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 IGNATIUS CHUKWU 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 organisation with a 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 micronutrient. So, you are talking of your Vitamin A, your iron, your zinc and also your iodine. These are the four major nutrients that are essential for good health and wellbeing, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
So WHO has profiled all the micronutrients 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 cassava; then you can talk of your rice, 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 drugs 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 in the primary school level about diet and food classes and nutrients, you will realise that carbohydrate and protein are macronutrients. You now talk about vitamin, minerals, fat and oil. These are the micronutrients. 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 vitamins and minerals. That is why we are having a micronutrient crisis world over, Africa especially, Nigeria inclusive. So in Nigeria today the Federal Ministry of Health will tell you that in one hour in Nigeria at least 100 persons die, six pregnant women die, so in 24hours 2300 children of under five years die and 145 women of childbearing age die on daily basis and if you check up the reason why they die, majority of the reasons are tied to micronutrient deficiencies. There was a study conducted in 2016 by the Lancet Publishers but published this year on the global disease body, 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.
Nigeria on annual basis loses N450billion to a micronutrient, especially due to man-hour losses from 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 lactating mothers are asked to take their children to the clinic for supplementation.
If you check up what they are being given as a supplement, it is Vitamin A. If you check up the constituents of your HIV antiretroviral drugs, it is Vitamin A because the idea is to build up one’s immune system so they are 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 micronutrient 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 a 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 can buy? If you go back again to check the second approach used in combating this micronutrient deficiency, it was the supplementation but that one targets the children. So the mothers take their children to the hospital to take supplements.
The third is fortification where the 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 rural communities and the poor are not able to buy these things. So why all of these three approaches have been working, our approach to 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 village, 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, meaning harvest with a plus. This time around instead of getting your cassava white now you are getting cassava with Vitamin A. Our vision in Harvestplus is to see to the end in micronutrient deficiencies worldwide and we are doing that by promoting the delivery in consumption of bio-fortified foods and products.
Is the Nutritious Food Fair an annual event?
It is an annual event and it started 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 around the country. The primary objective for us is to build up the private and public sector partnership. The idea is to get them engaged in the process of nutritious foods, and so we are targeting the Millennium (Sustainable) Development Goal 3 which is on good health and well being. And we are MDG 1 which is saying no poverty, also MDG 2 which is saying no hunger. We are also targeting MDG 5 which is on gender equality; we know we cannot leave our bio-fortified crops in a kind of social framework.
When we started newly we used a social form of a 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, investor, come down and you will see the business opportunities that exist in the value chain.
3000 jobs to be created with new machines
At least 3000 new job opportunities are created in this fair. You could see all the equipment we were able to bring onboard and a lot of investors have come on board and they have signified interest in picking up the equipment. Someone wants to even set up 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 the 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. 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 upon and start supplying combo bite business. There are over 25 new food products that we developed from Vitamin A cassava and maize and they have all been commercialised while four have been fully industrialised. We are trying to make sure people can produce and process optimally. The least a farmer should harvest from his farm is 30 tons per hectare.
Where do you go from here?
We are trying to ensure that people can 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 maximum you should spend on one hectare is N150,000. The highest you can 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 the rainy season and dry season, we don’t know it any more now because climate change has set in.
The soil has been further derogated, 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; because 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 nutrition business, very important. We want to ensure through our training that farmers can increase their production level in a cost-efficient manner.