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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

MillNET_i: Millets and Nutritional Enhancement Traits for Iron bioavailability, a UKRI GCRF programme on biofortified millets in Ethiopia and The Gambia.

About the programme

MillNET_i was funded by a UKRI GCRF award, 'Food & nutrition research for health in the developing world: bioavailability & nutrient content', via the BBSRC. It was a two-year programme running from April 2019 to March 2021.

Programme Aims

The aim of the project was to improve iron nutrition status of people living in Ethiopia and The Gambia by assessing the bioavailability of iron from biofortified millet. The project's multidisciplinary team was made up of experts from the fields of crop genetics, nutrition, social science and knowledge exchange. Their ultimate aim was to optimise the availability of iron in food prepared from biofortified millet.

Institutions involved

MillNET_i brought together a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Cambridge (Departments of Plant SciencesDevelopment StudiesMRC Bone Health group,  the Global Food Security IRC, the Cambridge Global Challenges SRI and the Cambridge-Africa Initiative), the Centre for Global EqualityNIAB, NIAB Innovation FarmMRC The GambiaBahir Dar University (Ethiopia) and ICRISAT (India, Ethiopia, Malawi),  King's College London, and Rothamsted Research, working with partner institutions JeCCDO and HarvestPlus.



Millets are easy to grow, resilient to climate change and naturally rich in micronutrients. Traditionally, millets are consumed in Ethiopia and The Gambia, however recently preferences have shifted towards polished rice and other less nutritious foods.

Iron deficiency and Anaemia

Iron deficiency is very common in Ethiopia and The Gambia, where it often causes iron deficiency anaemia (IDA). Symptoms include fatigue, reduction of growth and development in children and more serious issues such as poor pregnancy outcomes, including maternal death. 

Addressing iron deficiency

There are existing intervention programmes that aim to address iron deficiency in Ethiopia and The Gambia. These programmes include the introduction of fortified foods that are artificially enriched in micronutrients, such as cooking oil and wheat flour that contain added iron and zinc.

The MillNETi approach

MillNET_i assessed biofortified pearl millet varieties bred by partners at ICRISAT and HarvestPlus to have higher levels of iron and zinc. These varieties can be grown by local farmers and processed to flour and grains for food preparation. Flagship Project 1: GROWTH looked at the genetic basis for these biofortification traits, and assessed how the biofortified varieties performed in different field conditions.

Iron (and zinc) in grains is usually attached to the natural compound phytate, forming a strong complex bond, which makes it difficult to digest. By activating the natural phytase enzyme, iron can be released so it can be taken up in the bloodstream after ingestion. Phytase can be activated by fermentation, soaking and some other traditional cooking methods.

To optimise the availability of the natural iron, the teams in Ethiopia and The Gambia tested different meal preparations based on traditional recipes, to identify cooking methods which result in the most bioavailable iron. Selected meals were validated in vitro using a cell system model and in human nutrition trials (Flagship Project 2: BIOAVAILABILITY and Flagship Project 3: PROCESSING).

Social scientists in FP3 used quantitative and qualitative surveys to understand how millets are currently grown, processed, cooked and consumed in focus villages in The Gambia and Ethiopia. This work focussed on enhancing our understanding of existing practices in order to identify potential supply- and demand-side pathway for future interventions.

Flagship Project 4: EXTENSION worked with local communities in Ethiopia and The Gambia to disseminate the knowledge generated from our research. In Ethiopia they worked closely with JeCCDo to build capacity through community-based organisations. Discussions of the nutritional benefits of millets and optimal preparation methods of biofortified millet were facilitated in both Ethiopia and The Gambia.


The MillNET_i Programme held a Final Symposium in September 2021.

Please find the programme HERE.

Please find contributor biographies HERE.




Professor Howard Griffiths (Lead PI)

University of Cambridge, Department of Plant Sciences

Joanna Wolstenholme (Programme Manager)

University of Cambridge, Department of Plant Sciences

Flagship Project 1: GROWTH

Dr Alison Bentley (FP1 Lead)


Dr Stéphanie Swarbreck


Dr Tilahun Amede  (FP1 co-lead)

ICRISAT Ethiopia

Dr Anthony Whitbread


Dr Rajeev Gupta


Dr Prakash Rangashetty


Professor Peter Shewry

Rothamsted Research

Dr Binu Cherian


Flagship Project 2: BIOAVAILABILITY  

Dr Carla Cerami (FP2 Lead)

MRC The Gambia

Professor Andrew Prentice 

MRC The Gambia

Dr Momdou Wuri Jallow

MRC The Gambia

Professor Paul Sharp

King's College London

Dr Mohamad Farshard Aslam

King's College London

Dr Wanjiku Gichohi (also FP3 and FP4)


Flagship Project 3: PROCESSING

Dr Shailaja Fennell (FP3 Lead) (also FP4)

University of Cambridge Development Studies

Dr Hirut Asaye (FP3 co-lead) (and FP2)

Bahir Dar University

Dr Minaleshewa Atlabachew (FP3 co-lead)

Bahir Dar University

Tadesse Fenta

Bahir Dar University

Helen Walle

Bahir Dar University

Dr Richard Sidebottom

University of Cambridge Development Studies

Dr Sarah Dalzell (also FP4)

MRC Nutrition and Bone Health Research Group, and honorary visiting worker at the University of Cambridge

Dr Lydia Smith

NIAB Innovation Farm

Flagship Project 4: EXTENSION

Dr Lara Allen (FP4 Lead)

Centre for Global Equality

Mulugeta Gebru


Francesca Re Manning

Cambridge Global Food Security IRC

Corinna Alberg


Dr Sara Serradas Duarte

Cambridge Global Challenges SRI

Other programmes under this scheme

Child Health, Agriculture and Integrated Nutrition (CHAIN): a randomized trial to close the nutrient gap in rural Zimbabwe Andrew Prendergast Queen Mary University of London
Enhancing cobalamin (vitamin B12) bioavailability in culturally appropriate foods in India Martin Warren University of Kent
Biofortification with Zinc and Iron for Eliminating Deficiency in Pakistan (BiZIFED2) Nicola Lowe University of Central Lancashire
Evaluating iron and zinc bioavailability from biofortified potatoes to reduce malnutrition in the Andean highlands Richard Mithen Quadram Institute Bioscience


The MillNET_i Programme held a Final Symposium in September 2021.

Please find the programme HERE.

Please find contributor biographies HERE.


March 2022

Key Findings from the MillNET_i Programme: 

The restrictions in travel, lab access, and community engagement have severely delayed our research plans, but much of the original research programme has now been completed and key findings are being disseminated. However, our Ethiopian partners at Bahir Dar University (BDU) have some interesting results from focus groups which they have run in two rural millet-consuming communities in northern Ethiopia. They have found, to their surprise, that rather than making injera (a fermented pancake and staple food) with teff, which is the normal grain to use, both communities were using either solely millet and maize, or a mix of teff, millet and maize. This is because teff is too expensive for these communities to consume. Despite the non-standard grains being used, the resulting injera still has a desirable taste and mouth feel. The BDU team are now carrying out further lab work to assess the nutritional content of each of these different injera recipes, and quantify how changing the length of fermentation may affect the bioavailability of iron and other micronutrients. 

Researchers pivoted their approaches and included an additional survey on the impact of the Covid restrictions on dietary intake in The Gambia. We were unable to deliver the in person training that had been envisaged as a joint workshop at the MRC unit, The Gambia for researchers from Bahir Dar University, run by colleagues in King's College London. Instead, we were able to reallocate funds to support the researcher in KCL to provide extended analytical services and prepare video documentation of the tissue culture methodology and processing to assess micronutrient recovery. 

The study to monitor iron availability by females in The Gambia was delayed but has now taken place. Household surveys were successfully completed in The Gambia and in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia a curriculum for community nutrition workshops was developed on food preparation, with a focus on lactating women and babies. A five day Training-of-Trainers capacity building workshop was followed by the training of community members. 

Finally, and most importantly, we were able to reallocate funds for travel to purchase laboratory equipment and ship this to Ethiopia. This represents a huge advance for our colleagues in Bahir Dar University, who now have a state of the art analytical facility, including resources to undertake tissue culture and prepare samples for micronutrient analysis, as well as undertaking data analysis using workstations. 

Field studies on the performance of varieties of Millet were also undertaken by our colleagues in ICRISAT. Laboratory studies provided novel insights into the localisation of iron within the developing seed, and will provide the basis for understanding the process by which biofortification occurs. A major new open source app (Gibsonify) was developed by colleagues at the Centre for Global Equality and ICRISAT (in collaboration with our partner programme TIGR2ESS and the Department of Engineering) as a means to survey dietary and nutrient intake by rural communities.

Narrative Impact

The connections and ideas built through the MillNETi team have led to a number of novel grant applications being submitted. At least 7 grant applications have been submitted from members of the consortium in this submission period, mostly still pending feedback, all of which capitalised on novel connections enabled through the MillNETi programme.

The disruption caused by the travel restrictions posed by the pandemic has led to research plans having to be adapted in creative ways, which has led to a number of positive non-academic impacts. 

In The Gambia, the survey work that was due to be carried out by two British researchers has now been adapted to a telephone survey. In order to facilitate this, a novel process for remotely gathering consent from participants has been developed, which was new to the MRC Unit in The Gambia (MRC G). This remote consent process will now be used to facilitate other remote survey work at the institute. In addition, survey facilitators at MRC G, who are used to gathering demographic and medical data, have been newly trained in the social science research methods required to carry out this more varied survey.

Training on how to conduct Caco-2 cell bioavailability analysis was due to take place for both the Gambian and Ethiopian teams in The Gambia in July 2020, with a postdoc from KCL travelling there to run the training. This has had to be replanned with the current travel restrictions, and instead we have shipped key pieces of equipment out to our partners in Ethiopia, to allow them to set up their own biolab. The KCL postdoc has also created extensive video training materials. These resources will enable a much longer term impact than the previous plan, with the Bahir Dar University (Ethiopian) team now being able to run the analysis in their own labs well past the end of the MillNETi project. The video training materials will also enable a ‘train the trainer’ model to upskill current and future staff at both BDU and MRC G. 

We have been able to leverage connections and contacts from both TIGR2ESS and MillNETi to foster South-South links for knowledge exchange, and potential future projects. This was kickstarted with Hirut Assaye Cherie and Helen Walle from Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia, travelling to ICRISAT, India, for the TIGR2ESS General Assembly in January 2020, where they met a number of Indian partners and shared knowledge and ideas for future projects. Inspiration from ICRISAT’s entrepreneurial approach to agri-processing contributed to a successful proposal to establish an agri entrepreneurship facility in BDU’s Agricultural Faculty. BDU are particularly interested in developing novel millet products to kickstart entrepreneurial projects, and so they were particularly inspired by the wide range of millet products and entrepreneurial schemes around millets that are developing out of ICRISAT. Through MillNETi, the BDU team subsequently developed recipes for millet cake and cookies and are in the process of sharing these with local baking businesses. There we also met with Rebecca Fairbairn of UKRI India who encouraged further development of these South-South connections. Subsequent meetings between partners, and between the management team and DFID/FCDO India, have continued to set the groundwork for South-South connections between MillNETi and TIGR2ESS partners, and we are hopeful that these will lead to future workshops, entrepreneurial exchanges and project proposals.

The Innovation Communities programme run by the Centre for Global Equality in Ethiopia to empower women farmers through establishing and capacity building Self Help Groups in two rural communities has successfully improved the livelihoods and nutrition of 160 women (8 Self Help Groups) and their households. 

A major two-day workshop programme was organised in September 2021 through an on-line portal co-ordinated by Venue Audo Visual Ltd, Cambridge. This included a number of pre-recorded and live presentations to stakeholders, and included breakout poster sessions and panel discussions. Subsequent meetings have been held with HarvestPlus to determine follow up actions to develop the use of biofortified millets, their processing to ensure maximum bioavailability, and engagement and training needed in rural communities to disseminate these findings (informed by social science quantitative surveys undertaken during the research). The research was also represented at a major Festival of Millets hosted by the MRC Unit, and made a major contribution to translating our activities via community engagement. 

Image credit: Pearl millet, supplied by ICRISAT


Global food security is a major research priority for UK and international science.

Cambridge Global Food Security is a virtual centre at the University of Cambridge. We promote an interdisciplinary approach to addressing the challenge of ensuring all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy life. 

Please contact the Programme Manager D.ssa Francesca Re Manning to request information, share information, or join our mailing list.