21 October 2021, Bangladesh: In 2016, the multi-country Enhancing Nutrition Services to Improve Maternal and Child Health in Africa and Asia (ENRICH) program was launched to reduce maternal and child mortality by addressing malnutrition within the first 1,000 days of life, or the period from the time of conception to 24 months of age. The five-year program focused on Kenya, Tanzania, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, with HarvestPlus serving as the technical partner for work in staple crop biofortification.
ENRICH is funded by Global Affairs Canada. World Vision Canada (WVC), Nutrition International (NI), and the Canadian Society for International Health are the implementing partners for the project, while HarvestPlus was active in all program countries except Myanmar. The University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health is an independent evaluator of the program.
In Bangladesh, the ENRICH program had aimed to reach more than 400,000 people with micronutrient supplements and a diverse range of nutrient-dense foods, including biofortified crops. To make this happen, the program implemented a number of activities across the country, which include training farming families in the production of biofortified crops, and the sensitization of farmers, community leaders, and households on the importance of consuming nutrient-dense crops.
By mid-2020, more than 47,000 farming families in Bangladesh had received biofortified zinc rice seed through ENRICH. On average, the amount of zinc rice produced by each farming household was equivalent to eight months of rice supplies for an average Bangladeshi family.
“The ENRICH program promotes orange sweet potatoes, iron beans, and zinc rice in project sites in Kenya, Bangladesh, and Tanzania. The crops are well received by the communities and the demand for vines, seeds, and technical support is increasing over the years,” said Dr. Asrat Dibaba, Chief of Party for the ENRICH Program at World Vision Canada. “There is also improved knowledge on the benefits of consumption of these corps among primary caretakers of children under 5 years of age.”
Data show that 36 percent of children under the age of 5 in Bangladesh do not get enough zinc in their diet. Zinc deficiency can result in stunting and a loss of appetite, weak immune systems, and an increasing risk of diarrheal disease and respiratory infections. In addition, the World Bank estimates that Bangladesh loses over USD 700 million annually in GDP due to the impacts of such vitamin and mineral deficiencies upon the productivity of human resources.
Below are a few examples of how the work of HarvestPlus under the ENRICH program has empowered and benefited Bangladeshis in farming communities.
Enriching Cultivation Practices
Mohammad Bulbul Hussain is a farmer from Madhobpur village located in the northwestern part of Bangladesh. More than four years ago, Mohammad received about 3 kg of zinc rice from HarvestPlus as well as training on its cultivation and production. During this training, he also learned that zinc is an essential micronutrient for good health, whereas deficiencies in zinc can cause stunting, a lack of appetite and low immunity levels. Upon hearing of its benefits, Mohammad was inspired to continue to grow zinc rice at his farm.
Mohammad noticed that zinc rice did not suffer from disease infestation and had a high resistance to unfavorable weather as well, allowing it to grow much faster and stronger than other rice crops he had previously grown. Mohammad was then able to sell 75 kg of zinc rice to 25 neighbouring farms in 2017, 120 kg in 2018, and 150 kg in 2020.
The major increase in Mohammad’s rice yield sparked the interest of farmers within his community, who proceeded to buy zinc rice seeds from him in order to cultivate it on their own farms. Mohammad also helped to train these farmers and explain the production and cultivation techniques of zinc rice to them. Most farmers are very pleased that seed preservation of zinc rice is possible for up to 3 to 4 years at a time.
Today, thanks to the efforts of HarvestPlus and people like Mohammad, about 60 percent of the villagers in Madhobpur village now grow and eat zinc rice. The nutritional benefits of zinc rice are now also well known within the community.
“I feed my family zinc rice throughout the year. Before that, most of my family suffered from low appetite and weakness, especially my youngest son. Within six months of eating the rice, we are all much healthier, but his progress is the most noteworthy. He is eating much more and is stronger and more attentive in school,” he said
Shree Polash Chandra Bormon is a traditional healer from the Auliapur Union, which is also located in the northwestern region of Bangladesh.
In 2016, Shree Polash received 3 kg of zinc rice seed from HarvestPlus as well as training on its production and cultivation. During his training, since Shree Polash provides traditional healing to villagers, he was keen to learn more about the health benefits of zinc rice. From his trainers and from the zinc rice variety brochure he was given during the training session, Shree Polash learned that consuming zinc could help address stunting, low appetite, and low immunity levels.
Equipped with this new knowledge about zinc as an essential nutrient, Shree Polash went on to educate villagers about its health benefits when they came to him for treatment and check-ups. By imparting this knowledge, more villagers started to cultivate and consume zinc rice as part of their regular diet.
Shree Polash claims that zinc rice has improved the health of his family and his community members exponentially. “Since 2017, when we introduced zinc rice into our meals at home, none of my family members have contracted any diseases. I am also happy to say that my youngest child, who is five years old, has not shown any appetite- related problems.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Shree Polash continues to advise villagers to consume zinc rice alongside other essential nutrients in order to build immunity and strength.
Creating Opportunity and Agency
Shree Nitai Chandra Mukharji is a farmer from Talwarigao village located in the northwestern part of Bangladesh. Like Mohammad and Shree Polah, Shree Nitai also received 3 kg of zinc rice seed from HarvestPlus in 2016 and was trained on its production and cultivation by them.
After noticing the high yield and sustainability of the zinc rice provided to Shree Nitai and some other farmers like Shree Nitai, an additional 300 farmers in the village became interested in growing zinc rice. Shree took advantage of this opportunity to start collecting seeds from farmers who had initially cultivated the zinc rice and selling it to those who were interested.
“In the beginning, I was able to supply seeds to all 300 farmers in my village. This opportunity therefore helped me launch a career as a successful zinc rice seed businessman in my community. I have gone from selling one metric ton of zinc rice in the beginning to a total of six metric tons of zinc rice in this year alone,” said Shree Nitai.
Since then, Shree Nitai has obtained a seed business license from the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) and has plans to expand his business and ensure that more villagers are involved in the cultivation and consumption of zinc rice.
Building sustainable socio-economic impact in Bangladesh
The ENRICH program is a great example of synergy in action. It is a unique program that has been able to achieve sustainable socio-economic impact on vulnerable smallholder farming families, while also working towards reducing maternal and child mortality by ensuring equitable access to essential health and nutrition services.
HarvestPlus improves nutrition and public health in Bangladesh by promoting biofortified rice that can provide more zinc in the diet. HarvestPlus has been working with the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) since 2004 to develop zinc rice. In 2013, BRRI succeeded in developing and releasing the first biofortified zinc rice variety in the world, BRRI dhan62, through HarvestPlus support.
HarvestPlus has also been working on the promotion and distribution of zinc rice, reaching more than 1.9 million Bangladeshi households directly since 2013 through its core program and three main projects: the Enhancing Nutrition Services to Improve Maternal & Child Health (ENRICH) Project (2016-2020); the Bangladesh Initiative to Enhance Nutrition Security and Governance (BIeNGS) Project (2018-2022); and the Commercialisation of Biofortified Crops (CBC) Program (2019-2022).