In Focus: Commercialisation of publicly developed goods – Biofortification

Our 'In Focus' series sits down with people at the cutting edge of improving nutrition outcomes to understand their perspective, passions and latest projects. Today we talk with Jenny Walton from HarvestPlus.
Tell us a little about yourself…

I am from England and I moved to the USA 3 years ago to work for HarvestPlus. The office is in Washington DC and I live in Virginia. I am a nutritionist by training and have worked in many different areas of nutrition including nutrition science and human research, policy and regulations, food product renovation and innovation, nutrition marketing and commercialisation. Before joining HarvestPlus I worked as a nutritionist in industry for several retailers and manufacturers including the Co-op, Jacobs biscuits, Danone, United Biscuits and Kellogg’s. My work has always involved finding the characteristics of food that motivate consumers to change their purchase patterns.


What got you interested in nutrition? 

When I was about 10 years old, I told my great grandmother that I had learned about scurvy in a lesson at school, she then bought me a Readers Digest book called “Food that harms, food that heals”, I have been fascinated about the role of food and health ever since.  


What do you work on, and how does it relate to public private engagement for nutrition? 

My role at HarvestPlus is to communicate and market the benefits of biofortification to food businesses. The work involves working with micro enterprises in Nigeria all the way to the major global brands in the USA.  The idea of nutrient enriched crops is easy to sell, it really is a no brainer, the hard part is then building a supply chain and matching supply with demand.  My job is to overcome the barriers to scale with new ideas and work to build sustainable supply chains from seed sales to the consumer’s hand. The current global trend for plant based, meat free and clean label products is very helpful and the perfect time for HarvestPlus to commercialise biofortification. 



What is exciting about your work? 

There is no manual. I work with the biggest brains in agriculture and nutrition on a daily basis. Together we work out how to rise to challenges and I always have a friendly and expert colleague to ask for help and advice. I work with experts from across the value chain all day every day, from world leading agricultural specialists, economists, policy specialists, farmers, processors, aggregators and importantly consumers. The variety of work and tasks brings excellent experiences. I also work with our teams in the different countries, they teach me something new every time we communicate and they keep me grounded to the realities of delivering our programme. There is a very supportive culture at HarvestPlus, creative thinking and good ideas are encouraged. The organisation has changed rapidly in the last 3 years because of the need to commercialise and scale, and this has created a team of people who can easily adapt to change.  The HarvestPlus response to covid-19 has been amazing, literally overnight we had a new way of working together, staying in touch and importantly delivering seeds, grains and foods to people who really need it. The job is exciting as I feel I am a tiny part of something that improves health, improves wealth and in the long term saves lives.


What is challenging about it? 

There is no manual.  We have searched to find comparable examples of commercialising and mainstreaming biofortification but nothing comes close. There are no easy answers and sometimes people can be scared to take a risk, especially with donor money, but we only ever take calculated risks and learn from every action. 

It has taken me a long time to understand the development and non-profit environment, coming from the food industry, this is a different world. The language, the people, the ways of working and culture are very different to my previous 20 years-experience. Agriculture is slow and I don’t have much patience, in the past I worked on food innovation projects with a 6 weeks concept to launch but agriculture takes time, plants have to grow and mostly only 1 crop per year.   


What’s the latest news or a recent success?

Despite COVID-19, there have been some big wins for HarvestPlus this year. We have successfully built a blockchain delivery plan for Nigeria (we are looking for a donor), we are about to kick off a project to reach 100,000 farmers in Pakistan with text messages and as of Monday we have 12 months to publish our first international standard for the level of zinc in biofortified crops. It feels like hard work and pivot of the entire team is now paying off.

The GAIN-HarvestPlus partnership, which commenced in 2019 with the ambitious goal to reach an additional 190,000,000 consumers by the end of 2022, has also been a game changer for us. With so many new partnerships and projects  starting, it is an exciting time.



What’s next? 

A main area of focus for me is to support our in-country teams for the GAIN-HarvestPlus partnership, which is in effect 9 value chain projects, across 6 countries. The partnership will combine the expertise from the two organisations which will accelerate the commercialisation of biofortification along the value chain with activities from seed production to consumer marketing. HarvestPlus has facilitated the release of 242 crop varieties in 30 countries, whilst commercialisation and food partnerships are well underway in many countries, HarvestPlus needs partners to reach our target of 1 billion consumers by 2030. Partnering with GAIN has been great as they bring new people, new expertise, new experiences and knowledge to the HarvestPlus teams. 

We have learned together from an intensive inception period and built 9 ambitious plans now is the time is for project execution and we have a lot to do.  For example, together with GAIN we are looking for opportunities to provide farmers with access to e-markets and to find the best digital platforms to link all of the biofortified supply chain actors. We were already thinking along these lines and now COVID-19 will accelerate the action. It is unfortunate that Covid-19 will plunge more people into poverty therefore more people will be relying on cheap staples to feed themselves, it is essential that basic staples are nutritious as they can be with higher levels of naturally occurring micronutrients.

We will work together with GAIN in 6 countries, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  These are countries hard hit by malnutrition and hidden hunger and could benefit the most by more nutritious staple foods.


Has this work made you change your mind about anything?

Probably everything.  Looking back over my experience at HarvestPlus I have a different outlook on my work, my career and my approach to daily activities. It is important to stay focused and driven to deliver a long-term project but to have the ability to change your mind about how to get things done.


If you had to have a slogan, or a strapline, for this work, what would it be?

Can I have 2 please?

  • Never give up! Just because things are slow it doesn’t mean it won’t happen
  • Just because something didn’t work in the past it doesn’t mean it won’t work in the future, its all about timing. 


What is your favourite food or meal to share with family or friends?

I love fish and shellfish, and I am really missing going to our favourite fish restaurant but I am enjoying cooking at home more and trying new things.  I like to grow what HarvestPlus works with so I am growing vitamin A maize and beans in my garden at home.  Its Friday and I just made a cheesecake for us all to share with a movie tonight.