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Haiti: sowing the seeds for better nutrition

Marie Chantal Messier's picture

Haiti: merging nutrition and agriculture innovations to progress from crisis to stability

“Haiti” and “food” and “nutrition” are words not usually seen together as part of an optimistic statement, rather the opposite. But as we commemorate World Food Day I believe there is a lot that Haiti can bring to the table to find a sustainable solution to its stubborn malnutrition problem.

This may sound like the world’s best kept secret, but it is partly the result of people, including ourselves sometimes, focusing on Haiti’s ailments rather than its progress. 

“Ayiti Chérie”, as Haiti is referred to in Creole, has been a fertile ground for nutrition and agriculture innovations for many years. It was one of the first countries in the world to pilot national vitamin A supplementation, the use of micronutrient powders to reduce anemia in very young children, and fortifying cassava bread, among many other initiatives.

 

Yet, tragically hit by recurrent natural catastrophes, political instability and high food prices -that sparked riots in 2008-, the country faces persistently high rates of chronic malnutrition (29% of young children) and more than half of its population (57%) suffers from food insecurity. 

 

So the theme of this year’s World Food Day “Food prices - from crisis to stability” is particularly relevant to the Haitian circumstances. A fair question to ask would then be: “In a country like Haiti, how can you bring stability to rebuild food and nutrition security and protect the population against high food prices?”

With World Bank support, the Ministry of Agriculture is now overcoming this challenge. Capitalizing on Haitians’ creativity and openness to innovation, the Ministry has integrated nutrition sensitive activities into a new $50 million project: 'Relaunching Agriculture: Strengthening Agriculture Public Services' (RESEPAG) II.

It is one of the first agriculture projects designed and implemented in collaboration with the Health sector. RESEPAG II aims to concretely address the need to produce highly nutritious food to ensure nutrition security of vulnerable population.

 

The idea arose from an unmet need.

After the earthquake, humanitarian agencies wanted to procure food locally to distribute to distraught populations. However, neither the quality nor the quantities needed were available to suit the organizations’ needs. At the same time, the Haitian government wanted to revive the economy, especially by sustaining the agricultural sector which had not been as badly hurt by the earthquake.

 

The Bank's Human Development and Agriculture teams brainstormed on ways to improve access to nutritious foods for the poorest in Haiti. The teams held discussions with key partners such as the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) who had supported a Haitian agriculture organization (ORE) to successfully grow bio-fortified crops.

 

The International Zinc Association also provided convincing evidence that zinc fertilizers could not only increase agricultural productivity but also increase the food content of this key nutrient for the immune system and the growth of children.

The turning point for this initiative was the prospect of aid organizations purchasing a lot more locally produced foods --if nutrition aspects were to be incorporated in agriculture programs. Simple, affordable initiatives, such as milk fortification for the National School Feeding Program, almost immediately grabbed the Ministry’s attention. 
 

As the discussion progressed, representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture perceived the great potential of supporting production of high-quality nutritious foods. Simply put they saw a huge opportunity: the initiative would boost the income of farmers while addressing the high malnutrition burden of the country.

 

With their knack to make a little go a long way, Haitians see the point in getting more out of food they grow. Right away, the managers of the Ministry identified the fortification of milk and the production of peanut based ready-to-use-therapeutic food as promising and profitable markets.

Veterimed, a national NGO helping small farmers improve animal production, asked the World Bank to facilitate a feasibility study. Within a few months, it had conducted trials to fortify milk produced by Haitian micro-dairies through a partnership with a company that provided the micronutrient fortifier and the lab analyses for free. The results should be available in the next month and, if conclusive, the initiative will be scaled up at the national level. Not only big corporations, small farmers can do high-power food too!

The nutrition sensitive activities integrated into the project include:


1) training agricultural extension agents in the field of nutrition;
2) facilitating the production of nutrient dense foods through use of biofortified seeds already present in Haiti and zinc based fertilizers;
3) focusing on gender equity such as reducing anemia in female agricultural workers;
4) capacity building in food harvesting and storage techniques to reduce waste and improve quality (e.g. to reduce aflatoxin in maize and peanuts that can be toxic and carcinogenic); and
5) food processing techniques such as fortification and food quality control including laboratory capacity to analyze micronutrient contents.

In addition, RESEPAG II will support innovations leading to increased access to nutritive foods. One example is enabling salt producers to improve their solar salt production techniques to expand access to iodized salt in the country.

 

Rebuilding food and nutrition security in Haiti is also a top priority for many of my colleagues. The World Bank Human Department is an active member of the National Nutrition Technical Committee and has recently supported the revision and validation of the National Nutrition Policy which promotes a multi-sector approach to reducing malnutrition.

 

While the Education sector invests significantly in the National School Feeding Program, our Social Protection team is leading a highly promising approach in the county: the Household Development Agent Initiative.

 

This pioneering pilot project aims to test and learn lessons from a new mechanism to increase use of social services by directly providing a minimum of services to poor families as well as improving the provision of services by key actors.  Our Health team is also actively discussing with the government and partners on sustainably scaling up nutrition activities through Results Based Financing mechanisms.

 

With all these exciting initiatives, there are plenty of opportunities for Haitian farmers to grow strong and provide good nutrition.