Missives from MillNETi: Interdisciplinary working to tackle iron deficiency

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Picture Credit: Tadesse Fenta (Helen Walle, PhD student at Bahir Dar University, carrying out microbiological analysis of injera)

Missives from MillNETi: Interdisciplinary working to tackle iron deficiency

Written by Joanna Wolstenholme, MillNETi Programme Manager

Iron deficiency primarily affects women and children, and whilst a global problem is it most pronounced in developing countries. Poor diet – low availability of fruit and vegetables, and an over reliance of staples such as wheat and rice – has contributed to these high deficiency levels. However, substituting staples such as rice and wheat for more nutritious options is one step on the way to more diverse and nutritious diets.

Millets are a family of dryland grains that have attracted growing attention over the last few years, for both their low input needs and good nutritional profile. Through HarvestPlus, an iron-biofortified variety of pearl millet, with a high grain yield and high levels of iron, and an open pollinated variety called Dhanashakti has been developed for African farmers. It is here that MillNETi (Millets and Nutritional Enhancement Traits for Iron bioavailability), an international GCRF-funded research project led by the University of Cambridge, comes in.

An interdisciplinary approach

MillNETaims to improve the iron nutrition status of people living in Ethiopia and The Gambia by assessing, and suggesting ways to optimise, the bioavailability of iron from biofortified pearl millet. We have been using a multidisciplinary approach to address this issue with a team of crop geneticists, nutritionists, social scientists and community organisations. As a sister research project to TIGR2ESS, we are  building on learnings from the Indian context in our work and developing new research links between India, The Gambia and Ethiopia.

We are aiming to generate a holistic answer to the question of ‘How (bio) available is the iron in iron-biofortified pearl millets?’ Bioavailability might be perceived as a nutrition question – if people eat biofortified millet, what effect does this have on blood iron levels? Yet, as with any issue in the food system, there are many more factors at play. What would it take to encourage people to buy or grow these millets? Who makes those decisions in the household? Do the millets have the right agronomic traits to make them attractive to farmers in our focus communities? Are the seeds available? Are iron levels uniform on every soil type?

We cannot hope to answer all of these questions in our two year project. But, by collaborating to generate new ways of working, we will tackle some of these, and lay the foundations for future projects. Two aspects of our ongoing work highlight MillNETi’s approach.

The social science – nutrition cross over

Working across social science and nutrition science, and Richard Sidebottom and Sarah Dalzell are looking to understand how millets fit into current patterns of crop production, consumption and livelihood choices. They have brought together an integrated conceptual framework derived from a synthesis of the food systems, food environment, entrepreneurship, agricultural innovation, institutions and livelihoods literature. They aim to capture the complexities of linkages between agricultural production and nutritional outcomes (in both Ethiopia and the Gambia) using mixed methods - qualitative and quantitative - across different communities and environments.

They highlight that increased communication to tackle ‘information deficits’ around food isn’t the whole solution – individuals may be bound by other choice constraints. Identify these constraints, and you might have found a policy lever.

Developing this framework pushed both Richard and Sarah to articulate theories outside of their own disciplines, and iron out (no pun intended) multiple misunderstandings over terminology and frameworks. Having now developed this framework they will be able to interrogate their survey responses from Gambian and Ethiopian communities in a novel way.

Truly equitable knowledge exchange

Lara Allen, from the Centre for Global Equality, in collaboration with Ethiopian NGO JeCCDO, is also developing a new way of working through MillNETi. She has long identified the need for more effective collaborations between researchers and low resource communities in order for research to be truly co-created. This approach leads to a better understanding of the challenges communities face, co-design of more appropriate responses to these challenges and greater utilisation of research outcomes by communities.

Bridging the often considerable culture gap between communities and researchers is where the Innovation Communities Initiative comes in. The Initiative will explore the mechanisms by which under resourced communities can truly collaborate with researchers to co-develop solutions to real life problems. It will also encourage mutually beneficial and transparent engagement between researchers and the communities. This pragmatic, two-pronged approach is important if we are all to live up to the ideals of truly co-created and equitable research.

 Adapting to a new reality

As we all know, the pace and directly of research has changed dramatically over the course of the last few weeks, as the extent and implications of the coronavirus pandemic become clear. Like many research projects, we are currently assessing how best we can pivot our research to be both respectful to our partners and communities in these difficult times, and, where possible, helpful. All field and lab work is currently paused, and instead we are looking forward to future work, and developing ways to keep our global team engaged and productive. Please do reach out if you would like to learn more, or have ideas for working together in this locked down world or beyond!

Contact: Joanna Wolstenholme, Programme Manager –

MillNETi is a BBSRC-GCRF funded project. The team comprises partners from: University of Cambridge (Departments of Plant Sciences, Development Studies, MRC Bone Health group, the Global Food Security IRC, the Cambridge Global Challenges SRI and Cambridge-Africa), the Centre for Global Equality, NIAB, MRC Unit The Gambia, Bahir Dar University (Ethiopia), ICRISAT (India, Ethiopia, Malawi), King's College London, Rothamsted Research, JeCCDO and HarvestPlus.

 Read more: A blog from colleagues at Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia, about their visit to ICRISAT in India: An eye opening experience at ICRISAT: Thanks to TIGR2ESS