Localizing Food Aid

Today, National Public Radio (NPR) featured a story on the challenges of manufacturing ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs) in the contexts in which they are distributed.

One of my first projects at Hagar in Cambodia was to work alongside the General Manager of Hagar Soya Co., Ltd. and Nutriset to develop a plan to produce PlumpyNut (the fortified peanut paste used for malnutrition) in Hagar’s factory.  Initial tests of the original PlumpNut product in Cambodia had mixed results, primarily around the taste and texture.  More importantly, without careful directions and check-ins from a medical professional, research indicated that the product was often misused.

Our nutritionist came up a product that matched local tastes and could easily be used as a supplement to bobor (a watery rice porridge commonly fed to children from as early as 4-6 months old and onwards).  Alone, the rice porridge had very limited nutritional value.  With a low-cost, simple stir-in supplement. the porridge was heavily fortified.  The recipe could be tweaked depending on the nutritional need of the target beneficiary, opening up the opportunity to commercialize a more mainstream product and subsidize the emergency RUTF for severe malnutrition.

Unfortunately, the 2008 financial crisis forced Hagar’s social enterprise arm to divest Hagar Soya Co. before the plans could come to fruition.  However, I believe that the strategy to develop a product mix including aid and commercialized products has potential.  I believe there are three primary benefits:

  1. Increased Quantities of Raw Materials – A diverse product range should increase the need for raw materials.  Besides supporting local farmers, a consistent stream of revenue allows farmers to apply for microloans to invest in their farms (or loans from the socially-minded manufacturer). As well, consistent higher quantities should allow farmers to offer more competitive pricing.
  2. Wider Social Impact – Severe malnutrition is not as severe in Cambodia as other parts of the world.  However, stunting (reduced growth rate due to childhood malnutrition) continues to be a major issue.  A manufacturer can develop a range of products that address different public health issues.  These can be distributed and sold via a variety of aid and commercial channels.
  3. Localized Product Innovation – Localized R&D and production allows for a manufacturer to develop appropriate products and respond quickly to other opportunities.  If a manufacturer’s mission is narrowly focused (e.g. on one product), it may disregard opportunities to drive both social and financial value.

I want to be clear that I am not recommending that this strategy is the best option or appropriate in Haiti.  I do think, though, that it has potential and warrants further investigation.  If anyone has research or case studies regarding a similar approach, please share it in the comments.

~ by responsiblenomad on October 5, 2012.

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