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Orange maize: New kid on the block

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KAONGA— These crops are a cheap source of vitamin A

The maize crop, ripe with red eyes, looks healthy, as if it grew somewhere and, by accident or design, fell to the ground in Malawi.

To crop experts, however, the orange maize is an improvised thing, a ‘child’ of science and product of latest technologies.

It is hard to look at five samples of mature maize without wondering about which country the produce is from.

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To the experts, however, it is not the colour of the maize they are for; their target is to address one of the challenges facing Malawi: Food insecurity.

With the red maize, researchers, all of them local, are so sure that the gulf between the haves and have-nots, especially as it relates to household and national food security, will be easily reduced.

Armed with this purpose, Malawian researchers at Chitedze Research Station (CRS) in Lilongwe have been researching on three maize varieties in their bid to encourage Malawians to start cultivating and eating bio-fortified crops, notably orange maize, which has been touted for its rich content, including in vitamin A.

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This comes at a time stakeholders, including new German Ambassador to Malawi Ralph Timmermann have pledged continued support to nutrition improvement initiatives.

Timmermann indicates that community participation is key to hunger eradication efforts.

“Success stories, in terms of improved nutrition, are key to meeting desired goals. It is even important that community members are actively involved in nutrition programmes,” he says.

Ministry of Health Director of Nutrition, HIV and Aids, Pesulo Phiri, concurs.

“Stunting is one of the problems we need to address. We have, so far, managed to reduce the rate of stunting to 33 percent.

“The good news is that Malawi is one of the countries in Africa that have reduced vitamin A deficiency to around three percent,” Phiri says.

According to Agriculture Minister Lobin Lowe, food security, food utilisation and food processing are some of the things that will help Malawi improve levels of nutrition among citizens and lead to the growth of the agriculture sector as there will be work for everyone.

At CRS, researchers already created work for themselves and others by working on new maize varieties that are billed to, before long, become part of Malawi’s food security strategies.

That is why researchers have already completed trials and released three maize varieties that farmers can start cultivating immediately.

Chief Maize Breeder and Action National Research Coordinator for Cereals Kesbell Kaonga says Malawians stand to benefit a lot from orange maize and other bio-fortified crops such as potatoes and beans.

“Apart from providing health benefits to under-five children, pregnant women and adult males, the improved varieties have the potential of growing the country’s economy. In fact, orange maize has the potential to become a vibrant industry on its own as it is a raw material for other products such as cornflakes. These crops, including orange maize, are a cheap source of vitamin A in humans since maize is the staple food in Malawi.

“At industry level, its palatability makes it suitable for the making of feed for poultry to improve the quality of eggs in layers and, of course, it’s a major ingredient in the making of cornflakes. As such, there are a lot of benefits to Malawi if these crops were promoted,” Kaonga said.

Biofortification involves the incorporation of key micronutrients into staple food crops such as maize in order to address micronutrient deficiencies.

The targeted micronutrients include vitamin A, zinc and iron, which are said to be essential for good health, human development and strengthening of the immune system.

Non-profit organisation HarvestPlus has been assisting in the promotion of such crops in Malawi.

HarvestPlus Executive Director Dellings Phiri says the crops can help Malawi address the problems of hunger and malnutrition.

“These crops are vital as they are rich in critical vitamins. As such, the more they are grown by farmers in the country and the more they are being consumed, the more we will see improvements in the health well-being of Malawians,” Phiri says.

Atleast 800,000 households in Malawi are growing and consuming biofortified crops annually, according to HarvestPlus.

If other could join these 800,000 households, surely most villages will be filled with the fragrance of newly cooked food, including orange maize, creating another positive story as Malawi embraces technology to solve some of its pressing challenges

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