Fighting hidden hunger in Zimbabwe

By Patrice Talla, FAO Subregional Coordinator for Southern Africa

A food systems approach promotes biofortified vitamin A orange maize. ©FAO


19 May 2021, Harare – Vitamin A deficiency is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children globally and an important contributor to the burden of night blindness in pregnant women and severe illness and death in children under the age of five. Southern Africa is not spared. 

In Zimbabwe, nearly one in five children under the age of five are vitamin A deficient. Micronutrient deficiency, also known as hidden hunger, is a result of consuming on a day-to-day basis a diet composed mostly of starchy staples. In Zimbabwe, rural diets mainly consist of what farming families can grow, which is predominantly white maize. However, white maize is high in starch and very low in nutritional value.

In response to this nutritional challenge and to support the Government of Zimbabwe to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 – Zero Hunger, FAO partnered with HarvestPlus and the Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS) of Zimbabwe to promote the production of biofortified vitamin A orange maize, or VAM, that is suited to Zimbabwean conditions. 

Biofortification is the development of crops with enhanced levels of nutrients available for consumption, and it has become a central component of global multi-sectoral approaches to tackling malnutrition. To date, biofortification efforts in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries have involved the promotion of VAM, Orange Fleshed Sweet Potato (OFSP) and zinc- and iron-enriched beans.

Currently over one million households have knowledge on biofortified crops or are consuming biofortified orange maize.

Getting vitamin A orange maize into farmers’ fields

Realizing that maize will continue to be the staple food for rural households and biofortifying this staple crop would ensure access to nutritious food, FAO with technical support from HarvestPlus made key strategic steps. Partnerships were made with the government and the private sector, including input suppliers, seed companies, and agro-dealers, to have a foundation seed released, multiplied and commercially traded. So far, five vitamin A orange maize varieties have been released by the DR&SS and these have been licensed to ten local seed companies.

Intensive nutrition behaviour change communication and demand creation strategies were adopted to promote production and consumption of VAM at community level. These included interventions along the VAM value chain, training communities on all aspects of production, processing and utilization, working with public and private institutions, and government-led policy support initiatives.

To create awareness, educate and train farmers on how to produce the crop, and showcase good agricultural practices, FAO, HarvestPlus and partners held field fairs, and established demonstration sites, centres of excellence and farmer field schools. Community participation in taste-testing of VAM products and cooking demonstrations were also key, as well as extending learning on orange maize production to agricultural colleges and primary and secondary schools, and supporting home grown school feeding programmes.

The Zimbabwe experience represents a promising strategy to enhance the availability of vitamins and minerals for people whose diets are dominated by micronutrient-poor staple food crops. ©FAO

Lasting impact

Combined, these efforts ultimately led to a resounding uptake of biofortified maize. Since 2015, biofortified VAM has provided a comparatively cost-effective, sustainable, and long-term means of delivering more micronutrients to children and pregnant women in rural Zimbabwe.

There has been an exponential growth in the number of households with knowledge on biofortified crops and consumption of biofortified orange maize. From 2015 to 2020, over 300 000 households grew biofortified crops. Currently over one million households have knowledge on biofortified crops or are consuming biofortified orange maize. This has resulted in a 58 percent increase in the area planted with VAM seed varieties in Zimbabwe and production has grown from zero in 2015 to 114 tonnes in 2020.

While targeted at smallholder farmers, orange maize production has also extended to commercial farmers. In addition, some smallholder farmers are also generating income through agro-processing orange maize into various value-added products such as maputi/mhandire (dry roasted maize) and mumhare (cooked and dried maize for preservation).

The use of disease-resistant and drought-tolerant improved VAM has enabled smallholder farmers to increase their yields. As a result, more children and pregnant mothers have access to and are consuming a variety of VAM products to meet their nutrition needs.

Through the home grown school feeding programme, FAO and HarvestPlus are promoting a nutritional safety net for children who might not receive supplements. Orange maize, when eaten as a porridge, could provide half of the average daily requirement of vitamin A for children.

Upscaling the benefits of biofortified vitamin A orange maize

Biofortification has been a great success in Zimbabwe because of government support - including VAM institutionalization through inclusion in the National Agriculture Policy Framework and the Agriculture and Food Systems Transformation Strategy - community-led nutrition behaviour change communication, and establishment of key strategic partnerships across the VAM value chain.

For extension and replication of the Zimbabwean VAM success story, FAO recommends that an all-inclusive integrated biofortification policy and programming framework be developed at national and subnational levels. This is necessary for ownership, sustainability and coherence with similar interventions.

Timely availability of and access to seed for farmers is also necessary for sustaining the quality and scalability of biofortified VAM seeds. Lessons from Zimbabwe have proven that seed availability and access is a major hindrance to increasing VAM production.  

An integrated approach to programming is an important requirement in spreading and upscaling the production, marketing and consumption of VAM. This involves the setting up of mechanisms for national coordination, surveillance and/or monitoring of biofortification, and promotion activities supported by: start-up investment support through rural finance, transferring knowledge and farmer training through agriculture and extension services, inclusion of nutrition and addressing gender dynamics involved in smallholder farming families, public-private partnerships, and community involvement and ownership.

The Zimbabwe experience represents a promising strategy to enhance the availability of vitamins and minerals for people whose diets are dominated by micronutrient-poor staple food crops.

Technical partners

  • Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS)
  • HarvestPlus
  • International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
  • The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)
  • The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT)
  • Welthungerhilfe (WHH)
  • World Vision Zimbabwe
  • Practical Action

 Resource partners

  • United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) 

Related links 

2. Zero hunger, 3. Good health and well-being