Reaping what you sow: The Harvesting Nutrition contest

Reaping what you sow: The Harvesting Nutrition contest


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Andrea Spray is a Nutrition Specialist with the World Bank and supports SecureNutrition.

Harvesting Nutrition. The name aptly conveys the notion of taking action in the agriculture sector—“planting seeds”, if you will—in order to harvest better nutrition outcomes.

In offering a small cash incentive and the prospect of increased global visibility, the contest seeded an online collection of project case studies that are bridging agriculture and nutrition around the world. It was never about the award money; it was about the resources that are produced as deliverables of the contest—the case studies, the multimedia profiles of winning projects, and the shared understanding that results when you bring together stakeholders to talk about how their work could plausibly result in improved nutrition.

The goal was to pave the way for future nutrition-sensitive agriculture work—more agriculture projects doing more effective work to improve the health of more children worldwide. But, the contest “harvested nutrition” in not altogether expected ways, too. In asking contest applicants to articulate how their work is reaping benefits in terms of nutrition, in awarding these three exceptional projects and showing up at their doorstep to document their work, in a small way may have pushed the projects and their stakeholders to do even more.


Harvesting Nutrition Banner

The submissions began rolling in, at first just a trickle but by the end we had 50. The Harvesting Nutrition contest was widely advertised through SecureNutrition and our cosponsors—the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and Save the Children UK. We had placed ads on Facebook in the hopes of reaching even the smallest grassroots projects in low- and middle-income countries. There were three awards: the most innovative approach, the highest potential impact on nutrition, and the most scalable approach. Submissions were posted on the SecureNutrition website in the form of brief case studies. The winners were chosen through a rigorous process by a panel of representatives from the three co-sponsors. By August 2014, preparations were underway to visit each of the winning projects in order to profile their work.

Three weeks. Four countries. Twelve flights. Three award-winning projects exemplifying principles hypothesized to maximize the impact on nutrition outcomes from agriculture and/or food security investments. There I was at Schiphol airport, after over a year in the making of the Harvesting Nutrition contest, trying to pick out an Italian photographer amongst the crowd at the gate. The hilarity of pairing two people both named Andrea—photographer Andrea Borgarello (a boy) and nutritionist Andrea Spray (a girl) – broke the ice everywhere we went and has not waned.


Harvesting Nutrition took not one, but two Andreas (Spray and Borgarello, seen here) to document the winning projects.

KENYA – Shamba Shape Up – 31 August – 04 September, 2014

We started out with Shamba Shape Up, winner of the Harvesting Nutrition Innovative Approach award. Shamba Shape Up, in production since 2011, is an edu-tainment reality television program that uses farm “makeovers” to teach their audience of 10 million viewers—the majority of whom are women—across East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania) to improve their farming practices. The campy format is captivating, even for those who have never stepped foot on a farm and know nothing of the show’s celebrity hosts, Naomi Kamau and Tonny Njuguna.

The Mediae Company, which produces Shamba Shape Up, is a small operation on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, in the town of Karen—notably named after Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa. We watched as the local video editing crew sliced and diced video, visited the shamba (Swahili for farm) of recent Shamba Shape Up makeover participants, Anne and George. We also spoke with fans who have substantially changed their farming practices, with profitable impact, as a result of watching the show.

Anne is a mother of five—all girls, all in school—and the primary farmer on her shamba. She was the first Shamba Shape Up “makeover” focused on nutrition-sensitive farming practices. In addition to helping with her chickens and her cows, Shamba Shape Up taught her about the nutritive value of moringa and gave her Orange Fleshed Sweet Potato to grow. Improved practices to increase the milk production of her cow means that Anne now has more milk to sell and more income. Improved poultry feeding practices means she has more eggs for her and her children to eat.

George and his wife, Mama Lucy, were a little nervous as we spoke with them about their “makeover” experience. We met in their kitchen which had once doubled as chicken coop but now, with the help of Shamba Shape Up, the chickens had been moved to a separate structure.  On a walking tour of his shamba George showed us his impressive maize harvest, successful despite variable rains because he knew to plant the right seed for his soil at the right time. George also showed us how he is rotating crops through his shamba, and growing a diverse amalgam of foods. George was the very first Shamba Shape Up makeover participant. While he may have needed help when Shamba Shape Up first found him, it is easy to see why he has become a celebrity and respected advisor in his community.

Wangari M. on her shamba.

We visited Wangari, a woman who sold three cows to buy one following Shamba Shape Up guidance. At first blush, this didn’t seem like such a good deal to me, but Wangari explained that the one zero-graze cow costs a lot less to feed and produces about five times as much milk as the three grazing cows. This is milk that will be consumed by her family and sold to her neighbors for income. Also as a result of Shamba Shape Up, she learned to grow amaranth, a nutritious leafy green.

Shamba Shape Up reaches not just the farmers they “makeover”, not just the farmers who watch the show, but also the friends of farmers who watch the show. The Harvesting Nutrition selection committee was unanimously compelled by the potential of the innovative format of Shamba Shape Up to impact nutrition outcomes at scale. Since being awarded the Innovative Approach award, Shamba Shape Up has produced six nutrition-sensitive episodes and continues to seek funding for more.

Listen to a TedX talk on YouTube, delivered by the head of Shamba Shape Up

ZAMBIA – RAIN project – 05 September – 10 September, 2014

It seems obvious that there are linkages between agriculture and nutrition. Food, after all, is the primary vehicle for delivering the essential nutrients necessary to sustain life and food security is one of the key underlying drivers of nutrition status. But practices for improving productivity of nutritious crops—how to plant, how to harvest, etc.—rest squarely in the agriculture realm, whereas what foods to select and how to prepare them rest squarely in the nutrition realm. There are glaringly few projects the world over that bridge farm to table.

RAIN (Realigning Agriculture to Improve Nutrition), winner of the Greatest Potential Impact on Nutrition award, uses theoretical pathways from agriculture to nutrition as a basis for designing a three-pronged program: an agriculture only intervention, an integrated agriculture plus nutrition intervention, and a control. Operating in four wards of Mumbwa District, Zambia, RAIN aims to demonstrate a sustainable multisectoral model and, through rigorous evaluation, to quantify the added benefit of working across sectors to improve nutrition outcomes.

We spoke with key project staff of Concern Worldwide, which is implementing the project in collaboration with local NGOs and ministries, and with support from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). Bertha, a Gender Officer, described the gender sensitization training that is a core component the program, and the role that women’s empowerment plays in nutrition outcomes in Zambia. Although conceptually simple, putting an integrated agriculture/nutrition intervention into practice is complicated. Richard, District Program Coordinator for Concern Worldwide, described the organizational structure for the integrated intervention, how the training, support, and supervision trickles down and how the different partners and stakeholders—community development facilitators, community health workers, and smallholder model farmers—are coordinated.

RAIN activities are integrated at the household level, supporting families to both grow and use nutritious food.

We spoke with Elly, a smallholder model farmer in one ward of Mumbwa District where RAIN operates. She proudly moved us around her community: first to the garden, where she grows carrots, amaranth, cabbage, peppers, okra, and so many other crops; next, to the community seed bank, where beneficiaries store a portion of seeds they’ve harvested from their garden for later planting and sharing; and finally to the solar driers where program beneficiaries have learned to dry the foods they’ve grown in their gardens. We also sat in on an Infant and Young Child Feeding sensitization session with a local women’s group, a community drama aimed at driving home key nutrition messaging, and a cooking demonstration promoting the nutrient-rich foods grown in RAIN gardens.

The Harvesting Nutrition contest selection committee was compelled by RAIN's household-level integration of agriculture and nutrition messaging, as well as the "realignment" of agriculture and nutrition that RAIN has fostered at the political level. Our last stop in Mumbwa was with Dr. Dube, the District Community and Health Medical Officer, who described how the District Nutrition Coordination Committee—initiated by RAIN—has resulted in unprecedented collaboration across ministries, in particular to address the considerable duplication of effort in training and investment of public funds.

GHANA – N2Africa – 11 September – 13 September, 2014

In broad strokes N2Africa sounds a lot like RAIN. Both projects invest in improving agricultural productivity with the aim of ultimately improving nutrition outcomes. The way they go about it, however, is quite different. 

Most notably, N2Africa does not do direct implementation. The project’s novelty is in taking a more systemic approach, seeding key linkages between different components of the value chain, and working to support local institutions and organizations in order to achieve scale. As the winner of the Most Scalable Approach award, we visited N2Africa in two very different contexts, West Africa (Ghana) and East Africa (Rwanda).

Northern Ghana in September is simply stunning. Dark red earth. Brilliant green crops as far as the eye can see. And the women dressed in the most gorgeous array of colorful wraps and scarves. With a storm fast approaching on the horizon, the light was magnificent; it was our singularly best day for shooting of the entire trip. We began with a women’s farmer group in their community fields of cowpeas. As the skies opened up, we scurried into a nearby school house to talk about how they have benefitted from the project and how it has impacted the health of their children. Then, in the pouring rain, huddled beneath wraps, we traipsed to a nearby homestead to watch how the women use soybeans that they grow to make soymilk and tofu—boiling and re-boiling the beans, adding spices, draining, and finally pressing. They were taught the recipes by a local NGO partner of N2Africa to promote the use of improved legume varieties.

RWANDA – N2Africa – 14 September – 18 September, 2014

Rwanda is a magnificently beautiful country, uniquely silent, and with nearly every inch divided into farm plots. We arrived a little worse for wear at the tail end of a long mission. Speciose, the N2Africa Country Directory for Rwanda, planned to meet us late in the afternoon, having been waylaid by a morning field day. … A field day … True, we hadn’t been invited, but field days are a critical component of the project—and an opportunity for great photos. Andrea and I debated how hard we should push to come along, and with a few minutes hesitation on my part (Andrea B. is much less reserved in such things) I called Speciose hoping to wrangle some way in. She had already left the office, but partner NGO staff were running late. If we could be ready in 15 minutes, we could come along.

Women farmers tend their fields of cowpeas under threatening skies in northern Ghana, where N2Africa is active.

We visited an N2Africa community, chatting with beneficiaries while a group of women prepared soybean-based recipes. The community was so proud about the work they have done to improve both soybean production and the health of their children. We watched the women prepare a recipe for “Merci Madame,” on their hands and knees slicing vegetables on a blue tarp laid across the dirt floor. Slicing, dicing, mixing, and frying. In a small wooden kitchen with holes cut to let in light and air, a dirt floor and wood fire for cooking, five women were gathered to cook along with Andrea and myself and Speciose, and various children periodically poking their heads in to check on progress or check on the strange visitors. Finally, the food was ready. Andrea and I both tentatively nibbled our fritter. First one, than two, than five; Western trepidation about foreign food be damned, this was good.

Over lunch we heard about how this community was once one of the worst areas for stunting, how in the time of the N2Africa project they have emerged as one of the best, how N2Africa trained these two inspiring women—Vasta and Cecile—to make soybean-based recipes, and how they have gone on to be celebrities in their own right: master trainers frequently invited to train women in other communities and health centers in how to prepare these nutritious foods.

... And Back to Washington, D.C.

Harvesting Nutrition is an amazing project to have been a part of, not only for the chance to experience these inspiring projects in person, but also to witness how the small seed of an idea could come to fruition, and create the opportunity to convene people from all over the world to talk about the linkages between agriculture and nutrition. As we transition into a new phase at SecureNutrition, a huge part of our mission is to influence how we do our work here at the World Bank, in order to increase nutrition-sensitive investments and activities. The compendium of Harvesting Nutrition case studies, including these three award-winning projects and all of our contest applicants, is a valuable contribution towards generating the operational knowledge that we can build off of here in the Bank and by others doing work in this area.

With a shared goal to reduce malnutrition and a common understanding of what works to achieve it, my personal hope is that the Harvesting Nutrition contest contributes to making us all at least a little more effective at what we do.

The Harvesting Nutrition award ceremony was held at the World Bank on February 19th, 2015. Visit the event page for all resources, or view the recording on World Bank Live. If you want to learn more about each winning project, download this set of Harvesting Nutrition technical briefs (PDF 279 KB).

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