From field to fingers: enriching soils and seeds to improve nutrition

By Carol Henry, Sheleme Beyene, Atul Nayyar, Tewodros Tefera and Zenebe Woruk


Through enhanced soil health and improved crop varieties, farmers in southern Ethiopia have achieved a two-fold increase in chickpea productivity. Improved food processing and preparation methods, coupled with education programs, have contributed to improved nutrition, with mothers learning to incorporate chickpeas into complementary foods. Hawassa University has become a center of excellence on nutrition in Ethiopia — the University of Saskatchewan has contributed to this achievement as a key partner in nutrition.

Ethiopia has one of the worst rates of protein-calorie malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency in the world. The problem is especially acute in southern Ethiopia, where three-quarters of pregnant women suffer from zinc deficiency and nearly half of all child deaths are associated with deficiencies in protein and micronutrients (i.e. vitamin A, iodine, zinc and iron). Food insecurity is primarily caused by low productivity and poor access to farming resources and technology, as well as poor access to and consumption of key nutrients. Combating food insecurity in Ethiopia therefore requires changes in agricultural practice and human nutrition interventions.

To combat malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, while contributing to the sustainability of local agro-ecosystems, the Improving Nutrition in Ethiopia through Plant Breeding and Soil Management project is researching biofortification of pulse crops. Biofortification strategies include enriching the nutrient contribution of staple crops (chickpea) through plant breeding, coupled with soil micronutrient management (zinc fertilizer) and household processing strategies. Biofortification provides a cost-effective and sustainable approach for increasing micronutrients in crops using agronomic strategies. The project also focuses on women’s empowerment, through processing and preparation techniques that respond to nutritional needs along the pulses value chain.

Key Outcomes

  • Increased soil fertility and crop productivity - Improved soil management through crop diversification and improved cropping systems (intercropping, crop rotation and double cropping) have led to increased soil fertility and pulse productivity. Four out of the 15 introduced varieties of chickpea have shown promising productivity, compared to local varieties; three improved cultivars have exceeded the local cultivar by 62-89% at various sites.
  • More micronutrients - Biofortification of improved pulse varieties has increased their zinc and iron content. One improved variety (Habru) is also significantly better in seed weight, swelling and hydration capacity than the local varieties, indicating better cooking quality. These improvements have led to the production of high quality, nutrient-rich grains, thereby enhancing nutrition for rural households.
  • Enhancing nutrition – There is increasing acceptance of pulses, including enhanced chickpea varieties, for household consumption. Nutrition education has helped mothers with infant children to improve their feeding practices and those of their households by maximizing the resources around them, evidenced by improved weight gain in young children.
  • Increased skills and knowledge - Farmer field days and a nutrition extension program have resulted in increased dissemination of new seeds, crop management and cooking methods. Women from farming communities and those engaged in microenterprises have been trained on modified food processing methods, to promote inclusion of pulses in their daily diets. Women farmers acknowledge that training and education received from the project have helped to boost their production and consumption. During training, they have also been provided with much needed help, in the form of seeds.
  • Capacity Building for Human Capital - The project contributed to capacity building of MSc (60 nutrition and 50+ agriculture) and PhD students (two nutrition and four agriculture) from Hawassa University. A student exchange program was established, allowing all six PhD students from Hawassa to benefit from high quality technology and modern facilities at the University of Saskatchewan. The training has created a critical mass of young scientists (51% female), who are contributing to the development of Ethiopian agriculture and nutrition initiatives. It has also fostered greater collaboration between Canadian and Ethiopian researchers, and thereby enhanced knowledge and expertise in both Hawassa University and the University of Saskatchewan.
  • Improved income - The introduction of chickpea within a double cropping system (growing two crops in a cropping season) has increased household income compared to the traditional practice of growing one crop per season.
  • Boosting earnings from trade - According to a value chain study, the total amount of chickpea that was transacted through market channels in Ethiopia in 2012/13 was 918 tons, of which the project farmers contributed 77%. The project helped farmers to gain access to markets to sell their excess produce and increase their household income.