Micronutrient malnutrition which is commonly referred to as “hidden hunger” affects over 2 billion people globally. Millions of children in Africa are affected by hidden hunger which affects their physical and mental development. Adequate intake of micronutrients particularly iron, Vitamin A, iodine and Zinc from conception till 2 years of age is vital for the optimal growth and development of children. It is equally important that pregnant women receive adequate quantities of these micronutrients in their diet or through dietary supplementation. For example, in pregnant women vitamin A deficiency causes night blindness and may increase the risk of maternal mortality.
Vitamin A and Iron Deficiency are the leading cause of preventable blindness and anemia respectively among children. If Vitamin A deficiency is severe, it can result into increased risk of disease and death. Severe zinc deficiency has been associated with stunting of growth, impaired immunity, skin disorders and learning disabilities. Evidence also shows that zinc deficient children are at increased risk of developing diarrheal diseases, as well as respiratory tract infections. Iodine deficiency is the main cause of brain damage in childhood. It results in impaired cognitive and motor development which affects a child’s performance at school.
Developing countries have for a long time depended on tablet-based approaches such as Vitamin A capsules, iron tablets and food fortification using micronutrient sprinkles. But food based approaches are now considered the most feasible and sustainable approaches for addressing micronutrient deficiency in the long term. Through advancements in agro-research and development, the nutritional content of certain crops can be increased to make micronutrients such as Vitamin A, Iron and Zinc widely available and affordable to consumers. In a process known as “biofortification”, food crops are bred to biofortify themselves by loading higher levels of minerals and vitamins in their seeds and roots while they are growing.
Due to the efforts of various governments, NGO and private sector actors in Africa, these foods are becoming more accessible for families that need them the most and demand and awareness for them is also increasing. Various varieties are continuously being developed and provided to farmers to cater to consumer’s preferences regarding taste, climate adaptability, yield and texture. Biofortified foods to look out for near you include: iron beans and vitamin A cassava in DRC, vitamin A cassava and vitamin A maize in Nigeria, iron beans in Rwanda, vitamin A sweet potato and iron beans in Uganda and vitamin A maize in Zambia. These biofortified crops prevent rather than treat micronutrient deficiencies and can provide from 50% – 80% of a woman or child’s daily needs. They represent a new frontier in the struggle against hidden hunger in Africa.
Useful resources: http://www.harvestplus.org/content/crops