Q&A With Amare Feleke, Expert in Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture
Amare Feleke reflects on the the USAID Growth Through Nutrition project in Ethiopia and the importance of nutrition-sensitive agriculture.
Banner image: Alemitu, a farmer in the Oromia region in Ethiopia, and her children look over their livestock. Three years ago, Alemitu was provided two ewes. With technical support from the GTN program, she was able to increase her income and livestock, which provides nutritious food to her and her family. By selling her sheep,  she was able to purchase a donkey to transport water to their home.

As Land O’Lakes Venture37’s role with the USAID Growth Through Nutrition (GTN) project winds down, we checked in with Venture37 Chief of Party Amare Feleke to learn more about nutrition-sensitive agriculture and Venture37’s role in creating impact in Ethiopia.

Let’s start with some ground setting. What is nutrition-sensitive agriculture?

When we talk about nutrition-sensitive agriculture, we are talking about agricultural activities with people’s nutritional status as the primary focus. When people think about agriculture, many of us think about mass production of a specific product, such as high-calorie staple crops. Nutrition-sensitive agriculture interventions are about meeting household-level agricultural and nutrition needs. This could be managing a family garden to produce nutrient-dense crops or managing backyard livestock for household consumption of animal source foods like eggs, chicken, or dairy. Nutrition-sensitive agriculture is about enabling smallholder farmers to produce a variety of nutritious foods in their backyard for their family members’ consumption. This is particularly important for a child’s first “1,000 days”— the critical window for preventing stunting that starts with pregnancy and ends around a child’s second birthday.

Why is nutrition-sensitive agriculture so important in your home country of Ethiopia?

In Ethiopia, 38% of children are stunted due to lack of quality food. It is a huge problem. We often hear about food security — having enough food to fill a person’s stomach. A common meal in Ethiopia is cereal based. It’s all starch. This may curb hunger, but it’s not what a child needs to grow and develop. We need to instead focus on nutrition security — improving knowledge about the importance of a balanced, diversified diet and increasing access to nutrient-rich foods that meet nutritional needs for proper growth and development.

What nutrition-sensitive agricultural concepts do you wish were better understood?

The first is that nutrition cannot be addressed alone. It requires multi-sectoral engagement and understanding from systemic actors in agriculture, health, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). I covered agriculture briefly earlier. As for the other two, put simply, the health sector contributes to building household knowledge of nutritional needs. WASH is about ensuring households have access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation — so that neither disease nor illness cause children to lose whatever is fed to them.

Nutrition should not only be a woman’s problem. In some communities, it is uncommon for fathers to cook or to support mothers in nourishing their children. Everyone in the household must contribute to an improved nutritional status of the family.

It’s also important to understand that animal sourced foods (ASF) are critical nutrient-dense foods that can address child malnutrition and stunting. Nutritional needs — especially in countries like Ethiopia where there is a lack of dietary diversity — cannot be addressed without livestock.

How has the GTN project approached nutrition-sensitive agriculture?

GTN is a multi-sectoral USAID flagship project that focuses on nutrition and WASH. Its primary objective is to prevent undernutrition in the first 1,000 days and to prevent or reduce stunting. This is done through GTN’s five main components:
  1. Increased access to diverse, safe, and quality food;
  2. Behavior change communication;
  3.  Increased utilization of health services;
  4. Increased access to sustainable drinking water; and
  5. Stronger government structures to develop multi-sectoral coordination.
Save the Children is the prime implementer of GTN and Land O’Lakes Venture37 focuses on the first component. By working with 12,000 model farmers and 28,000 vulnerable households, we reached over 1 million children within the first 1,000 days of life. Model farmers — local, early adopters of nutrition-sensitive agriculture practices — become a source of knowledge and inputs for other farmers, and most vulnerable households improved their dietary diversity from 2 to 16 percent.

How did Venture37 achieve these impacts?

We focused on three primary impact areas or “pathways”:
  • Production pathway. This is about achieving diversified diets through home production and consumption. We worked through model farmers to promote approaches and technologies for production diversification. A great example of this is post-harvest handling technologies that enable more year-round consumption of a seasonal, nutrient dense crop. We also talk about conservation agriculture to build household resilience during climate shocks and stresses. GTN also demonstrates how to cook and consume new foods at the farmers’ house, training centers, and schools.
  • Income pathway is having the finances to buy nutritious food. Improved production beyond the needs of household consumption will avail a surplus of products to sell and access to markets. Additional income allows farmers to buy food items they don’t produce themselves. To build farmer awareness of what foods to purchase, GTN implemented a social behavior change communications strategy, including mass media campaigns, community education, and coaching.
  • Women’s empowerment pathway. We know that when a woman is economically empowered, she can improve her children’s nutrition. Women’s empowerment can be achieved by training women in income generating activities, providing startup capital, creating awareness of the benefits of mutual decision making, and sharing childcare responsibilities. To improve access to education and increase savings, GTN also organized women’s saving groups. This pathway is also about educating men and grandmothers about their role in bringing nutrition to children. Savings group members, husbands, and grandmothers participate in 10 community training sessions to build awareness of the importance of focusing on the first 1,000 days, food diversity, WASH, and technology adoption. This pathway positively impacted household family nutrition as it reduced the workload of mothers and improved shared decision making on how to utilize available household resources to benefit the full family.
Through each pathway, we partnered with various local government entities to ensure knowledge, skills, and service models were transferred for sustainability. As part of this effort, GTN developed toolkits and training manuals for government bodies. We also worked closely with schools and parent committees to ensure nutrition concepts — such as school gardens, nutrition clubs, and cooking demonstrations — are integrated into school curricula.

You mentioned the importance of ASF earlier. Tell us more about that.

Livestock and ASF are so important for a balanced diet. Nutrient-rich animal source foods like meat, eggs, and milk are uniquely dense in nutrients and micronutrients that are critical for a diverse and balanced diet. I think of milk as nature’s most perfect food! It has minerals, protein, energy, fat, and vitamins. Eggs are magic, too. Along with vegetables like orange-fleshed sweet potato, having just one glass of milk and/or one egg a day can dramatically improve a child’s nutritional status and reduce the risk of stunting, which is a lifelong condition.

When people think about nutrition, they may not think about private sector engagement. In what ways does Venture37 integrate these two concepts on GTN?

We cannot achieve long-term nutrition security without private sector engagement. I’ve talked a lot about backyard farming. How does a farmer get what she needs to grow vegetables or to manage livestock? Through private sector offerings. Agricultural inputs, trainings, customer services, and technologies help farmers diversify production and household consumption. One of the first GTN activities we conducted was identifying communities that lacked food diversity and determining why. One of the reasons for the gap was lack of community connections to trained input suppliers. Through continuous capacity building, facilitation of market linkages, and demonstration of a business case, we found that private sector engagement activities ultimately lead to improved nutrition security of farmer families.
By Amare Feleke 05/18/2021 #Blog