Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Design Matters in Nutrition-Sensitive Agriculture

How does one design an agricultural project — or “activity” in USAID language — for nutrition? The obvious answer, of course, is that it depends on the context and the strategic objective you wish to pursue. Many agriculture projects seek to achieve economic growth, while others are more focused on improved food security or resilience. Increasingly, agriculture activities are also seeking to improve nutrition in addition to these more traditional objectives. When pursuing improved nutrition, do you give up part of the economic growth objective, or can you tackle both at the same time without sacrificing the other? And how might you pursue the latter?

The agriculture-nutrition team with USAID’s multisectoral nutrition project, Strengthening Partnerships, Results and Innovations in Nutrition Globally (SPRING), confronted this design question during our recent work in Zambia. We knew conceptually that nutrition and economic growth objectives can be complementary and reinforcing, but practical approaches and strategies are still emerging and evolving. In reviewing three development activities in Zambia, we observed that both food security and market-led approaches are necessary and appropriate for nutrition-sensitive agriculture.

Agricultural Actors are Diverse

We spoke with a lot of women and men in different communities, some close to larger towns and others that were more remote. We met with better-off farmer entrepreneurs as well as farmers who clearly had fewer resources, many of whom were women. We saw first-hand the diversity in contexts among different beneficiaries, and while one approach may work well for certain groups, success in nutrition may not easily translate in other groups.

Flexibility and Adaptability

Activity interventions are driven by actual needs and ideally with short monitoring and feedback loops, so the interventions can be adjusted to shifting priorities and take advantage of new opportunities. Even market-led value chain activities can adapt to include nutrition outcomes that respond to changing needs in the community. Implementers have various tools and approaches to contribute to reducing or minimizing the underlying drivers of undernutrition that can be adapted to different contexts.

More Than Home Gardens

For a long time when people thought of nutrition-sensitive agriculture, activity designers defaulted to homestead food production, often called “kitchen gardens.” This type of intervention increases household production and diversity that leads to increased consumption of desired food groups, such as vegetables, fruits and animal source foods. We witnessed the success of this approach in Zambia, and while there is plenty of other evidence elsewhere that supports this type of intervention, there are weaknesses to the approach. For example, we saw that in communities that have good access to local food markets, households do rely on markets for their food needs and not just on their home gardens, stressing the importance of market-level interventions. Also, without strong support from other family members or hired help, mothers engaged in agriculture often end up spending more time and energy producing food than caring for their families. Another important consideration in using this approach is that homestead food production makes sense if first and foremost the homestead has reliable access to water.

Small-Scale Agricultural Production for Healthy Diets

For certain households, especially those with limited land and productive resources, homestead food production makes the most sense for meeting basic needs. We saw how agricultural activities that focus on homestead food production can serve as a good platform for delivering nutrition-specific services, such as promoting more frequent visits to health clinics. But market-led approaches are also important. For example, in areas where viable income opportunities exist, perhaps because of proximity to densely-populated market centers, production of nutritious foods to sell in local markets is a valid nutrition-sensitive agriculture strategy. We observed first-hand the benefits of irrigated small-scale commercial horticulture gardens run by women and how female agro-dealers and farmers benefited from increased commercial production — and subsequent increases in income — ultimately leading to more diverse diets and healthier children in their communities.

Identifying Win-Win Opportunities

Activity designers can include nutrition-sensitive outcomes regardless of the ultimate objectives. For example, women engaged in market development activities can be incentivized to use the income they earn for the production or purchase of more nutritious foods in local markets. Activity designers and implementers can also encourage households to invest in health resources such as potable water and sanitation facilities. Designing toward increasing women’s agency would allow mothers to better take care of themselves and their families. In other words, it is possible to support both economic growth and nutrition objectives at the same time, even if activities do not support both to the same degree. It takes a broader view to look for win-win opportunities for both sectors. At a minimum, agricultural interventions can “do no harm” to health and nutrition and ideally complement other nutrition and health interventions that are operating in the same locations.

Farmers are Not Just Farmers

Intervention options are enhanced if we keep in mind that farming households are also consumers who are net buyers of food. We would do well to think about local food markets and identify market-led solutions that can improve the availability, affordability, safety and desirability of foods that can lead to better diets. Along with that, we can look at practical ways to enhance caregiving resources at home, such as workload sharing. In Zambia they have a beautiful word that we can all emulate — pamodzi — which means "together" or "as one." Each family member can contribute to the economic and nutritional well-being of the family if these contributions are discussed, planned and carried out together, especially between husbands and wives. In the same vein, for activity designers aiming for productive, resilient and healthy populations, both agriculture and nutrition designers can also discuss, plan and work together as one for the benefit of the whole.

Learn more about our recent work in Zambia here.