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New champion joins forces with African Leaders for Nutrition
The African Leaders for Nutrition (ALN) initiative aims to mobilize political action and leadership for nutrition in Africa by building a high-level forum that strengthens government policies and financial commitment to end malnutrition. It is part of eight flagship programs launched under the African Development Bank High 5 priorities that include “Feed Africa” and “Improve the quality of life for the people of African”.
As part of this effort, the African Development Bank welcomes Howarth Bouis to the ALN to address the pervasive challenge of micronutrient malnutrition. Well known for his efforts to produce micronutrient-rich staples that reduce “hidden hunger,” he brings a wealth of expertise in global research and policies on biofortification.
“Innovative solutions like biofortification can improve the vitamin and mineral intakes of the poor significantly, cost-effectively, and with minimum behavior change,” Bouis says. “I’m thrilled to join forces with so many committed leaders in prioritizing and investing in solutions to address malnutrition.”
Bouis joined the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC in 1982 as a young economist seeking to understand how economic factors affect food demand and nutrition outcomes. He realized that poor, vulnerable families consume staple crops including rice, maize and wheat, but could not afford to diversify their diets with nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, and animal products. His question was what would happen if plants could provide the necessary nutrients of a diversified diet.
Promoting nutritious staple crops initially ran up against skepticism from scientists and donors. In 2003, however, Bouis received significant financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, followed by USAID and other donors, after the data from randomized control trials demonstrated that modified foods can reduce iron deficiency and dramatically reduce diarrhea and night blindness in young children.
The process of loading crops with more vitamins and minerals through plant breeding or agronomic practices became known as biofortification. When consumed regularly, biofortified crops significantly improve nutritional status. The global effort to develop and disseminate these crops is now coordinated by HarvestPlus, founded by Howarth Bouis and coordinated by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the International Food Policy Research Institute. In 2016, he was the co-recipient with three Africa-based sweet potato researchers working for the International Potato Center of the World Food Prize.
Today 290 micronutrient-enriched varieties of staple crops like maize, beans, sweet potato and cassava have been released or are being tested in 60 countries and the nutrition of more than 30 million people in smallholder farming families has been improved.
“Our vision is that someday most of the staple foods grown and consumed in developing countries will be biofortified,” he says. “My hope is that 20 years from now, children in Africa will think that maize has always been orange, not having experienced a time when maize lacked health-giving vitamin A.”