Gloria Uwizeyimana is a smallholder famer in Rwanda who used to struggle to feed her children. Her small plot of land did not yield enough, and did not provide her growing children with the nutrition they needed in their formative years.
Gloria is not alone in her struggle. One in three people in the world suffer from “hidden hunger”, a term used to describe 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 young 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 children go blind as a result of hidden hunger.
As a result, millions of people cannot live up to their full potential.
And that is why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is proud to support the winners of this year’s World Food Prize. The two winners – HarvestPlus and the Sweet potato Action for Security and Health in Africa (SASHA) – have developed innovative ways to tackle this public health problem.
They have both thought outside the box to solve hidden hunger, and pioneered the concept of biofortification. This method uses conventional breeding techniques to develop varieties of crops which are naturally richer in vital nutrients and can produce higher yields.
HarvestPlus was one of the first innovators of biofortification back in 2003.
Since then, HarvestPlus 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 also helped pioneer biofortification, but chose to concentrate its efforts on the Vitamin A content of sweet potato. This allowed them to harness the untapped potential of one of the most popular crops in Africa, while at the same time ensuring that the crop was drought and disease resistant to increase its productivity.
Long term, the project aims to reach 150,000 families over five years by developing and distributing the seeds of sweet potato to Africans who need them most.
Through the combined efforts of both these organisations, over ten million people have already reaped the benefits of biofortified crops. And the benefits for the farmers who use them are plain to see.
“I could not believe it,” Gloria 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 Gloria to feed her growing children the nutritious meals they needed and still had plenty left over to sell. This income now enables Gloria to pay her family’s annual health insurance bill, and to contribute weekly to a women’s savings association in her village.
This exciting progress has inspired a global movement in biofortification. Gloria is just oneof millions of farmers who have started using biofortified crops to feed their families and sell to their communities.
In recognising these two great organisations for their work in biofortification, the World Food Prize honours this ground-breaking approach that addresses global malnutrition through innovative agriculture solutions.
It is this kind of ambition and dedication that is needed to provide better nutrition to the two billion people around the world who need it most. Our hope is that they, like Gloria, can raise their families out of hunger and poverty.
Dr Ayo Ajayi is director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Africa Team.