This month GRET took part in the 3rd International Nutrition and Public Health Congress, held in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Canary Islands). GRET defended the role played by local entrepreneurship in fighting malnutrition in the underdeveloped countries, in particular within public-private partnerships.
Malnutrition and Complementary Foods
Nine million children in the world die before the age of 5 each year, half of them from malnutrition. In most cases, the causes of this malnutrition are the poor quality of complementary foodstuffs in breast milk as well as unsuitable hygiene and healthcare practices. It is difficult for underprivileged families to prepare balanced meals (constraining in terms of time and money, hard to make, food raw materials which are not always available locally, etc.). A market for manufactured complementary food would seem to be a solution.
GRET and the IRD (Institut de recherche pour le développement – Development Research Institute) have devised a mechanism –suited to poor populations ‒ aimed at improving infant diets and which is currently being applied in ten or so underdeveloped countries. It provides for the introduction of good-quality complementary food to be taken in addition to breast milk from when the baby is 6 months old to the age of 2. But there is no question of substitution, since breast milk should be promoted exclusively during the baby’s first six months of life, and should be continued to over the age of 2 in underdeveloped countries. These foodstuffs meet the child’s nutritional requirements and fits in with the dietary habits of the populations; they meet international health standards and are accessible to people with very low incomes. These criteria are practically impossible to find in the underdeveloped countries, which are invaded by the major international brands, even though underprivileged families have little or no access to them. Convinced that producing these foodstuffs locally and marketing them at an affordable price would enable the highest number of children to consume them in greater quantity and for a very long time, GRET is supporting the local private sector to play a role in reducing malnutrition.
Women Entrepreneurs in Burkina Faso
The local private sector in developing countries is able to take up the challenge by using local food raw materials and equipment so as to perfectly provide for local dietary habits and reduce costs, and by making maximum use of its distribution network to cover the local market. This market opens up opportunities for more women to become entrepreneurs. In Burkina Faso and since 2012, GRET – with the support of FIND and the Cartier Charitable Foundation – has been testing a women’s entrepreneurship model involved in distributing a porridge prepared in disadvantaged neighbourhoods of the capital city, Ouagadougou.
As Noélie Ouedraogo, chairwoman of the ASEFF association, explains: “From 4 o’clock in the morning, these businesswomen are up and go to their stalls, they clean the place and begin preparing the porridge. Starting at 5:30 they go out on the road with their carts and bikes to sell what they’ve made. The women in this area generally make their living gathering sand, so it’s a new activity bringing in revenue.” Kindo Maritou, an itinerant vendor from Laafi Benre, says: “I used to work as a vendor at a coffee stall and earned around 7,500 CFA francs. With this activity I can make the double of that, and even go as high as 20,000, which means I can help with the family’s expenses.” But the impact goes beyond the economic aspect. In the words of Sidonie Ouedraogo, who runs a stall in Bissighin on the outskirts of Ouagadougou, she now has a job and a reason to get up in the morning; the inhabitants of the neighbourhood recognise her and people ask her for advice on how to feed their children properly. Sales are rising sharply, but these women still face challenges, chief among them how to make the system self-sustainable and attain a sufficient level of profitability.
Obstacles to the Development of the Local Private Sector
It is not enough to encourage the local private sector. A more favourable environment for mustering the forces able to fight malnutrition needs to be created. This involves raising the awareness of the populations, but also working with the public body on devising public policies which really help to develop the local private sector. GRET has pinpointed the following three main obstacles:
The international donors/funders provide little support – at least this has been the case up to this day – for activities which promote and showcase small businesses.
Confusion with the international debate on promoting foodstuffs to substitute for breast milk. The World Health Organisation (WHO) code prohibits promotion of any foodstuff which can replace breast milk, and more and more countries are passing national decrees to framework this code and make sure it is applied properly. If the complementary foods for breast milk are not concerned in theory, there is regularly confusion between substitute foodstuffs and complementary food. This is so in Myanmar, where a recent law restricts the promotion of substitute foodstuffs for breast milk and complementary food alike. That can block any development of a local offer of manufactured complementary foods.
On the subject of standards, strict quality recommendations and standards exist under the name of Codes Alimentarius, but they are largely unknown, go largely unnoticed and few know how to use them in the developing countries. The national standards frameworking the local production and promotion of this type of foodstuffs are practically nonexistant, and there is no quality guarantee for the consumer on this type of product. In Burkina Faso, GRET has provided support to the government in implementing the first quality standard for infant flours, created on 23 April this year, with stringent demands on nutritional, microbiological and physiochemical quality. It will enable good-quality local products to be certified.
Because the sector fighting malnutrition combines a public health challenge as well as the necessity to bring on board private entrepreneurs, GRET recommends strategies based on public-private partnerships.