From food aid to nutritious, locally produced food: A look at fortifying flour in Ethiopia

A girl from the Suri tribe in Ethiopia carrying a calabash with corn flour. Photo by: Dietmar Temps / CC BY-NC-SA

Right now in Ethiopia, nearly half of all children under the age of 5 are stunted and anemic. Not only are they short for their age, but they also suffer from diminished cognitive abilities and are more vulnerable to health problems overall.

According to the World Food Program, stunted children are more likely to repeat grades in school and achieve, on average, a year less schooling than other children. Nearly one third of child mortality in Ethiopia is associated with undernutrition.

The economic impact is immediately apparent: a less prepared, smaller adult workforce and an annual hit to Ethiopia’s GDP estimated at $450 million. A weakened economy only feeds back into the vicious cycle; fewer internal resources are available to feed the population and invest in economic development.

At Partners in Food Solutions, however, we like to see that vicious cycle as a potentially virtuous cycle. When you turn it around, it means that better nutrition and sustained food security can drive economic growth. One crucial, but often overlooked, component of better nutrition is the fortification of basic foodstuffs.

In Ethiopia and throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, food insecurity is often coupled with lower-quality food — an unvaried diet low in micronutrients. Wheat and other grains make up about two thirds of Ethiopians’ calorie intake, but until very recently, not a single food processor in the country was fortifying flour.

That recently changed. ASTCO, a growing milling business based in Addis Ababa, has become the first company in Ethiopia to produce fortified flour. The impact on the health of the population and the strength of the Ethiopian economy could be immense, as 19 more millers may soon be part of a network of outlets making fortified products available to customers throughout the country.

ASTCO and hundreds of small and growing food processors in Africa are clients of Partners in Food Solutions. These entrepreneurs are building profitable businesses that can raise living standards in their communities by enabling them to buy more crops from local farmers, hire more workers and provide higher-quality, less expensive food. To maximize the opportunity, many processors are looking for technical and business counsel. In ASTCO’s case, that meant establishing a process to fortify its flour.

That is where Partners in Food Solutions comes in. We connect professionals at multinational food companies, including Royal DSM, the world’s leader in micronutrients, with businesses like ASTCO. Then we make it possible for these volunteers to reach across the globe without ever leaving their offices or labs. They use email, Skype and our cloud-based software to connect with businesses in Africa. This is remote knowledge transfer. We’re not sending money or food; we’re not using finite resources to send volunteers over to do the work; we’re sending our knowledge and skills — resources that only multiply as you share them.

In partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the African Alliance for Improved Food Processing, Partners in Food Solutions and partner TechnoServe are currently working with 20 Ethiopian food processors on fortification. But, thanks to the on-the-ground expertise of TechnoServe, we know that the vast majority of Ethiopians in rural areas can’t buy flour and processed products from these producers. Instead, they eat grains ground to order by thousands of tiny traditional hammer-and-stone milling shops.

Nutritional deficiencies during pregnancy and the first two years of life can’t be reversed, but they can be prevented. ASTCO and other African food companies have the will to reverse the trend so that in the future, two thirds of all Ethiopian adults need not have suffered from stunted growth as children. The food companies we assist are eager to see a healthy, happy population and a thriving economy, and they are eager to succeed as businesses in their own right.

Want to learn more? Check out Feeding Development's campaign site and tweet us using #FeedingDev.

Feeding Development is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with ACDI/VOCA, Chemonics, Fintrac, GAIN, Nestlé and Tetra Tech to reimagine solutions for a food-secure future from seed and soil to a healthy meal.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Jeff Dykstra

    Jeff is the CEO of Partners in Food Solutions. Jeff's career has included numerous business development, marketing and communication roles at both large, global organizations like Cargill and World Vision as well as at several smaller start-up ventures. He spent half his career in business and the other half in relief and development, leading to a unique and practical understanding of how each of these sectors can benefit from the other and accomplish more together than apart.

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