Globally, there is a strong drive to enable food systems to provide nutritious solutions for all through dietary diversity. Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are critical actors in ensuring food systems can provide better nutrition for all. Businesses need to be empowered to increase production and consumption of nutrient enriched crops to improve nutrition, health, livelihoods and develop business investments in seed, crop and food value chains.
SMEs - including seed producers, farmers, aggregators and processors - are critical actors in ensuring access to food and nutrition security particularly for the most vulnerable consumers. They integrate markets thereby reducing poverty and hunger; create opportunities that improve equity; innovate and scale solutions for nutrition and sustainability; promote resistance to shocks, through sustainable business models; and influence to passionately shape the future of food.
On August 24 2021, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and HarvestPlus held a virtual webinar themed Building Businesses with Nutrient Enriched Crops (NECs) that attracted attendance from the private sector, development sector, research institutes and government from over 20 countries. Over 600 people registered for the event to contribute to a discussion on opportunities, challenges and delivery models for businesses to avail nutrient enriched crops to vulnerable populations.
How can SMEs be empowered to increase the production and consumption of nutrient enriched staples?
Nutrient enriched staples, also known as biofortified crops, come in varieties of rice, wheat, maize, beans, and other common staples that have been conventionally bred to contain nutritionally significant levels of iron, zinc, or vitamin A— all micronutrients that are essential for maintaining good health and ensuring proper mental and physical development in children when eaten regularly.
One in three people worldwide are malnourished, about 768 million people are chronically hungry. There are 2 billion people who are deficient in vitamins or minerals; some of these are people who have enough to eat but mostly consume staples that are poor sources of key micronutrients which are essential for the proper functioning of the immune system, growth, and diseases prevention.
The potential for biofortification to curb hidden hunger can be realised when there is a strong support system for businesses to trade. Key building blocks of the support system include consumers, development partners, the government, and financial institutions. Consumers can play a key role by demanding nutrient enriched foods, but they need to be made aware of the benefits and that is where the GAIN and HarvestPlus, through its partnership programme Commercialisation of Biofortified Crops (CBC), come in to help build demand for nutrient enriched foods by providing technical support, capacity building, business development and linkage to the market.
The public sector needs to procure these foods too for their schools, institutions and social protection programmes which sends a strong signal to the businesses and consumers. The public sector ensures consumer safety by setting public standards that are acceptable, easy to manage and understandable. Financial institution, need to improve access to finance, for instance by providing loans and equity to small businesses for them to scale up.
What is in it for the SMEs?
Nutrient enriched crops are good for improved income and livelihood as the crops tend to be resistant to pests, diseases, higher temperatures, drought and are high yielding, making them highly cost effective and sustainable. They are great for human nutrition and health, as well as planet health - the youth are becoming conscious about their food and are increasingly showing concern about the impact of food system activities on climate change and its prevention presenting an opportunity for SMEs to target diverse consumers. It is known that high levels of carbon dioxide depress the nutrient density in staple foods which is why nutrient dense crops are ready-made to adapt to climate change.
Importantly for nutrition, these foods reach the world’s most vulnerable and with proper awareness creation there is potential that high level of consumer demand will lead to acceptance and adoption. Businesses are presented with a number of options where they can innovate and avail foods with a longer shelf life.
Opportunities and challenges in NECs.
There are many opportunities in nutrient enriched crops, and so are challenges. Some of these opportunities cannot be realised unless challenges are addressed for scale up, sustainability and long-term impact. The markets need to be aware of nutrient enriched seed, crop, and food; there is need to increase supply to improve product affordability for the target population. Additionally, some of the crops such as beans and wheat are visually comparable to the available analogue varieties, which leads to traceability challenges. There is need to put in place standards for these crops, these will facilitate crop breeding programmes and help facilitate trade by setting level that constitute nutrient enriched crops.
Opportunities lie with SMEs as they are better at identifying consumer needs at market level due to their proximity to consumers which brings a better understanding of consumer preferences leading to products innovation. A good number have succeeded in the market through the engagement of field promoters to mobilise farmers, create awareness about the seed availability and processed products. For seed producers and multipliers, working with agrodealers has proved profitable as it makes it easy for farmers to access the seed.
The good news is that there is an existing market that is leading to the creation of jobs across the supply chain; from farm to distribution, processing and marketing the products. Aside from that, farmers are becoming more interested in the unique traits of these crops such as drought and disease resistance and high yields. Farmers are increasingly purchasing the seeds and planting nutrient enriched crops. Processors are increasingly contributing to improving livelihoods by working with both smallholder and large-scale farmers as well as developing unique value-added products preferred by consumers. The market is growing, and women have not been left behind as they are leading the supply of these foods and ensuring that their children access nutritious and better-quality foods.
Rose Mutuku a female entrepreneur from Kenya promoting consumption of bean products has led in development of varied products from beans and one of them is a bean enhanced noodle.
We are processing high iron beans into four products including precooked beans, precooked bean flour, bean enhanced noodles and bean snack best known as Keroma."
Working with smallholder farmers has benefited most businesses and ensured that SMEs who are processing the crops are contributing to improving livelihoods and providing linkages to markets. However, there are many dynamics especially on nutrient enriched crops; there is need for awareness creation to ensure that farmers as well as consumers are able to differentiate the nutrient enriched seed and products from the ordinary varieties. Limited availability of these varieties needs to be addressed to ensure that farmers can access the seeds to improve uptake and adoption. Governments should establish mandatory minimum levels for nutrient content in new varieties of staple crops as well as micronutrient content standards for biofortified foods. In addition, market interventions such as improved aggregation of biofortified crops will improve market availability of nutrient enriched crops to food processors and other buyers.