A lack of vitamin A causes blindness in 500,000 children annually and is linked to increased risk of death from disease. In Zambia, although sugar has been fortified with vitamin A since the 1990’s, a 2003 National Food and Nutrition Commission showed that 54% of children under the age of 5 remained vitamin A deficient, as well as 13% of women aged 15-49.
In 2012 pre-school children in the Nyimba District of Zambia were selected to partake in a study, primarily for their willingness to participate. Children were selected who were reasonably healthy, without infection, but who had not received any vitamin A supplements in the past 6 months. Children were either fed 200g/day of white maize, the same amount of orange vitamin A fortified maize (developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, CIMMYT and HarvestPlus) or a vitamin A supplement. The study demonstrated that orange maize is an effective vitamin A source; those who were fed orange maize showed significant increases in their vitamin A levels. In fact, there was no statistical difference between the vitamin A levels in children who were fed the supplement and those who ate the orange maize.
HarvestPlus released their first biofortified maize in 2012. By 2014, it reached 75,000 farming households, equivalent to more than 450,000 people. The maize currently provides 25% of the daily requirement of vitamin A in a typical 300g serving. However, HarvestPlus aims to provide more fortified varieties, which can provide up to 60% of the daily requirement. Emerson Banji is a HarvestPlus lead farmer in the Zambian village of Muyumbana. Despite poor rainfall in 2013, Emerson was confident that his orange maize, which is high-yielding, disease and drought-tolerant, would provide a better crop than the white maize he used to grow. He reports that ‘he would prefer to always plant orange maize over white maize, because he believes it offers a better life for his family.’