The nitroimidazole fexinidazole has potential as a safe and effective oral drug therapy for the treatment of visceral leishmaniasis. To date, nitroheterocyclics have not been used in the treatment of leishmaniasis, and relatively little is known about their mechanism of action. In African trypanosomes, nitro drugs are reductively activated by a type I nitroreductase (NTR), absent in mammalian cells. Modulation of nitroreductase levels in Trypanosoma brucei directly affected sensitivity to nitro compounds, with reduced concentrations of the enzyme leading to moderate nitro drug resistance. In view of the progression of fexinidazole into clinical development for visceral leishmaniasis, here we assess the essentiality of the nitroreductase in Leishmania donovani and the effect of modulating nitroreductase levels on susceptibility to fexinidazole. The failure to directly replace both endogenous copies of the NTR gene, except in the presence of an ectopic copy of the gene, suggests that the NTR gene is essential for the growth and survival of L. donovani promastigotes. Loss of a single chromosomal copy of the L. donovani NTR gene resulted in parasites that were mildly resistant (<2-fold) to the predominant in vivo metabolite of fexinidazole, while parasites overexpressing NTR were 18-fold more susceptible. These data confirm that Leishmania NTR plays a pivotal role in fexinidazole activation. Reliance on a single enzyme for prodrug activation may leave fexinidazole vulnerable to the emergence of drug resistance. However, the essentiality of the NTR in L. donovani promastigotes, combined with the limited resistance shown by NTR single knockout cells, suggests that the potential for the spread of NTR-based resistance to fexinidazole may be limited.