Survey.
Though Vitamin A deficiency can be addressed through consumption of a variety of nutritious foods. These include yellow, orange and red-pigmented fruits, dark leafy vegetables, or animal products such as milk, eggs, liver and cheese, which are at times too expensive or unavailable in Zimbabwe’s rural areas, where 67% of the country’s 16 million people live.
Since 2015, Harvest Plus, through the Livelihoods and Food Security Programme (LFSP), has collaborated with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS), and more than 30 national and international partners, in breeding biofortified crop varieties of Vitamin A orange maize.
The LFSP is a multi-year livelihoods, food and nutrition security intervention funded by UK Aid and managed by Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and Palladium. Through the programme, biofortification has been piloted in 12 districts of Zimbabwe.
Biofortification is a nutrient-specific intervention designed to reduce micronutrient malnutrition. Biofortification increases the density of vitamins and minerals in a crop through conventional plant breeding or agronomic practices.
When consumed regularly, biofortified crops generate measurable improvements in health and nutrition. The process develops crops rich in nutrients for consumers as well as agronomic characteristics such as drought and disease resistance, which is valued by farmers.
‘’Our focus is on hidden hunger, caused by insufficient mineral and vitamins in the diet – that is the major hunger problem Zimbabwe faces today, ‘’ says Sakile Kudita, Harvest Plus/Zimbabwe country manager. “But effective science can make a huge difference by enriching staple crops such as maize with Vitamin A and providing smallholder farming households with nutritionally enhanced food.’’
During the 2017-2018 cropping season, 44 tonnes of Vitamin A maize seed was distributed to 12 districts and about 22,000 households benefited. During the 2018/2019 agricultural season, 20 tonnes of Vitamin A maize seed was also distributed to the 12 districts benefitting 20,000 households benefitted.
By December 2018, Harvest Plus/Zimbabwe had directly reached more than 250,000 households with biofortified seeds both directly and through market-led interventions. By the end of 2020, an anticipated 400,000 smallholder farmers will be growing biofortified crops.
“The orange maize assures me that my grandchildren get a nutritious meal and this means we don’t only rely on government supplements,’’ said Musonza.
The international development community has prioritised nutrition since the inception of the Millennium Development Goals, and now the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, but a lot still needs to be done to alleviate malnutrition.
To achieve global targets for stunting reduction, it is necessary to both improve coverage of nutrition-specific interventions and massively scale up efforts towards putting nutrition-sensitive principles into practice.