Posted by Esha Chhabra
Tuesday 20 December 2011 05.28 EST
This originally appeared in the Guardian.
As the food crisis in the Horn of Africa continues, so do the campaigns asking for support and donations. Some of the money raised goes on the purchase of ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs), small packets of a sticky, peanut butter-like paste, fortified with minerals and vitamins, that can reverse severe malnutrition within six weeks. Products such as Plumpy’nut.
The vast majority of RUTFs are produced in the US or Europe, bought byaid agencies such as Unicef, and transported great distances to reach those in need. But a small group of social enterprises is questioning this business model, redesigning it with a more local footprint in mind.
Just this month, the Afri-Nut Company in Malawi announced it will begin processing peanuts for export to the UK, under a Fairtrade agreement, to use in sachets of Plumpy’nut.
Encouraging precedents have been set elsewhere. Dr Paul Farmer, a co-founder of the medical group Partners in Health, has been producing RUTFs in Haiti since 2006. This year, in an effort to ramp up production and make it a completely local sustainable enterprise, his organisation teamed up with the Abbott Fund to procure peanuts from local producers. They are processed at a facility operated by 60 Haitians, and distributed to malnourished children in the country. Valid Nutrition, led by humanitarian and nutritionist Steve Collins, has been doing similar work in Malawi, Ethiopia and Kenya, likewise applying a community-based approach to producing RUTFs.
Nonetheless, the current breakdown of RUTF procurements leans towards Europe and North America. Unicef, which buys 70% of all RUTFs globally each year, has typically obtained more than two-thirds of its supply from companies in Europe and the US, not least Nutriset, the pioneering French firm behind the patented Plumpy’nut product. According to its 2010 report, Unicef purchased nearly 930,000 cartons from suppliers in France and the US, in comparison with approximately 300,000 cartons from local sources. Being oil-based, not water-based, these RUTFs have a long shelf life and are resistant to bacteria, making them easy to ship long-distance.
Progress is being made towards more localised solutions, however. In 2010, Unicef certified facilities in nine developing countries, each capable of producing 40,000 megatonnes of RUTFs. But in September, the US international development agency, USAid announced, along with the American Peanut Council, that a trio of US companies – Edesia, Tabatchnick Fine Foods, and MANA Nutrition – would between them produce $4.4m of RUTFs for east Africa. This move, which follows an increase in US RUTF production from virtually zero two years ago to 40,000 megatonnes, could mean continued western dominance.
Collins is rallying behind an alternative model. By sourcing his company’s materials from local farmers, employing locals, and giving agricultural producers a market for their product, he argues that his firm can fight malnutrition while building a marketplace for farming in the African countries where he has already set up franchises. The Malawi plant is currently producing 5m sachets annually, with 75% of ingredients sourced within the country. All the profits the company reaps are reinvested back into the business, which is developing more food products based on other crops such as soya and sorghum that are favourable to the local climate, allow for crop diversification, and, most of all, can be used in RUTFs without the milk powder base, eliminating the need for large quantities of foreign-produced milk powder.
“We are in a time when we can get rid of [famine] altogether. But to do so, we have to focus on the capacity of the people themselves,” says Collins.
He is not alone in trying to create agricultural markets in Africa to avoid future famines. For Andrew Young, CEO and co-founder of One Acre Fund, the ultimate solution rests in the farms as well, which, he says, are not receiving enough support. In Kenya, the organisation provides small farmers with training and access to loans to double their productivity. Their work this year, which has impacted 70,000 farmers, will result in the growth of a grain surplus which can feed an additional 350,000 people for a year.
“Famine is preventable,” says Young. “Every famine should be a blaring red siren, reminding us that we could prevent the next one. Africa has the capacity to be a food supplier to the rest of the world, if only we would invest in agriculture more.”