The Sticky Challenge Facing Africa

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

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.

Source: The Guardian (link opens in a new window)