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Gender dimensions of biofortified crops for nutrition in sub-Saharan Africa


Session 9 SR Contested Agronomies EDIT

A key theme of my Banting post-doctoral research is the way in which nutritional agendas are being integrated with food security objectives within interventions in sub-Saharan Africa. I am particularly interested in the ways that global health and nutrition discourses are translated through the assemblage of technologies, actors and ideas, into ‘local’ practices that serve particular interests at various levels.

My collaborator  Sheila Rao, a PhD student in the Anthropology and Sociology Department at Carleton University, and I developed a paper on these themes for the recent Contested Agronomies conference at the STEPS Centre, at the Institute of Development Studies and SPRU Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Sussex in the UK. Sheila Rao is lead author on the paper, which is based on her PhD fieldwork in Tanzania. The paper is entitled Sweet Success? Contesting the promotion of biofortified sweet potato in Mwanza, Tanzania. I am particularly interested in orange-flesh sweet potato because it is often seen as a ‘climate smart’ crop because of its tolerance to drought. It is also seen traditionally as a ‘women’s crop’ and is hence promoted as benefiting women financially as well as improving child nutrition.

The conference, called Contested Agronomy: Whose Agronomy Counts? follows the success of a book, published in 2012, which brought together some key thinkers in the field of rural development studies and agronomy. The 2016 Conference had, as its main theme:

‘… the politics of knowledge within the field of agronomy. Case studies of historical or present day significance to the developing world were invited. These cases included the history or nature of contestation; actors and coalitions; political and institutional drivers and dynamics; and the implications of contestation (e.g. for the field of agronomy, for researchers and research institutions, for journals, for policy or for farmers).’

The original Contested Agronomy book started from the premise that (and here I am quoting directly from Andersson and Sumberg, 2015; who are paraphrasing Sumberg et al. 2012a, and 2012b ):

‘the contested agronomy argument has four main elements:

1. Over the last four decades the context within which development-oriented agronomy takes place has been transformed fundamentally, with the most important changes being the rise of (a) the neoliberal project; (b) the environmental agenda; and (c) the participation agenda.
2. As a result, the long-standing unity of purpose between the state, on the one hand, and the agronomic research establishment, on the other, was undermined. Agronomy ceased to be the handmaiden of the state, with important implications for how development-oriented agronomy is conceived, funded, managed, implemented, evaluated and portrayed.
3. With less unity of purpose, and in the more crowded, competitive, short-term and impact-oriented funding context, agronomy has become an altogether more contested and contentious space: the politics around agronomic knowledge is now less controlled and much more public.

4. This new knowledge politics around development-oriented agronomy is having important impacts on the discipline itself, and on its ability address the challenge of sustainably enhancing agricultural productivity.’

Andersson and Sumberg (2015)

The contribution of Sheila Rao and myself to the conference, and to a book currently under preparation, notes that donor and UN agencies prioritize the adoption of nutritious crops for the health benefits of farming families and consumers. This is evident in the recent expansion of biofortified orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) promotion across the Sub-Saharan Africa region. OFSP campaigns funded by private foundations and international agricultural research centres are targeting millions of farmers in fifteen Sub-Saharan African countries in an effort to address malnutrition. Although biofortification has been relatively uncontested as a form of nutritional intervention; and there is evidence that it can positively impact nutrition status it has become increasingly clear in Tanzania that OFSP production and sale by smallholders has not yet reached the scale originally envisaged by those promoting it. Our contribution, which explicitly references the contested agronomy framework, critically examines the ways in which a crop promoted as a logical addition to smallholder production and household consumption, well suited to local conditions, actually relies on complex and highly interventionist approaches.

The chapter examines the ‘claims’ made by organizations promoting OFSP production and consumption in Tanzania, and examines how implementation approaches are likely to support or undermine these claimed benefits (such as empowerment of women, improved income for farming households, improved child nutrition, and targeting of the poorest). Drawing from recent PhD research conducted in Tanzania by Sheila Rao, we demonstrate that the OFSP promotional approaches involve the commercialization of the crop at a large scale, which is likely to compromise or have unintended consequence on women’s roles in producing OFSP. Specifically, we highlight how efforts to commercialize the multiplication of OFSP vines, as the latest strategy to produce OFSP at a large scale, offers financial benefits to farmers, yet often favours male farmers. This paper first briefly discusses recent ‘nutrition in agriculture agendas’ in Sub-Saharan Africa. It then situates the promotion of bio-fortified sweet potato within this narrative and presents the recent developments in Tanzania as a case study demonstrating the complex challenges of introducing a new variety of a staple crop mainly grown by women.

I would like to acknowledge the support of a Banting-Vanier post-doctoral Fellowship, and the School of International Policy and Governance,  Wilfrid Laurier University in my research.



Andersson, J., and J. Sumberg (2015) Knowledge politics in development-oriented agronomy. Paper prepared for the Conference titled Contested Agronomy: Whose Agronomy Counts? STEPS Centre, 23-25 February 2016 Institute of Development Studies
Brighton, UK

Sumberg, J., Thompson, J., & Woodhouse, P. (2012b). Contested agronomy: agricultural research in a changing world. In J. Sumberg, & J. Thompson (Eds.), Contested Agronomy: Agricultural Research in a Changing World. London: Routledge.
Sumberg, J., Thompson, J., & Woodhouse, P. (2012c). Why agronomy in the developing world has become contentious. Agriculture and Human Values, 1-13, doi:10.1007/s10460-012-9376-8.

1 Comment

  1. […] mentioned in a post from last year, I co-authored a chapter with Sheila Rao on orange flesh sweet potato (OFSP) in […]


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