Climate change, which has resulted in low rainfall has impaired Zimbabwe's food security situation. As a result of changes in rainfall patterns, the agriculture sector has been hamstrung due to low productivity compounded by bad agricultural practices.
Lack of markets to sell produce has also affected the food security of the majority of rural Zimbabweans, who depend on rain-fed agricultural for revenue.
The other issue is that under-nutrition rates are high, especially in rural districts where diets lack diversity with maize being the main staple.
Not all hope is lost, though, as a local non-governmental organisation has intervened in beefing up the food basket. The NGO, HarvestPlus Zimbabwe launched Livelihoods and Food Security Programme (LFSP) to promote the production and consumption of biofortified crop varieties.
The LFSP is a UKAid-funded programme, managed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It operates in 12 districts in the country with the aim to contribute to poverty reduction through increased incomes to rural farming households. One of the key outcomes is promoting the production and consumption of diverse and nutritious diets, especially focusing on women and children.
Biofortification is the process by which the nutrient density of food crops is increased through conventional plant breeding, and/or improved agronomic practices and/or modern biotechnology without sacrificing any characteristic that is preferred by consumers or most importantly by farmers.
HarvestPlus Zimbabwe country manager Dr Charles Mutimaamba said during a tour of Manicaland and Mashonaland West provinces that the programme's main drive is to end hidden hunger (vitamin A and mineral deficiencies), therefore, creating a healthy population through promoting production and consumption of biofortified crops.
"It is essential for farmers and those companies who are into agriculture, seed agronomy, Government and non-governmental organisations to work together to project how biofortified crops can be integrated within national food and nutrition security strategies to guarantee a focused active approach towards ending hidden hunger in the county," said Dr Mutimaamba.
The organisation is working with schools in the programme districts as a way of promoting these high nutrient crop varieties. As part of this approach, agriculture extension officers are helping with agronomic support to schools using the plots as learning sites.
The produce from these schools is consumed by the learners as part of the Government's thrust of ensuring each primary school serves one hot meal per day. Vitamin A maize and iron rich beans provide a much more nutritious option for a healthy school meal, when compared to white sadza and vegetables served in most schools. To this end, HarvestPlus is working with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education to include biofortified crops in the School Feeding Programme.
"Farmers from small-scale to commercial-scale should focus on interventions which can reduce malnutrition.
"Biofortification promotion can be taken into account with interrelated issues and initiatives. This includes the prerequisite for a gender-sensitive attitude and the importance of also recognising women in agriculture as key to food and nutrition security," said Dr Mutimaamba.
He added that their aim is to address micro-nutrient deficiencies, which will benefit the country through curbing malnutrition.
"Our programmes contribute to poverty reduction through increased nutritious agricultural productivity. We encourage biofortified crops and currently we have vitamin A orange maize and iron rich beans. We intend to introduce more biofortified crops like orange fleshed sweet potato," he said.
Other African countries that have adopted the same initiative of biofortified crops are Zambia, Rwanda, Nigeria, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mebo Takaruza (72), a small-scale farmer could not imagine herself growing orange maize as she was used to white maize for years. She is now among the 250 000 farmers growing and consuming vitamin A orange maize and iron rich beans.
Takaruza, a midwife and member of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Sect has been motivated to start the Tirivamwe (we are one) nutrition garden where they are promoting biofortified crops and other nutritious crops for children under five and pregnant women.
"I am aware that pregnant women need enough iron in their bodies and some may need to take supplementary tablets for iron and folate for their well-being, and to ensure the good health of the babies as they grow inside the womb. I decided to undertake farming of biofortified crops for nutrition, as they are naturally high in vitamin A for the orange maize and iron in the case of beans. These have proved to be nutritious to pregnant women and their unborn babies," said Takaruza.
"I would like to thank HarvestPlus Zimbabwe for imparting knowledge to us as small-scale farmers on biofortified crops. I have since adapted the orange maize and beans as they are rich in micro-nutrients vitamin A, iron and Zinc," she enthused.
Elizabeth Manyanga, a beneficiary of Takaruza's midwifery services complimented: "I know as a pregnant woman I need iron and zinc supplements. I have eaten biofortified crops for the past two years, and have really benefited from them.
"I have given birth to my children with the help of Takaruza. They are fit and healthy because of the micro-nutrients I got from the iron rich beans and vitamin A orange maize."
Steven Seremwe (58) and his wife Agnes Dzukwa (39) eulogised the benefits they are getting from vitamin A orange maize. They are brewing mahewu and making sadza, samp, bread and porridge from vitamin A orange maize as they complement their relish with iron rich beans, which, according to them, improved them health-wise.
Dzukwa lauded biofortified crops for their health benefits.
"I was having challenges with my eyesight to a point where I could not read a message from my phone, but because of the vitamin A from the orange maize I am back to normal. I can read and type; not leaving out general improvements on my immune system and skin perfection," she said.
The small-scale farmers' testimonies, as HarvestPlus indicated, are not only encouraging, but reveal how the uptake of biofortified crops can help in the fight against hidden hunger, and poverty in rural communities.