08 January 2022, Zimbabwe: Luke Tavazia is a farmer in the Zvimba District of Zimbabwe. Over the past four years, he has been growing vitamin A-biofortified maize in addition to his regular white maize. By adding this nutrient-enriched crop to his farm, Tavazia said he has reaped numerous benefits, including increased disposable income since they are in high demand and fetch favorable prices in the local markets. This improved income opportunity has enabled him to support a better standard of living for him and his family.
But he said the most important benefit of growing vitamin A maize has been the improvement in health as a result of consuming it as a part of their regular diets. For his part, Tavazia says he is healthier than he has ever been, and he has been able to do more work than ever before. Indeed, farmers like Tavazia across Zimbabwe are improving the quality of their agricultural produce, their incomes, and their health by growing and consuming biofortified crops, and by selling the surplus, they are also increasing the availability of affordable, nutritious foods in their local food environments.
A serious health challenge
In Zimbabwe, an estimated 20 percent of children under the age of five suffer from vitamin A deficiency, while more than 72 percent of children under five and 69 percent of women of reproductive age have iron deficiency. Vitamin A deficiency has been shown to weaken immune systems, an especially concerning outcome given the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to impairing vision and even causing blindness. Anemia, one of the main underlying causes of which is iron deficiency, can impair mental development and learning capacity of children, increase weakness and fatigue, and the risk of women dying during childbirth.
To help address this problem, HarvestPlus in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, supported the Zimbabwean Government to promote the production and consumption of biofortified crops by small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe. This effort was funded under a UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) program called the Zimbabwe Livelihoods and Food Security Program (LFSP).
The Livelihoods and Food Security Programme (LFSP)
The LFSP was launched in 2015, and one of its key objectives was to scale the delivery of biofortified crops to farmers across Zimbabwe. The program was managed by FAO and Palladium, with HarvestPlus providing technical leadership on the development of a sustainable seed to grain value chain for biofortified crops. This work included:
- expanding the production and distribution of biofortified seeds;
- training farmers in good agricultural practices (GAP) to increase the productivity and resilience of biofortified crops to climate, pests and diseases;
- catalyzing private sector partnerships to accelerate production and sales of biofortified seed and foods;
- supporting partners’ evidence-based advocacy efforts with the Government of Zimbabwe to create a conducive policy environment for increasing supply of and demand for biofortified crops and foods.
To date, under the LFSP, HarvestPlus and its partners have trained more than 250,000 households on the production and utilization of biofortified crops and foods, and distributed biofortified seed test packs to more than 58,000 households. According to the Zimbabwe 2021 crop and livestock survey report, area planted with biofortified crops in the 2020/21 season was 11,990 ha (7,662 ha in vitamin A maize (0.4% of total maize area), and 4,328 ha in iron beans (12% of total bean area).
Given their importance in Zimbabwean agriculture and diets, maize and beans were selected as strategic vehicle crops to increase micronutrient intake through their biofortification. Vitamin A maize and iron bean varieties received significant interest from farmers, with an estimated 63 percent of maize farmers, and 61 percent of bean farmers growing vitamin A maize and iron beans in the LFSP target districts, according to a rapid nutrition study done by LFSP.
Five vitamin A maize and two iron bean varities were co-developed and released by the Department of Research and Specialist Services, Zimbabwe’s national agricultural research and extension system (NARES) in collaboration with the CGIAR (HarvestPlus, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center [CIMMYT] and the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT). In addition to their improved nutrient density and associated nutrition and health benefits, the yields and maturity periods of biofortified vareties are at least as favorable as those of non-biofortified varieties widely grown by farmers.
“Initially I was not aware of the benefits of iron beans, but when I received a test pack from the program, planted it just to give it a try – after all, what would I lose since the seed was for free. I noticed that it grows much faster and matures earlier than the beans we are used to growing. This inspired me to continue growing it and the following year I planted more land using my own farm saved seed and a little more that I bought from the nearby agro-dealer shop,” said Mr. Artwell Chorwadza, a farmer from the Mazowe district of Zimbabwe.
Expanding seed production while catalyzing inclusive value chains
One of HarvestPlus’ roles in the LSFP was to develop the seed system for biofortified varieties. As part of this effort, HarvestPlus trained 413 community-based smallholder farmers on the production and marketing of certified iron bean seed within their communities so as to ensure increased iron bean seed availability at the community level. In addition, HarvestPlus also facilitated contract-farming arrangements between these trained seed producers and private seed companies for production of certified seed. This has resulted in improved incomes for iron bean seed farmers since contracting companies pay as much as USD 1.50/kg for iron bean seed compared to USD 0.90 /kg for iron bean grain.
Currently, 10 private seed companies are licensed to produce and market both vitamin A maize and iron bean seeds while one private seed company is licencesed to produce and market iron bean seed in Zimbabwe. The capacity for vitamin A maize seed production increased from 65MT in 2018 to 100MT in 2021, while the capacity for iron bean production increased from 59MT in 2016 to 605MT in 2021. Efforts are also underway with the Government of Zimbabwe to incentivize additional commercial seed companies to invest in the production of seed for biofotified varieties.
One of the objectives of the LFSP was to strengthen the capacity of value chain actors along the biofortified seed to food value chains. Women and youth, and SMEs owned by them, were especially included and empowered as part of this objective. A youth-owned agri-food enterprise, called Sky Brands is one among many of such SMEs. In addition to receiving technical and marketing support from the LFSP, the program facilitated Sky Brands to secure a financial loan, as an innovative way to incentivize them to include biofortified varieties into their product lines while creating a market for harvested biofortified grain from contracted farmers.
Another important avenue for engendering a market for biofortified grain was identified to be the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), Zimbabwe’s grain procurement agency and largest buyer of maize grain. Based on the evidence-based advocacy efforts by HarvestPlus and partners, vitamin A maize grain was included in the GMB catalogue in 2019, and since then the GMB has been buying vitamin A maize grain from farmers, thus acting as a significant demand pull.
Introduction of the vitamin A maize producer cluster groups significantly increased the volume of vitamin A maize grain produced while facilitating easy aggregation across geographies, by both private aggregators like Sky Brands and decentralized GMB aggregation centres. During the 2019 -2020 season, for example, 422 farmers were organized into 20 vitamin A maize cluster producer groups, and each farmer set aside half a hectare of land for vitamin A maize grain production. Despite inadequate rainfall, these farmers in producer groups still managed to produce 154MT of Vitamin A maize grain thanks to its drought tolerance and the GAP training received by these groups. Almost half (43 percent) of this harvest was sold to processors, and the remainder of the maize was then retained by farmers for household consumption.
Overall, contract farming and formation of vitamin A maize cluster production groups coupled with linking the producer groups to to public and private procurement opportunities were instrumental in scaling the production of biofortified vitamin A maize grain, especially in the last two years when the scale of the program reached a critical mass. A guaranted market is an important incentive for farmers to increase area allocated to vitamin A maize varieties. Such mechanisms are a crucial demand-pull factor that increase adoption and availability of vitamin A maize in the market, ultimately increasing its consumption by farm households and local consumer alike. Farmers reported increased household income and overall improved household living standards, through the sale of vitamin A maize grain. Overall, the LFSP improved the nutrient availability of the food systems.