NIGER: Is Plumpy-nut ready to grow up?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

A hugely beneficial nutritious snack called Plumpy’nut should be commercially available and marketed much more aggressively if it is to have a significant impact on malnutrition in Niger, according to Steve Collins at the consultancy Valid International in Dublin.

The sole factory in Niger producing the peanut, dried milk, oil and sugar-based snack only makes it available to aid agencies.

Fatima Cissé said it was good business acumen more than humanitarianism that led her to set up a factory turning out the Plumpy’nut snack in a country where over 50 percent of the population can experience serious malnourishment.

“We didn’t even have to do to research and development - we already have the perfect product for fighting malnutrition. We just had to keep replicating it,” she told IRIN in an interview in her office in the Nigerien capital, Niamey.
The factory’s manually-operated production line turns out around 40 tonnes of blended food per month.

The product has massive potential to help the people of Niger (Nigeriens). Malnutrition weakens children’s resistance to germs that cause pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria and measles and to the AIDS virus.

The UN estimates that over 50 percent of the deaths of children under five in Niger are caused by malnutrition, and Plumpy’nut has proven cost-effective and efficient at both preventing and treating the disease. (SEE BOXOUT)

But you cannot buy it in the country’s markets. The factory’s primary clients are currently the UN Children’s Fund and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), according to Cissé, who says the factory saves agencies time and money, as well injecting much-needed innovation and cash into the local economy.

The factory provides around 30 percent of what aid agencies hand out in Niger, with the rest sourced from abroad.

Lack of commercialisation

For Steve Collins the lack of commercialisation is a major flaw.

“Ready to use foods have been available since 1996 but the focus has always been on developing and producing products, not on how to deliver them to people,” he said.

MSF estimates only about 3 percent of children with severe acute malnutrition - around 600,000 - have access to any kind of ready to use food.

According to Collins, the model of aid agencies with foreign-funded distribution projects such as those run by MSF, which has been a strong advocate of the Plumpy’nut product in Niger, need to give way to a more sustainable model of placing the product in the national health system and on the markets.

“It’s a matter first of all of encouraging people to change their behaviours - for example saying if your children get sick, don’t take them to a traditional healer, take them to a health centre,” he said. “Then the Plumpy’nut actually needs to be available in the health system.”

He said people also need to be educated that it is as important what they eat as how much, and that a little of their money spent on highly nutritional products, at the same time as they buy the cereals and grains that traditionally form the staple of the Nigerien diet, will go a long way.

“This is true especially as urbanisation becomes more of an issue in developing countries and people are buying everything they get from markets,” he said.

Bangladesh example

Collins pointed to a US$3 million joint venture in Bangladesh between the French food and beverages multinational Danone and the Grameen Bank, founded by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. The partnership produces and sells nutritionally enriched yogurt.
An example of what Yunus calls a “social business enterprise”, the joint venture seeks profit and social returns.

Milton Tectonidis, head of nutrition at MSF in Paris, said traditional donors have not kept up with the rapid development of ready to use foods.

They still put too much emphasis on traditional therapeutic feeding centres and mass distributions of grain and cereals which are largely inappropriate for children. Nutrition-related projects that do get funding mostly only focus on telling people to just change their behaviour, he reckons.

“For the bottom billion it is impossible for them to meet the requirements of their children with what they have. We can’t just keep on telling them to cook what they don’t have and berating them about breast-feeding while in the West we spend millions of dollars every year on fortification of foods, especially formula milk for children.”

To build demand he said the first step is to show people that it works. “Now we have to work with African governments and nutritionists to make sure we all have a clear message."

Source: IRIN