The Smart Food of the Future

by | Jul 14, 2020

Tanzania has been combatting malnutrition and over nutrition for many years. In UNICEF’s 2019 report on nutrition in the country, it was found that over 30% of children under 5 suffer from stunted growth because of their diet and 37% of women of childbearing age have anaemia. At the other end of the spectrum, 16% of the population is overweight. While some progress has been made to meet certain global nutrition targets for under-five overweight and under-five wasting, the country remains off course with regard to other parameters, including low birthweight, adult obesity, anaemia and diabetes. Despite agriculture being the backbone of the Tanzanian economy, accounting for a sizable proportion of trade and employing 65% of the population, perhaps what needs to be considered is not how much is grown, but what is grown.

The ETG Farmers Foundation (EFF) contributed to a Smart Food initiative carried out chiefly by the International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), in addition to nutrition workshops it held with farmers to promote pulses as food. Findings from the ICRISAT study demonstrate the untapped potential of certain crops including pigeon pea, finger millet and sorghum. These crops are labelled as “smart foods” because they are deemed to be a good source of income for the farmer, a good source of nutrition for rural households, and are beneficial for the planet as they are drought-tolerant and water efficient. The study aimed to test the prospects for, and acceptance of, pigeon pea and finger millet-based dishes in school feeding programmes for over 2,800 adolescents in four schools in Central Tanzania. ICRISAT concluded that by shifting perceptions and biases, these pulses and millets could provide a more nutritional and affordable alternative to the existing meal composition.

The schools are based in areas where these foods are grown, and the study focused on incorporating them into students’ diet through a participatory approach with theoretical and practical training sessions. Surveys conducted 15 months after its implementation showed that more than 95% of the students were eager to eat finger millet and pigeon pea dishes at school. In fact, 80% of them wanted to include finger millet based meals on all seven days of the week. The research estimates that these meals could save schools 40% in food costs at prevailing prices.

These results are all the more striking considering the negative perceptions towards foods such as pigeon pea. According to the Smart Food study, the baseline perception in northern Tanzania is that pigeon pea is bitter, smells bad, and is not good for mental health, yet these are crops that are consumed widely in other parts of the world. At one point, indigenous pigeon pea varieties in Tanzania were susceptible to a fungus that had a lasting, damaging impact on soil. However, in the meantime, varieties have been bred that are resistant to this.

Protein in low-income households comes from plant-based sources only. Many Tanzanians depend on maize and cassava for their high calorific value, and although they are filling, daily protein requirements are not met. On the other hand, regardless of variety, finger millet is rich in calcium, iron, zinc, and the essential amino acid, methionine. Given that legumes are typically very low in methionine, finger millets eaten in combination with pigeon pea make for a wholesome and highly digestible plant protein.  

Major constraints in providing pigeon pea and finger millet-based meals, as understood by the Smart Foods study, were the associated high cost of finger millet; policies that support maize and beans only; and limited knowledge on cooking methods for millets and pigeon pea. In spite of their superior nutritional content, finger millet consumption stands at 67%. Furthermore, only 35% of all pigeon pea produced is consumed domestically, compared to 100% for maize, which is Tanzania’s most produced food crop. However, maize fails three out of five years in the nation’s arid regions, which are best suited to growing sorghum and millet.

Meanwhile, Tanzania is one of the largest exporters of pigeon pea in the world. While this was a lucrative cash crop for many seasons, a 2017 restriction on pigeon pea imports in India meant that Tanzania was left with a surplus. It was this surplus that made its way into ICRISAT’s school meals research. EFF contributed towards the study by donating two metric tonnes of pigeon pea that had been cultivated and bought from farmers in the various project areas in Tanzania. In two of these areas, EFF also held nutrition workshops, with cooking lessons for 800 farmers, to explore ways of using pigeon pea as a highly nutritious alternative to maize. Unable to find a market for their crop, farmers had been looking for ways to reduce their household stock while increasing the domestic consumption of pigeon pea.

The favourable response from students and the cost saving in school meals highlight the need to drive both demand and supply in unison. It is estimated that schools alone, feeding students with pigeon pea and finger millet, could create a market demand of 700 metric tonnes of pigeon pea and 140 metric tonnes of millet per week. The Smart Foods study recommends these crops to be used in cooking at educational institutions, hospitals, and other canteens.

Increasing domestic consumption and production of pigeon pea and millet is therefore good for both young people and farmers. Intercropping pigeon pea with maize on farms is great for the soil, and has several reported benefits for farmers including higher food security, and greater ability to withstand risk. With better equipment to market farmers’ produce, alongside awareness and sensitisation programmes about these new crops, the uptake amongst consumers will increase. Recipes created by local chefs, in tandem with edutainment and branded programming can build a positive, modern image for these foods, which in turn creates a stronger domestic market and provides socio-economic development of rural communities. 

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