The Simplest of Meals Could Help People Eat Better and Earn More in East Africa

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture is working with smallholder farmers in Kenya and Uganda to develop a nutrition-packed porridge product.
(Photo: Thomas Imo/Getty Images)
Apr 23, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Processed meal replacements like Slim Fast or Soylent have long been enjoyed—or, rather, used—in the United States and Western Europe. In developed nations, these “meals” are used to diet, save time, or, for some, opt out of the social and cultural practices of cooking and sharing meals. They’re sustenance, but they’re a luxury in their own right as well. In developing countries like Uganda and Kenya, however, an affordable, easy-to-eat meal replacement could both improve public health and generate income for smallholder farmers.

In April, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture launched a three-year research program to develop such a product in the form of porridge. The early stages will target women of reproductive age and young children in Uganda and Kenya, but ultimately the hope is that this product will become available for the mass market.

While the population in Kenya has tripled over the last 35 years, nearly half the population lives in poverty, according to USAID. In Uganda, the poverty rate declined from 56 percent to 22 percent between 1992 and 2002. Yet pockets of high poverty remain in the country, mostly concentrated in the north. Overall, agriculture employs two-thirds of the population but generates only 25 percent of the country’s GDP.

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In these countries, porridge is “considered a weaning food for children and a meal for adults,” said Mercy Lung’aho, a nutritionist at CIAT in Kenya. Currently, porridge is often made from either a single grain or cooked vegetables or fruits. According to Lung’aho, the way porridge is mixed together makes it easy to enrich its nutritional value by blending various flours into the recipe—cereals, legumes, or even vegetables. The plan is to put at least four different food groups into a mass-marketed, premixed porridge, increasing nutrient and food diversity, according to Lung’aho.

But creating a recipe for porridge is the easy part. To bring the product to market and enlist smallholder farmers as suppliers, CIAT has to investigate the shortcomings of the entire food chain in both countries. Despite so much of the population being involved in agriculture, the size of farms and the developing infrastructure of countries like Kenya and Uganda have led to underdeveloped food-distribution chains, Lung’aho said. She added that the only way for individual farmers to overcome these gaps is with significant (and expensive) upgrades.

For example, food processors in East Africa do not buy many crops from rural farmers in the region. Researchers hope to make the flow of goods easier by focusing on points of congestion, replacing electric processing of staple crops like beans with energy-efficient, low-cost solar drying technology, for example. There’s still a lot of research to be done, but overall the project seems to be taking a two-pronged approach to helping smallholder farmers: developing and distributing upgrades like solar-drying equipment directly to farmers and working with food processors to encourage long-term contracts with smallholders.

Another notable challenge is getting the finished product to consumers who need it most. In Africa, 35 percent of all people live on $1 a day or less, and Lung’aho said nearly two-thirds of those people are in rural areas. Such customers are costly to serve in countries without developed infrastructure and distribution chains. “They are often geographically dispersed and heterogeneous in their [food] preference,” Lung’aho explained. These are customers who require cheap goods that are, by virtue of their location, expensive to supply. In the past, companies have attempted to repackage cheaper versions of existing products to sell to low-income consumers. Rather than reformulating entire products, this often consisted of reducing the size of a package. Rather than getting one pound of prepackaged maize for $2, people could purchase a quarter of a pound for 50 cents. “In many cases, these products did not achieve corporate targets and were discontinued,” Lung’aho said.

If the project is ultimately successful, the porridge—as well as the income it will generate for smallholder farmers—could provide enormous long-term benefits to low-income people in Kenya and Uganda. Today, developing and selling these products is more of a social good than a sound business investment.

As Lung’aho said, “it takes time, money, and long-term vision to make this shift, and there are no guarantees that the product line or ideas will be sustainable or profitable.”