Nairobi — One drizzly morning in some lush green tea plantations in Rwanda, I was on my way to visit a local community, to assess nutrition indicators among women and children. We stopped in a green blanket of tea fields and spoke to one young tea picker, I'll call her Mary, who had a baby strapped to her back.
What I remember distinctly is that while her baby was probably the same age as my young son at home, he was about half the size. We chatted briefly about her job. Surrounded by the tea leaves, she said she was curious about how they tasted. She had never tasted tea.
Later that day, we got the tea pickers together for a discussion. I asked them how often they ate meat. There was a ripple of laughter through the group. "Christmas Day," they all said in unison.
When I asked the group what they would do with every extra dollar saved, they did not tell me they would buy better food. Instead, they all agreed: "We would buy shoes". Waking up at 4am to walk to the tea farm would be more comfortable in good shoes.
What I understood more fully after this meeting was what I had already suspected: that nutrition had taken a back-seat in this farming community.
We have collected evidence which shows that eating specially-bred, high-iron beans twice-a-day for just four-and-a-half months can reduce iron deficiency and actually reverse anemia in young women in Rwanda.
The nutrition evidence we collected that day showed that anemia was prevalent. Like the small baby on her back, Mary was malnourished. So the cycle of malnutrition continues. Agriculture has a strange way of leaving the vulnerable behind, and this is what we must stop.
The nutritional magic of beans
At the Pan African Bean Research Alliance in collaboration with HarvestPlus, we have collected evidence which shows that eating specially-bred, high-iron beans twice-a-day for just four-and-a-half months can reduce iron deficiency and actually reverse anemia in young women in Rwanda.
Our research, published in The Journal of Nutrition, was the first of its kind to show that eating "biofortified" beans, bred to contain more iron, can have a significant impact on iron levels in the blood and improve brain function.
Our results were tremendously exciting: they show for the first time that these beans are an excellent vehicle for delivering long-term, low-cost major health solutions - with profound implications for global nutrition, agriculture and public health policy.
Our research further shows that, fast-tracking nutrition in mothers before they even become pregnant is essential if we want to tackle malnutrition and put a stop to the vicious cycle of poverty and economic stagnation that poor diets perpetuate. Adolescent nutrition before pregnancy has a bigger impact on stunting in children than we thought.
We need to target undernourished women like Mary with nutritious food - well before they are pregnant.
Tackling malnutrition before it strikes
Instead of focusing on preventing malnutrition, we are too busy responding to food crises. We are fighting fires, instead of making sure they don't happen in the first place. This is a crisis, and we must treat it like one. That is why we are spearheading the development of a Nutrition Early Warning System, or NEWS.
It will take advantage of the latest advances in "machine learning" to create a powerful tool that can process, track and monitor a constant flow of data relevant to food and nutrition - alerting decision makers well before malnutrition becomes apparent.
We are currently working on a prototype of NEWS, which will initially focus on boosting nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa, eventually targeting vulnerable populations globally. It will analyze the nutritional status of populations in select countries in sub-Saharan Africa to find options for successful interventions.
I cannot look the other way while women and children are dying of anemia and stunting on our watch. I'm positive that we can fix it. As I join other food security experts at the Borlaug Dialogue this week - I will be sharing these lessons, as evidence that investing in agriculture can create vibrant rural areas that provide a road out of poverty.
A pathway towards employment, wealth creation, and economic growth that includes young people. But unless we focus on getting our young people a more nutritious diet, we will continue to fail millions like Mary - and her baby - before they have even had a chance to make a start in life.