Boosting agricultural production has for years been believed to be the solution to world hunger and malnourishment.
However, years of intensive farming, increased chemical fertilizers and pesticides use has done little to successfully address food insecurity.
While food rations may have increased as a result of intensive farming, there is a new kind of hunger which this increase cannot address. The lack of essential micronutrients necessary for growth and development is not caused not by a lack of food only but food that does not have them.
These micronutrients include vitamins and minerals such as iodine, vitamin A, iron, zinc, calcium, and many others and their effects on human health can be irreversible. For example, without iodine, children are susceptible to brain damage.
UNICEF, the UN body that handles issues affecting children notes that the most devastating impacts of lacking iodine occur during foetal development and in the first few years of a child’s life. This means that deficiencies of micronutrients can “condemn a child to lifelong irreversible damage.
The limitations mean that a child would never be able to attain their intellectual, economic and developmental potential. Lack of vitamin A, another micronutrient, is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness, stunted growth, weakened immunity and high mortality for children under five, according to UNICEF.
This hidden hunger also leads to acute undernutrition or child wasting, which can be diagnosed in children under five with low height for their age. It affects them at an extremely crucial phase in development.
The African Union (AU)’s implementing arm, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, notes that nearly 48 per cent of Africa’s population relies on cereals and root staples that lack vital micronutrients. With millions unable to afford foods such as vegetables, fruits, and animal products that are rich in micronutrients, it means that a sizeable portion of the African population is at risk not only of disease but failure to achieve their full potential.
Continent-wide, women are the backbone of African agriculture and have been unequally affected by the impacts of the Covid pandemic.
And yet, despite the acknowledged inequalities, women continue to be under-represented in decision-making at the community through to the policy level.
This year, International Women’s Day is celebrating women leadership and how women can provide role models for each other. Interventions like mentorship provided as part of agripreneur competitions remain pivotal in empowering women into leadership positions and, in turn, inspiring a new generation of women leaders in agriculture.
Jolenta Joseph, a Tanzania entrepreneur has built her business tackling malnutrition, an endemic problem in Tanzania, thanks in part to the support she has received since winning the 2020 SUN Pitch Competition.
As one of only two women from Africa to win the competition, Jolenta was the recipient of the US$10,000 Food Technology Innovation Prize, awarded by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the mentorship prize from AGREA, a Philippine-based social enterprise working on sustainable farming. Despite the challenges brought about in 2020, the financial support and mentorship provided as part of her award has enabled Jolenta to develop her enterprise, Sanavita, which uses nutrient-rich crops to produce healthy products.
“Since the Sun Pitch Competition in July 2020, we have bought new equipment, increased our volumes and expanded our product range and customer base as a result of the investment we received,” enthuses Jolenta. These developments have enabled Sanavita to access new markets and more customers in Morogoro town, in eastern Tanzania, where the company is based. “We have also realized that there are so many other products that we can produce with biofortified crops to provide to different categories of consumers,” Jolenta adds.
Cultivating farmer networks and growing community awareness
With new equipment enabling faster processing, Jolenta needs more OFSP supply from farmers. Since 2018, she has doubled the number of farmers to 2,000. Of these, more than 1,500 supply over 5 tonnes directly to her each week. To ensure supply and quality, Jolenta provides training in good farming and management practices.
In addition, Jolenta has used her prize money to establish a 0.4 ha OFSP multiplication site, which doubles as a training centre. Farmers are given cut high quality, disease-free vines certified by the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute-Kibaha. “As we seek to improve nutrition at the household level, we want these farmers to consume OFSP in their own homes and only sell us the surplus. I am very glad to see those attending the training are seeing the value of this approach,” she explains.
Besides these community events, Jolenta has also worked with 10 primary and secondary schools, which invited Sanavita to introduce cooking demonstration lessons while training students on the benefits of biofortified foods. Sanavita is also collaborating with government regional health coordinators to introduce cooking demonstrations in clinics targeting pregnant and lactating mothers.
Succeeding despite the challenges
Jolenta attributes the success of the awareness campaign and the growing partner network to the support she has received from Cherrie Atilano, the CEO of AGREA, who provided the mentorship award for the Sun Pitch Competition. “Cherrie has been remarkable in teaching us how to scale the business and identify new opportunities,” emphasises Jolenta. To capitalize on the lessons learnt as a result of this support, Jolenta is looking to advise other food business entrepreneurs. She emphasizes that their core mission should be to change lives even as they build their enterprises. “You cannot compromise on quality. If we are to give our products a high rating in the market, then we have to invest heavily in ensuring that the quality of our products is top-notch,” she advises.
To help further enlighten the community on the role of biofortified crops in improving nutrition in Morogoro Municipality, in December 2020 Sanavita hosted the first in a series of awareness campaigns. The event targeted influential people the company hopes will become agents of change, and attracted 75 participants, including education and health officials, religious leaders, community-based organizations and the media. A Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) representative also participated to provide insights into sustainable nutrition solutions and the value of biofortified products among businesses.
Undaunted by the setbacks the enterprise has faced, as the appetite for biofortified foods grows in rural and urban areas, Sanavita is now looking to scale operations to Arusha, Tanga and Kilimanjaro towns. Despite the towns being far from Morogoro, where the business is based, word of mouth and recent publicity in the local media is stimulating demand for more of Sanavita’s nutritious products.