This is an interview I recently did for Dowser.org
When famines break out, thousands of families are given ready-to-eat food products, generally made of a peanut base to fight malnourishment. Ever wonder where they’re made? Turns out a vast majority come from Europe and the US. That’s usually a long haul.
And that’s what prompted Steve Collins, a doctor by training and long-time humanitarian, to build Valid Nutrition, a social business that is transplanting the production of these peanut-base pastes to local centers in Africa. Valid Nutrition is a natural extension of Collin’s for-profit consultancy, Valid International. From Dublin, Collins tells us about his work in famine relief and his new projects in Africa.
Dowser: How many operations do you have in Africa and what stage are they in?
Collins: We’re working in Malawi, Kenya, Zambia, and Ethiopia. Vital works with partners on the ground to distribute the product. While the majority of these Ready-To-Use (RUF) Therapeutic foods- that’s what they’re called, are peanut-based, we are experimenting with a few others, including one that’s made of chickpeas. The focus though is to make them as local as possible.
What propelled you to build this social business?
I’ve been working in this field since 1985. Before, the approach to treating malnourishment was through hospitals and clinics, which was an intensive treatment, costly, and difficult for most families as they had to travel long distances to get help. So, after working on famines in Africa and seeing this model at work for years, I tested out a new technology that would localize malnourishment, making it more community-based.
In 2000, we did a pilot that illustrated with strong data that a community-based approach was much more effective. In 2005, the UN accepted it and in 2007, they endorsed it officially, deploying it in 55 countries.
We were able to show them that the older model only treated around 10% of malnourished individuals. The new model treated 70%. So, it was a paradigm shift.
How does the community-based approach work and what gives it an upper-hand?
Rather than clinics and hospitals, we try to get as close to the family homes as possible. Sometimes that means a mobile post. But with a community-based approach, the families can start addressing malnourishment early on. The RUF packets can be used at home early on to prevent it from getting worse. If malnourishment gets worse, say if you’re waiting to get treatment in a clinic or can’t reach it, then it attacks the immune system of children. That’s hard to reverse and requires more intensive treatment. So, the community-based approach is not only cost-effective but preventive, tackling the problem before it becomes severe.
As you mentioned, you’ve been working in famine relief since 1985, what changes have you seen?
The aid still generally arrives too late. I remember working on the famine that struck Ethiopia and Sudan in the 80s and it arrived too late then also. But what’s changed is that we’ve become more proactive, the accountability is better, the community-based approach has been implemented; so there have been huge improvements. But the media is still important; they help get the story out. And we’ve seen that here as well with Somalia. They help get donations from individuals by telling the story.
Have you worked elsewhere, outside the African continent?
Yes, we’ve worked in 35 countries around the world. Valid International, which is the other arm of what I do, offers consultancy services. We advise development agencies on how to implement the community-based approach. And that’s a global operation whereas Valid Nutrition just has operations in Africa at the moment.
For Valid Nutrition, the social business, you’ve become an Ashoka fellow. How has that experience been? How have they helped?
The whole concept of social enterprise has been a breath of fresh air. We’ve been operating as a not-for-profit. So any money that comes in, we put it back into the business. Helps keep it going. The aim is to be completely self-sustaining by 2013.
Looking beyond 2013, what are you hoping to achieve with Vital Nutrition?
We want to develop a truly ethical organization that lets small land holders and farmers utilize their crop to help those locally and make a cutting-edge, commercially-based organization that can treat malnourishment. The working capital has been the hardest bit for us, that is you need a profit element. So, we’ll be working on that in the coming days. But this will certainly change the way we address malnourishment and putting in a more local setting.