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

Programme Aims

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

Institutions involved

MillNET_i brings 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 is assessing biofortified pearl millet varieties that have been 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. In Flagship Project 1: GROWTH, we will be looking at the genetic basis for these biofortification traits, and assessing how the biofortified varieties perform 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 will test and validate different meal preparations based on traditional recipes, to identify cooking methods which result in the most bioavailable iron. Selected meals will be 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 will use 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 will focus on enhancing our understanding of existing practices in order to identify potential supply- and demand-side pathway for future interventions.

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



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

Image credit: Pearl millet, supplied by ICRISAT


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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.