Could it be true that Nigeria loses over N450billion from micro-nutrient deficiency, that is, from lack of vital micro-nutrients that could be got from food naturally?
This comes from sicknesses that befall Nigerians due to this deficiency, and other consequences. Gerald Edward Umeze, monitoring and evaluation specialist for Harvestplus Nigeria, spoke to PAUL EMEKA CHIMODO on the sidelines of the recently concluded Nutritious Food Fair in Enugu. Excerpts:
What is HarvestPlus Nigeria all about?
HarvestPlus Nigeria is part of the HarvestPlus global family. We are an international organization with presence in over 40 countries around the world. We have our head office in Washington DC and all we do is getting better crops for better nutrition. Our tagline is; ‘Better Crops for Better Nutrition’.
When we say HarvestPlus, we are saying farmers should harvest what they usually harvest but this time around with a ‘plus’ and that ‘plus’ is the added micro-nutrient. So, you are talking about your Vitamin A, your iron, your zinc and also your iodine. These are the four major nutrients that are essential for good health and well-being, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
So WHO has profiled all the micro-nutrients and they are telling you that Vitamin A, iron, iodine, and zinc are the most lacking in our diets and incidentally they are also the most important for your health and your wellbeing. So what HarvestPlus is doing is to see how we can bio-fortify our staple crops.
If you look at Africa as a continent, the number one staple crop in Africa is maize, followed by rice, cassava; then you can talk of your, potato, and what have you.
For us in Nigeria, it’s a similar story. What we are doing is to bio-fortify our staple crops. We mean breeding up new varieties of crops that are now richer in micro-nutrients.
Initially, the focus of breeding in the past was on good yield, on pest and disease resistance, on drought tolerance. Before HarvestPlus came into being in 2003 globally, the focus on breeding was on good yield, but right now we brought about a change and we are now saying our breeders can also breed for better nutrition.
This is because if you look at our staple foods in Nigeria and the world over it is filled with carbohydrates and proteins. If you remember what we were taught at the primary school level about diet and food classes and nutrients, you will realize that carbohydrate, protein and fats and oil are macro-nutrients. We then have vitamin, minerals.
These are the micro nutrients. If you look at our food today you will find out that our food is filled with carbohydrates and a bit of protein. There are little or none of vitamins and minerals. That is why we are having a micro nutrient crisis world over, Africa especially, Nigeria inclusive.
So in Nigeria today, the Federal Ministry of Health and UNICEF will tell you that in one hour in Nigeria at least 100 children die, six women of child bearing age die, so in 24hours 2300 children of under five years die and 145 women of child bearing age die on daily basis and if you check up the reason why they die, majority of the reasons are tied to micro nutrient deficiencies.
There was a study conducted in 2016 by the Lancet Publishers but published this year on the global disease burden, and they came up with an interesting result, for every five deaths in the world one of them is linked to poor diet. If five people die globally one out of five is linked to poor diet. So, people must understand the challenges we have.
The World Bank estimates that Nigeria on annual basis loses N450billion due to man-hour losses from malnutrition including micronutrient deficiencies.
If you look at our livelihood, how often do we fall sick? Vitamin A is the major driver of our immune system, so if we want to have a good immune system, we must have Vitamin A in your system and that is why mothers are asked to take their children under 5 years to the clinic for supplementation.
If you check up what they are being given as supplement, it is Vitamin A. If you check up the constituents of your HIV anti retroviral drugs, there is Vitamin A because the idea is to build up one’s immune system so that the body is now less susceptible to other diseases.
So, if you have the required dietary allowance of Vitamin A in your system, you would hardly be sick. If you go down on malaria you go to the hospital they give you malaria drugs, you also find out they will also give you some vitamins. That is because the doctor has realised that your immune system is down. That is why for some people, it will take them some time to recover.
So your immune system is primary. It is key to your effectiveness, to your livelihood, to your ability to be productive, your ability to function. HarvestPlus is the champion and innovator of bio-fortification.
This issue of micro nutrient deficiency is not new. The government knows quite well that this problem exists, so if you cast your mind back there was a time when there was heavy promotion on dietary diversification.
The promotion then was; when you eat your carbohydrates also look for fruits and vegetables to eat. Then, you can agree with me that fruits and vegetables are very expensive.
How many people are able to buy? If you go back again to check the second approach used in combating this micro nutrient deficiency, it was the supplementation but that one targets the children.
The third is fortification where government of Nigeria mandated all the companies to fortify their food products with vitamins and minerals. But those are synthetic fortification; they are not natural.
If you look at what has been happening, the compliance has been on the low side. If you go into the market and pick up various food products you see fortified with various vitamins, and zinc. But let me ask you, how many people can buy these products?
Our people in the rural communities and the poor are not able to buy these things. So why all of these three approaches have been working, our approach of bio-fortification is complementary. What we are doing is putting the power of nutrition in the hands of everyone everywhere; just take up your Vitamin A cassava stem, plant it in your farm or garden, it grows, you harvest, process, and you eat.
The vitamins are there naturally; so you don’t need to spend excessively to get the vitamins. That is why we are saying better crops, better nutrition and harvest with a plus. This time around instead of getting your white cassava filled with carbohydrates, now you are getting both carbohydrates and Vitamin A.
Our vision in HarvestPlus is to see to the end in micro nutrient deficiencies worldwide and we are doing that by promoting the delivery and consumption of bio-fortified foods and products.
Is the Nutritious Food Fair an annual event?
It is an annual event and it started it in 2015. The maiden edition was done in Abuja. Last year we were in Calabar, and this year we are in Enugu. We intend to take it round the country. The primary objective for us is to build up private and public sector partnership.
The idea is to get them engaged in theproduction, processing and marketing of nutritious foods, and so we are targeting the Sustainable Development Goal 3 which is on good health and well being. And we are also targeting SDG 1 which is saying no poverty, also SDG 2 which is saying zero hunger. We are also targeting SDG 5 which is on gender equality.
When we started newly we used a social form of delivery platform for people to try what we are talking about. Right now for sustainability we know that it is only the private sector that can drive such, that is why the theme for this year is ‘scaling up nutritious choices, engaging everyone everywhere’.
Be you in the public or private sector, be you an investor, come down and you will see the business opportunities that exist in the value chain.
3000 jobs to be created
At least 3000 new job opportunities are created in this fair. You could see all the equipment we were able to bring on board and a lot of investors have come on board and they have signified interest in picking up the equipment.
Someone wants to even setup a flash drier in Enugu. The flash drier alone is going to employ thousands of people.
The capacity of the least flash drier is two tons of products per day. For you to get such, you must have processed at least five to six tons of cassava roots per day. It’s the local farmers that would have to supply the tubers. It’s going to create a ripple effect.
We have to produce to supply to the flash drier and if a farmer has been planting on half a hectare struggling with market, the flash drier will absorb his half a hectare in one day, so he may be encouraged to move to one hectare and that is more money and more income for the farmer.
If the farmer was engaging one person to farm, he would have employed another one person to join him.
People are employed all along the line of that single effort of putting up a flash drier and in marketing of the processed products. This is what goes on in each of the value chains.
Even with N30,000 we have a combo-bite processing business that you can start. There are over 25 new food products that we developed from Vitamin A cassava and maize and 10 have been commercialised while four have been fully industrialised.
We are trying to make sure people are able to produce and process optimally.
Where do you go from here?
We are trying to ensure that people are able to produce and process optimally; that is why we are doing all these things.
A farmer should be able to harvest 30 tons from his or her cassava farm at least per hectare, our farmers today are struggling with 10 and 15 tons and that is the reason why you have your food crisis going on.
When the Federal Government is talking about to set up a committee to monitor food prices, that is not the issue, you can monitor things like taxes being levied on farmers and all of that. But you cannot tell a farmer how much he will sell his product.
Now if a farmer spends N300,000 to produce one hectare of cassava and harvest 10 tons from the cassava and 1 ton is being sold in the market for N30,000, multiplied by 10 tons he harvested is N300,000, that is the money he spent producing the cassava.
Can you see why the price of cassava is high in the market? In the true sense of it, a ton of cassava should not be more than N10,000 but it is because farmers have spent so much to produce, so they are now transferring their inefficiencies to the price they are selling.
The average amount you should spend on one hectare is N150,000. The highest you should spend is N200,000, depending on your location, especially if you have to get land on lease and all of that. The least you should be able to harvest is 30 tons not 10 tons.
The farmers are not applying best practices. That is what the government has not understood. So, if we teach the farmers the best practices, their cost of productions will go down and their yields will go up and the market prices will drop.
And our farmers, irrespective of the fact that they have been in the farms even before we were born, do not negate the fact that they need to be trained. The soil we had in 1960 is no longer as fertile as it is today. We used to know when there was rainy season and dry season, we don’t know it any more now because climate change has set in.
The soil has been further degraded, so if you apply practices of 1960 in 2017 you will fail because it is not the same conditions anymore.
So, we need to apply a bit of science to adapt to climate change and to be able to get good yields. That is what people have not yet understood. It’s not by your years of experience in farming and that is why you need to be trained. That is what HarvestPlus is doing.
We have been able to train a lot of our partners; we have 60 partners in Nigeria, our strength is in our partners. This is because we cannot cover everybody.
Our partners are now continuing to train farmers. We want people to be heavily sensitised on nutrition, the business in nutrition, very important.
We want to ensure through our trainings that farmers are able to increase their production level in a cost efficient manner.