/ 20 October 2016

Fortified seeds foil hidden hunger

Safe landing: Improving farming techniques in Africa will provide food and jobs.
Safe landing: Improving farming techniques in Africa will provide food and jobs.


Gloria Uwizeyimana is a smallholding farmer in Rwanda who used to struggle to feed her children. Her land did not yield enough or provide her growing children with the nutrition they needed.

Uwizeyimana is not alone in her struggle. One in three people in the world suffer from hidden hunger, a term that describes a person’s lack of the essential vitamins and minerals they need to survive and thrive.

The effects of hidden hunger are most acute for children. They range from mental impairment to low productivity and even death. Every year, 18-million babies are born with brain damage and 500 000 go blind because their mothers did not get enough of the essential nutrients during pregnancy.

That is why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation supports the winners of this year’s World Food Prize, HarvestPlus and the Sweetpotato Action for Security and Health in Africa (Sasha).

The two organisations have pioneered the concept of biofortification to counteract hidden hunger. This method uses conventional breeding techniques to develop varieties of crops that are naturally richer in vital nutrients and produce higher yields.

HarvestPlus was one of the first innovators of biofortification back in 2003. Since then, it has used the method to develop nutritious varieties of staple food crops that contain higher amounts of vitamin A, iron and zinc – the three most important micronutrients on the planet, according to the World Health Organisation.

Sasha chose to concentrate its efforts on the vitamin A content of sweet potato, one of the most popular crops in Africa, and ensure the crop was drought and disease resistant. In the long term, the project aims to reach 150 000 families over five years by distributing the seeds of biofortified sweet potato to Africans who need them most.

Through the efforts of these organisations, more than 10-million people have already reaped the benefits of biofortified crops.

“I could not believe it,” Uwizeyimana says. “I planted five kilogrammes of [biofortified] iron beans and harvested 100 kilogrammes. With the ordinary beans I would get only 30 kilogrammes at most.”

The huge increase in her harvests allowed Uwizeyimana to feed her growing children nutritious meals and still have plenty left over to sell. This income enables her to pay her family’s annual health insurance bill and to contribute weekly to a women’s savings association in her village.

This progress has inspired a global movement in biofortification. Uwizeyimana is just one of millions of farmers who have started using biofortified crops to feed their families and sell to their communities.

Dr Ayo Ajayi is the director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Africa Team