PROJECT LIFE
Fighting malnutrition

AFRICA IMPROVED FOODS – AKIJ Kigali, Rwanda

A toddler dances. She wears one shoe, holding the other as she happily sways to imaginary music. Her mother glances at the 1.5-year-old now and again, but her attention – along with that of the other mothers gathered in a little room at the Centre de Santé health facility in the Rulindo district of Rwanda – is on the nurse explaining the importance of proper nourishment for their babies and themselves while pregnant or nursing. The mothers and children in this room are recipients of the fortified porridge made by Africa Improved Foods (AIF) and distributed by the Government of Rwanda to scale up nutrition efforts and combat stunting in the country.

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Fighting malnutrition

A toddler dances. She wears one shoe, holding the other as she happily sways to imaginary music. Her mother glances at the 1.5-year-old now and again, but her attention – along with that of the other mothers gathered in a little room at the Centre de Santé health facility in the Rulindo district of Rwanda – is on the nurse explaining the importance of proper nourishment for their babies and themselves while pregnant or nursing. The mothers and children in this room are recipients of the fortified porridge made by Africa Improved Foods (AIF) and distributed by the Government of Rwanda to scale up nutrition efforts and combat stunting in the country. 

The mothers have brought their babies to be weighed and measured to assess their development progress. When they come for a check-up, they take part in a lesson and then get more of the fortified cereal, which they have also learned to prepare in similar classes. The mothers receive the AIF-made fortified cereal for free as part of the Rwandan Ministry of Health’s Thousand Days program to address the effects of malnutrition, particularly in the critical first 1,000 days of development from conception to age two. 

Finding lasting solutions

The young women keenly listen as a nurse describes how to prevent malnutrition in their babies and themselves. Nourish your own body properly during pregnancy, breastfeed for at least two years, and when your infant is six months old, begin to supplement with the fortified porridge provided by the government. The majority of the women here are among the poorest 20% in the country and lack education, making them especially vulnerable to malnutrition. Added to that is food insecurity, a significant threat in Rwanda. The government haspartnered with AIF to find a lasting solution to both issues.

Despite ongoing efforts, nearly 37% of children under five in Rwanda are affected by stunting, according to the government's 2015 Comprehensive Food Security and Vulnerability Analysis report. Stunting is one consequence of under nutrition, and simply put, it means a child's height is significantly less than the average for their age. However, the complexities of stunting extend far beyond impaired growth to include poor cognitive and organ development, weakened immune systems, and nutrition-related chronic diseases in adulthood. Though the numbers have improved from 43% in 2012 when the last study was made, there is still much to be done, primarily in rural areas, such as Rulindo, where the average is still 40% compared to 27% in urban areas.

Mothers bring their babies to the health center to learn how to prevent malnutrition in their babies and themselves.

Taking action in the first 1,000 days

While the statistics are daunting, stunting can be prevented if the right steps are taken in those first 1,000 days. "We've placed 46 children in the government program at the Centre de Santé. All of them have stunting problems where their height did not match their age," says Jacqueline Urures, head of the health center and a nurse for 15 years. "It will take some time to accurately evaluate, but we can already say that three of them are now in the correct height-age range. We also see that well-nourished children have more energy."

AIF's mission is curbing malnutrition not only in Rwanda but across sub-Saharan Africa, which has been heavily impacted by famine in recent years. The famine is fueled by the worst El Niño event on record. While achieving its mission, AIF is also working to develop a truly sustainable food value chain in Rwanda that it hopes to extend to other countries, including Uganda, eastern Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, in the next five years. "We are happy to be providing relief foods and foods to address malnutrition, but more needs to be done. Our premise is to support African countries so they reach a level where they no longer need international support and can be economically self-sustaining using local capacities," explains AIF CEO,
Amar Ali.

Bühler Service Engineer Alex Ndachi is often on-site to train AIF technicians in the maintenance of machinery.

AIF directly employs 300 people  among them mill operators, who required training to learn how to effectively and safely operate the high-end Bühler-built factory, located in the Kigali Special Economic Zone. The factory has a production capacity of 45,000 metric tons annually. "The need in Africa for the products we produce is extremely high considering the famine in East Africa," Ali says. "We can't afford downtime. We chose Bühler because we wanted a reputable company that knows how to build in Africa and in challenging environments without compromising quality and that will be with us through all the challenges. There have been many challenges, and Bühler has been there as a partner throughout. One of the challenges was finding people to operate the mill. Bühler did that as well, training our people on their equipment in Nairobi."

AIF officially inaugurated its CHF 60 million plant in May 2017, but already in late 2016 had begun manufacturing fortified cereals for its biggest customers – the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Government of Rwanda. From the start of production to the end of 2017, the company had produced 4 million kilograms of fortified cereal for the Rwandan government, and 17 million bags – 26 million kilos – of relief foods for the WFP. The WFP and the Government of Rwanda are not only customers. They are also members of the AIF public-private joint venture, along with Royal DSM (the project initiator), the International Finance Corporation, Dutch development bank FMO, and the UK-based CDC Group. "We could not achieve our mission without the support of the Rwandan government, which is a shareholder, customer, and partner in all ways," says Ali.

"The WFP is our biggest customer. They enable us to build scale and make our products more affordable, and their stringent quality standards give us the opportunity to improve overall standards of production in the country. Together, we sustainably catalyze the eco-system around us with this economic development model."

In the region, for the region

By sourcing the maize and soy for their porridges from nearly 10,000 local smallholder farmers, cutting out the intermediaries, and paying them at the point of pickup, the company is supporting the government's plans to spur agricultural transformation. Agriculture currently contributes to about 33%of Rwanda's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), according to its National Institute of Statistics. It plans to increase this.

Today, about 70% of Rwandans make their living from agriculture. One of them is farmer Vestine Akmanizanye. On her own, the widow cannot handle the planting and harvesting of her 250-square-meter field in the northern province. Thankfully, she doesn't have to. She's a member of the AIF-supported Rulindo district Farmer's Cooperative, which oversees 160 hectares – 1.6 million square meters – of farmland run by 3,300 families. On a hazy, warm morning in September 2017, almost 20 cooperative members have gathered to help Akmanizanye sow maize. "I could not manage it on my own," she explains in Kinyarwanda, the country's national language. Cooperative manager, Thacien Hakizimana, interprets her words into English. "People in the cooperative work together. We work in harmony to help one another," she says.

Each family tends between 100 and 1,500 square meters of land. The majority of them lack access to modern methods of harvesting, processing, and storage. This is where AIF comes in. The consortium collects the maize shortly after harvest and transports it directly to its facilities, where the moisture content is maintained to acceptable levels. "With AIF picking up maize harvests immediately, we have seen a significant reduction of post-harvest loss due to aflatoxin," says Yassin Iyamuremye, Director General of Corporate Services for the country's Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources.

The farmers in the AIF-supported cooperatives are paid at the moment of pickup, an unusual but effective practice. Raising the income of local farmers by sourcing crops from them, as AIF does, improves their livelihoods and creates financial inclusion. "I'm grateful to be in the cooperative and have access to good seeds and fertilizer. Without the middlemen, I get a good price for my crop," says Akmanizanye.

Each family tends between one and 15 Ares (1 Ares is 100 square meters) of land. The majority of them lack access to modern methods for harvesting, processing and storage. This is where AIF comes in. The consortium collects the maize shortly after harvest and transports it directly to its facilities where the moisture content is maintained to acceptable levels. “With AIF picking up maize harvests immediately, we have seen a significant reduction of post-harvest loss due to aflatoxin,” says Yassin Iyamuremye, Director General of Corporate Services for the country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources.

The farmers in the AIF-supported cooperatives are paid at the moment of pick-up, an unusual but effective practice. Raising the income of local farmers by sourcing crops from them, as AIF does, improves their livelihoods and creates financial inclusion. “I am grateful to be in the cooperative. I have access to good seeds and fertilizer. Without the middleman, I get a good price for my crop,” says Akmanizanye.

Cooperative Manager, Thacien Hakizimana, and Cooperative Chairman, Elia Habimana, say AIF has changed the lives of farmers.

Keeping up with growing demand

Just three years ago the government was struggling to find a market for the maize and soy crops produced by small-holder farmers, but it now faces a new issue, explains the Director General, as AIF is currently consuming about 30,000 metric tons of maize a year. "Our next issue is developing a strategy to ensure the raw materials continue to remain available to them. We need to put a system in place to mitigate drought impact and resilience against climate change, and irrigation systems are a big part of this." Cooperatives play a vital role in drought preparedness, Iyamuremye says. "Well-managed cooperatives can make a difference, not only in the lives of individual farmers. They also help the government obtain its goal of increasing agricultural GDP. The cooperatives have a successful 'teach my neighbor' approach."

Elia Habimana, Cooperative Chairman of the Rulindo district, applied for this voluntary position to help fellow farmers actively exchange knowledge. He is respected and viewed as a role model by his peers, explains Cooperative Manager Hakizimana. "It is a lot of work to be the Chairman, but I want to support my government with the sustainable development of farming," Habimana says. "We farmers have learned from the challenge of drought, we are elevating the quality of our harvests, and we are improving our yields. We have benefited 100% from our partnership with AIF."

The investment into the cooperatives has a greater purpose than meeting AIF's production goals, the company's CEO explains. "Worldwide, 80% of farmers are smallholders, and they produce over 80% of the food consumed in the developing world. They have an essential role to play in food security, and with this in mind, we are facing a big problem.

Young people today don't want to take over the smallholder farms of their parents," says Ali. "This has a lot to do with the fact that these farms just haven't paid off in the past. We are trying to solve this because it is part of a bigger picture. The population of Africa is projected to grow at about 100,000 people a day between now and 2050. They need food and jobs, and the world needs smallholder farmers to meet its nutrition needs. AIF can do its part by making rural livelihoods more sustainable."