How we reduce malnutrition in agricultural value chains

There is an increasing focus on the importance of nutrition programming in agricultural value chains, and rightly so, because there is still a high prevalence of malnutrition among agricultural workers and their families. Nienke Keen, Program Officer Cocoa at the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) and Laura Platenkamp, Junior Associate, Communications and Finance, at GAIN write.

The Global Nutrition Report 2016 predicts that nutrition targets set out in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals will not be reached if we continue at the rate we are going now. In addition, addressing malnutrition in value chains can be good for business: it can contribute to higher productivity, secure a future workforce, and it contributes to the integrity of brands.  However, what to do about the issue does not always seem clear.

Malnutrition is a serious problem that causes damage that cannot be undone. This is well illustrated by looking at the variation in global growth curves. The reason for such variation is due to differences in nutrition intake. With adequate nutrition, particularly during the first 1,000 days, there is no genetic determinant of people´s length. However, children that don’t consume adequate nutrition could become stunted (meaning they are short for their age), and have less developed brains and other organs. These are consequences of malnutrition that they carry with them for the rest of their lives.  In addition, a stunted mother has a higher chance to deliver an undernourished child, thereby making it an inherited problem, and even more important to address at an early stage (for children, the ‘window of opportunity’ lies in the first 1,000 days between conception and the age of two).

Malnutrition is not only a serious problem, but also a complex one. The UNICEF framework on malnutrition shows that household food insecurity is an underlying cause which leads to inadequate dietary intake, which in turn contributes to malnutrition. Even when focusing on one particular aspect, in our case on diets, it is important to keep the bigger picture in mind.

Looking at diversity of food intake as an indicator for malnutrition and the Sustainable Development Goals makes sense because a diverse diet can be the difference between poor and good health: where a monotonous diet (consisting of mainly starchy staple foods, sometimes with small additions of vegetables or pulses) is more likely to lead to deficiencies in micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin A. The complexity also lies in the fact that the dietary intake is not solely determined by the availability of various foods and their accessibility, but also by (cultural) preferences, which means that value chain interventions need to address several issues at once. For example, in certain contexts it is perceived that eggs should not be consumed by pregnant women, even though they could be a valuable addition their diet.

Because of the prevalence of this complex problem and because we think that, together with business, we can come up with solutions, the GAIN and IDH are partnering to develop and test value chain approaches that contribute to improved diets. This is important because in contrast to best practices on malnutrition that exist for governments, there is comparatively little knowledge on how companies can approach the issue. Even though there is clearly a need for it. GAIN and IDH therefore want to find out how business can improve diets of smallholders and workers in supply chains without undermining the roles and responsibilities of other stakeholders.

We have undertaken scoping work on the cocoa sector in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, showing that there is much potential and need to address malnutrition in that industry. And through our Seeds of Prosperity project we have, together with Unilever, successfully reached 2,600 tea farmers in Tamil Nadu, India to improve their diets and hygiene practices through training and awareness. This approach will now be used in other tea farming communities in Assam as well as Kenya and Malawi, benefiting a further 300,000 people and aims to bring other businesses on board in order further extend the program and reach 2.5 million. It is our ambition to replicate this program more widely across other locations (e.g. West Africa) and supply chains, as well as identify other models of effective intervention.

The problem might be difficult, but we are finding solutions.

At a workshop on Smallholder Performance Measurement organized by the Sustainable Food Lab at the start of March, the Seeds of Prosperity program was presented by Unilever and GAIN, and IDH and GAIN presented the nutrition work in the cocoa sector. View the Seeds of Prosperity, the cocoa, and other nutrition presentations or view the overall report of the conference here. If you would like to get involved, please contact

Read or download our Seeds of Prosperity programme factsheet

Find out more about  Nutrition in Cash Crops

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Published 27 April 2017

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