17 August 2022, Africa: The Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has launched a major initiative to scale sustainable production and consumption of biofortified staple crops, to help address persistently high rates of malnutrition in this central African country of 93 million people.
The initiative is part of the World Bank-funded Multisectoral Nutrition and Health Project (French acronym PMNS) to increase the range and scope of interventions aimed in particular at children ages 0-23 months, and women of reproductive age. HarvestPlus, which is part of the CGIAR global partnership for a food secure future, is the Government’s technical assistance partner for biofortification under the PMNS.
In DRC, four biofortified crops have been strategically selected for promotion, based on current consumption and farming habits in target regions: vitamin A cassava, maize, and orange sweet potato, and iron bean. Under the PMNS, over three years, a total of 100,000 farming households will benefit from growing these crops, with a geographic focus on the provinces of South Kivu, Kasaï and Kwilu.
Empowering Government Actors
As the PMNS shifts into high gear during 2022, an important task for HarvestPlus has been to raise awareness of and providing training to government extension agents, managers and other relevant staff of ministries that play a role in promoting production and consumption of biofortified crops. HarvestPlus is working with the Ministries of Health, Agriculture, Foreign Trade, Scientific Research, and Higher and University Education.
To date, about 270 government staff members (90 working in each of the three provinces) have been trained under three broad themes : supplying and introducing biofortified crops in local agricultural production systems ; introducing foods made from biofortified crops in local diets and the foods’ nutritional value, and the need to respect gender rights (notably the prevention of gender-based violence, or GBV) in the implementaiton of the biofortification project.
During the trainings, the HarvestPlus DRC production team presented technical requirements for production of biofortified crops, and field management to ensure good yield. On the crop production side, HarvestPlus is working closely with the National Agricultural Study and Research Institute (INERA), which is part of the Ministry of Scientific Research. INERA will certify all seeds and other planting material that will be distributed to farming households. HarvestPlus is also working with the National Seed Service (SENASEM) to ensure consistent quality of seeds prior to distribution.
Training participants also learned about the nutritional value of biofortified crops and foods during a presentation by Kossi Akpaki, nutrition specialist with HarvestPlus. HarvestPlus is working with the National Nutrition Program (PRONANUT), part of the Ministry of Health to raise awareness among farming communities in the target provinces about how consumption of biofortified crops will help address malnutrition.
Regarding respect for gender rights, Blaise Mvumbi, senior associate for inclusion on the HarvestPlus PMNS team, explained that the project’s efforts to promote biofortification will also include a strong commitment to preventing any gender-based violence (GBV)—a high priority for the Government as well as the funder. The commitment extends to preventing any form of discrimination whatsoever and ensure that all parties are fully respected and benefit fully from these crops.
Positive Responses from Participants
Reactions to the training and information sessions were positive. For example, following the training in Kasai, Dr Jean Marie Mulanda, the province Division Chief for Health, called on all participants to strongly support the introduction of biofortification to combat micronutrient deficiencies that are the cause of chronic malnutrition in the country.
In all three target provinces, armed conflicts and related out-migration from rural areas have greatly increased food and nutrition insecurity, and by extension malnutrition. Most families face very weak purchasing power for food (as well as other items), making it very difficult for them to maintain a healthy diet. Thus, the introduction of biofortified crops was seen as a good option, since these crops are readily available as staples and cost no more than non-biofortified varieties to grow.
Ensuring Seed Supply
In addition to training relevant government staff, a high priority is to ensure sufficient quantity of seed for farmers, particularly ahead of the rainy season in September when planting traditionally takes place. Ayoni Ogunbayo, seed specialist on the HarvestPlus PMNS team, said they are working closely with INERA and SENASEM to meet this deadline.
He explained that they are also working with the government body overseeing the PMNS project to identify which farming households will receive the seeds; once this is done, the PMNS partners will establish appropriate seed distribution systems. A key element in successful adoption of biofortified crops is to work closely with chiefs and other community leaders who can motivate their communities to participate.