Harvesting nutrition

Photography: Taskscape

Families in Ghana are benefiting from better soya yields thanks to N2Africa. But that does not automatically mean that this nutritious legume will be added to their own meals. A great deal depends on the availability, affordability and desirability of other foods, discovered PhD student Ilse de Jager.

Assibi lives in Pishigu, a small rural village in the north of Ghana. She is married to Hassan and lives together with his other two wives and their children. She never finished school and spends most of her time farming. At the moment, she is pregnant with her second child.

Her first child, Talata, has just turned two. Talata was mostly given maize porridge and breast milk during the first two years of her life. She did not therefore receive all the nutrients she needed and by her second birthday she was too small for her age: she is chronically malnourished. This will have a major impact on her life: a higher risk of disease, of impaired intellectual development and of being less economically productive.

Measuring how tall the children are to see if they are suffering from malnourishment. Photo: Ilse de Jager

Assibi participated in the N2Africa project for two years in a row and achieved increased soyabean yields. She sold most of the produce at the local market for a good price. She used half of the income to buy other food including maize at the market and saved some for other pressing needs such as healthcare for Talata. The other half she gave to Hassan, which he is saving to buy a motorbike. She tried preparing some dishes with soyabeans but did not like the taste and did not give it to Talata or the other children at her house because she is afraid of potential digestive problems when giving it to small children.

Stronger control over resources by women may help channel nutritious foods, which will benefit children

Within the N2Africa project, we carried out several studies in Ghana and Kenya to solve the question of how Assibi, her children and other household members could best achieve a nutritious diet from increased cultivation of legumes.

Video: Researchers explain how N2Africa is providingopportunity to better understand the nutritional benefit of grain legume cultivation in northern Ghana. Produced by Taskscape Associates

These studies showed that there are various ways in which farmers deal with higher yields from agriculture. We focused on two of them: where the extra harvest yield is used for their own consumption, and where the extra harvest is sold at the market so that there is money for other food.

For Assabi, the price she can get for soyabeans is relatively high, which is why she chooses not to use the surplus harvest for her own consumption, but to sell it. She buys other food from the money she earns.

Food environment

Our study results suggest that whether N2Africa will achieve dietary improvements for Assibi and her household members or not depends on the characteristics of the ‘food environment’: the availability, affordability, convenience and desirability of various foods, affecting the food choices made by Assibi and her other household members and therefore the quality of their diet.

We found that N2Africa has greater potential for improving children’s dietary variation through production for direct consumption in contexts where farmers attribute positive characteristics to the targeted nutritious food, where a wide variety of local dishes already include the food being promoted and where the targeted food is relatively new and seen as a food crop rather than a cash crop.

In addition, women play a key role in improving children’s dietary diversity. Greater decision-making power for women and more control over resources such as increased legume production and income from the sale of legume produce may help channel nutritious foods within households (which will benefit the children) and to more agricultural income being spent on nutritious foods and healthcare for the family, particularly children. Female N2Africa participants did indeed state frequently that the extra grain legume production was used for the family’s own consumption.

Women in Ghana preparing legumes for their families. Photo: Ilse de Jager

If there is a strong market available for the food being promoted, it is likely that farmers will prefer to sell it instead of keeping it for their own consumption. Literature shows that whether this income gets used for improving children’s nutrition is unpredictable or less than expected, such as in the case of Assibi’s husband Hassan who is saving part of the income for a motorbike. Thorough understanding of the food environment and activities such as communication about behavioural changes in nutrition and women’s empowerment are needed too if the most benefit is to be gained in terms of nutritious diets for Assibi and her household members from the increased cultivation of legumes.

Micronutrient intake

When a project like N2Africa is successful in increasing or adding legumes to the diet of Ghanaian children like Talata, we found that the main contribution is in terms of micronutrient intake, such as iron and folate. Eating extra beans on top of normal food intake is not (as is often stated) needed for protein. Furthermore, we found that investigating the gaps in food availability and food needs for nutritious diets at the whole diet level (no diet consists of a single food) provides useful insights that allow better coordination and integration of nutrition across agricultural interventions and investments.


N2Africa has more potential to improve children’s dietary diversity through the production for direct consumption in a context where:

  1. Farmers attribute positive characteristics to the targeted nutritious food.
  2. A wide variety of local dishes already include the food being promoted.
  3. The targeted food is relatively new and seen as a food crop rather than a cash crop.
  4. Women are involved.

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