Project uses community-based approach to improve nutrition for Kenyans

October 22, 2009

By Alyssa Simon

Establishing new initiatives in Kenya is like trying to navigate the country's roads. In preparation for the journey, you map out your route, using a combination of faster-moving major highways and more-direct, small-village roads. However, it is not until you are en route that the clearest path becomes visible.

In July of this year, two faculty members in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences -- Edward Mills, associate professor of dairy and animal science, and Audrey Maretzki, professor emeritus of food science and nutrition -- traveled to Kenya by invitation of Judith Ernst, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Indiana University. Ernst was conducting an ongoing nutrition intervention project in Kenya, examining the effects of adding meat to the diets of HIV-infected women and children.

It had become clear to Ernst that the meat being used (African biltong) was too expensive for the targeted women and children. For these people to maintain access to animal-source foods once the study is completed in 2011, a more sustainable supply was needed. To address the need for locally available, sustainably produced meat-based foods, Maretzki and Mills were called upon for their work with nutribusinesses, community-based enterprises that produce shelf-stable food products.

Nutribusinesses entered the scene in the early 1990s, when Maretzki led a development project in Kenya. The nutribusiness model sought to empower rural women to cooperatively process and market nutritionally superior food products. Maretzki and her colleagues mentored the groups, encouraging the women to assume fiscal and managerial responsibility for the project, while using their professional expertise to guide the cooperative toward the production of a more nutritionally complete food.

The initial product was an infant-weaning food, based on the traditional millet porridge, ugi. Unfortunately, although filling, conventional ugi lacked many of the essential nutrients needed for physical and cognitive development in children. Thus "Operation Healthy Ugi" commenced, with the mission of modifying the Kenyan staple using local crops to deliver optimal nourishment, while staying within the scope of a traditional weaning food.

A new generation of nutribusinesses is now being envisioned, informed by studies showing that the addition of even a small amount of meat to the diets of children improves their cognitive and physical development. But the introduction of meat into the nutribusiness production system makes the goal of generating shelf-stable products considerably more difficult.

Sanitation is a major concern when processing raw meat, especially in a low-tech environment. That's where Mills' expertise in making meat products safely comes in. Mills and his graduate student, Stephen Kieras, took on the challenge of safely producing animal-source foods within the constraints existing in rural Africa. After many trials, they unveiled their creation, the "Chiparoo." The unique process for making Chiparoos met the criteria of destroying pathogens, using local ingredients and employing available technologies.

"When creating the first nutribusinesses," recounted Maretzki, "we started by asking the women, 'How do you traditionally feed your children?' Rather than assuming we knew more about how to raise children than Kenyan mothers did, we listened, learned and worked within their system."

The Chiparoo, as designed by Mills and Kieras, began with a similar question: What is already available in the area? Comprised of a combination of any meat and grain meal or starch, the possible combinations for creating a Chiparoo are infinite, allowing for community and regional differences.

Both the conception of Chiparoos and the process of setting up a nutribusiness represent a shift in the ideology of international work, according to the researchers. A nutribusiness, they contend, avoids the problem of developing a "project mentality," in which participants consent to, but do not invest in, the enterprise. Thus, from start to finish, the project remains someone else's vision. The new approach values inclusion rather than intrusion, and through its encouragement of collaboration among diverse disciplines and points of view, an appreciation of both traditional and Western knowledge becomes possible.

So, with a bag of laboratory-produced Chiparoos in one hand and a list of contacts in the other, pioneers Maretzki and Mills set off to explore the next African frontier, seeking to understand the lessons of past nutribusinesses, to find possible sites for new ventures and to meet with potential in-country leaders to champion the Chiparoo concept.

As hoped, once on the ground and attending meetings with academic counterparts, local, national and international organizations, and microfinance lenders, the dust began to settle and the landscape became more visible. Some discussions proved more promising than others, but many of the groups they spoke with wanted to jump on board immediately.

One discussion in particular, at Egerton University, provided precious insight. Maretzki described her work and interest in indigenous knowledge, then opened the floor to anyone willing to share ideas on the topic. A lively conversation ensued. Each person had a personal story of how his or her tribe viewed certain foods. Some foods are taboo; others are believed to be extremely nutritious. Some traditional practices were rooted in superstition, while others were established through centuries of experience living off the land.

One man explained that in his tribe, fish were considered lizards. "I took a few home but I was not allowed to take them into the house, because taking lizards into the house was the most senseless thing you could do," he said. The assumption made back in the Meats Lab at Penn State -- that Kenyans who live near Lake Victoria would easily produce and consume fish-based Chiparoos -- was not necessarily accurate.

Traditional knowledge and tribal taboos are often in conflict with Western suppositions, making local experience invaluable. Clearing communication pathways is the first step, using them is the second. "In Kenya," explained Alex Kirui, director of Heifer International in Kenya, "people take your advice only after they know you are a true friend."

Working from this new approach is as intricate as it is rewarding. Human interaction and behavior are complex and unpredictable. Issues of tribal differences, gender roles and trust tear at the fabric of cooperatives. Testing product formulations in the Penn State Meats Lab will continue to be an integral part of the next wave of nutribusinesses. However, Mills would be the first to admit that the logic of scientific reasoning often does not apply out in the field.

Reflecting on past and present experiences, Maretzki sighed with a smile and conceded, "The product is the easiest part."

  • Ed Mills, associate professor of dairy and animal science at Penn State (kneeling, with hat), and Audrey Maretzki, professor emeritus of food science and nutrition (standing, second from right), listen as a member of the Lake Victoria Fish Council in Kenya explains the processing of omena fish, a possible ingredient for Chiparoos.

    IMAGE: Alyssa Simon
Last Updated November 18, 2010