DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania (PAMACC News) - Africa's smallholder farmers have been urged to adopt technology, innovative agricultural practices, and use of kitchen gardens to ensure the affordability, availability, and accessibility of healthy diets.
Dr. Obai Khalifa, Director of Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), emphasized the pressing need for farmers to incorporate, for instance, bean varieties enriched with crucial micronutrients, orange fleshed sweet potatoes rich in beta carotene, a plant-based compound that is converted to vitamin A.
“Some of the overlooked foods such as finger millet, pearl millet, sorghum, and indigenous leafy vegetables can be innovatively used to supply affordable nutritious diets, especially for rural communities,” remarked Khalifa during a side event at the Africa Food Systems Forum (AGRF) held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Prof. Joachim von Braun, a Professor at the Center for Development Research (ZEF) in Germany, highlighted the importance of recognizing what constitutes a healthy diet. He defined it as a diet that not only sustains physical health but also wards off diseases.
Echoing this sentiment, Dr. Grace Magembe, the Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health in Tanzania, noted that many African communities are reliant on staples due to their availability. She mentioned, “Very few individuals in rural settings can afford proteins like fish, and they mainly consume what their farms produce.” She further observed the unhealthy diet trends in urban locales such as Dar es Salaam, commenting, “If you take a stroll, you will encounter French fries everywhere, usually accompanied by deep-fried chicken and a large soda.”
Magembe championed the adoption of kitchen gardens, particularly by women, as a sustainable means to offer diverse and nutritionally rich foods for their households.
Meanwhile, in Kenya, the cultivation of biofortified beans, packed with iron and zinc, is gaining traction, especially in semi-arid regions. This initiative, spearheaded by AGRA in partnership with the Cereal Growers Association (CGA) and various County Governments, aims to combat nutritional deficiencies. The target is to supply these fortified foods to students in Kenya, and also Tanzania and Malawi, through school meal programs.
Recent studies have highlighted the nutritional challenges in Kenya, revealing a significant number of children and adults suffering from deficiencies in iron, zinc, and vitamin A. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports that over 25% of children, particularly those under five, experience stunted growth due to micronutrient deficiencies. UNICEF underscores the grave long-term repercussions this has, including compromised cognitive and physical development in children.
Highlighting the significance of these micronutrients, zinc is vital for a well-functioning immune system, metabolism, wound recovery, and the senses of taste and smell. Iron is crucial for the generation of new red blood cells that distribute oxygen throughout the body.
Farmers in Eastern Kenya are now producing iron and zinc-rich bean varieties like Nyota, Faida, and Angaza. These were innovatively crafted by researchers from the University of Nairobi in collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO).
In another inspiring development, Makueni County farmers are reintroducing traditional crops with a modern twist to make them more appealing, especially to the younger generation. “We've initiated baking cakes for events and brown bread using sorghum flour, which has been well-received by those who have tasted them,” shared Immaculate Ngei, a smallholder farmer from Kenya’s Makueni County.
Dr. Susan Kaaria, Director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), stressed the urgency for a behavioral change, particularly among the youth, to adopt healthier dietary habits.