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Nuts to the rescue: Hunger and starvation as business o...

Business Maverick

Africa, South Africa, Business Maverick

Nuts to the rescue: Hunger and starvation as business opportunities

If there is a state all human beings understand it is that of hunger. While those of us with the means and access to food often glibly remark “I'm starving”, there are millions in the world who literally are and who find themselves in regions where food security, due to a variety of environmental, political and socio-economic issues, is critical or non existent. This month a food producer accredited by the United Nations Children's Fund, a partnership between Norway and South Africa, officially opened in Cape Town, revealing that while hunger make take from some, it gives to others. By MARIANNE THAMM.

There are regions of the World Food Programme (WFP) Hunger Map 2015, the bulk of them in Africa that are coloured light grey. The legend accompanying the map explains this indicates that there is “missing or insufficient” data available for these areas and those who live and die there.

Countries in this grey, unchartered limbo include Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The bulk of countries marked in red on the map – indicating a ‘high’ prevalence of hunger – are also located in Africa. These are Chad, Ethiopia, Liberia, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

The WFP has found that Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence of hunger, with one in four people undernourished. Annually, 1-million children die of malnutrition.

On the map, South Africa finds itself in the comfortable ‘very low <5%’ lime green zone, along with the whole of Western Europe, Russia, North America, South America and Australia. This might be a position open to debate as there are high levels of malnutrition and hunger in South Africa. And perhaps finding ourselves in the easy lime green zone may blind us to the fact that 12-million people in the country, according to a University of Cape Town African Food Security Unit Network study, live in extreme poverty and go to bed hungry every night.

The government, of course, is aware of this and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has drafted a National Policy of Food and Nutrition Security aimed at improving nutritional safety nets by state, private and the nongovernmental sectors, providing nutritional education, managing food security risks and cultivating better market participation for emerging farmers.

There are of course places in the world where there is no government intervention and where ‘government’ might very well be part of the problem. The provision of food aid and emergency sustenance to the wretched and suffering of the earth is a critical matter and Norwegian-based company GC Rieber Compact has been supplying ‘high quality’ food for disaster relief, special dietary programmes as well as humanitarian relief by United Nations (UN) agencies, nongovernmental organisations and governmental organisations as well as the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), Doctors Without Borders and the World Food Programme since its establishment in 1948.

That there should be a solid ‘business’ opportunity in the provision and supply of emergency relief points to the uncomfortable but perhaps necessary psychological splitting and compartmentalisation of exactly why it is that some people go hungry or starve to death in the world while others are in a position to mindlessly discard perfectly good food in the trash.

A single entry point or solution into the ideological, political and ethical concerns and the impact of the corporatisation and commodification of food is almost impossible. Everything around food appears to happen in silos. The rich North vs the poor South angle. The fact that there are more obese and undernourished people in the world than those actually starving, while over in the make-believe world of reality television, food shows have grown in popularity. Add to this questions of the detrimental health consequences of processed food, fast food, genetically modified organisms, sugar and carbohydrate addictions.

But for those who have no food, these debates are meaningless. Which is where companies like GC Rieber Compact step in to offer, at least, a temporary solution in critical situations that might hopefully lead to a way out for some.

Speaking at the opening of the South Africa factory, located in Capricorn Park, Cape Town, and a joint venture between GC Rieber Compact and South African shareholders – Guy Baxter and Pan-African Private Capital Holdings – Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille highlighted not the humanitarian nature of the need to rally around those who were starving, but the business opportunities the partnership had created.

As a local politician it is understandable that De Lille would want to encourage investment in the region, create jobs (21 have been secured at the new venture and breadwinners can feed their families as a result) and forge new partnerships regardless of the nature of this business.

One of the City of Cape Town’s strategic objectives is to build an opportunity city and we have escalated our efforts to create the economically enabling conditions that will allow businesses to thrive, which in turn will attract more investment and ultimately create jobs … Our vision is to act as a gateway into Africa and becoming a melting point for East and West, North and South – that we create new markets in Africa. This is our vision and we want to work with stakeholders to ensure that we make progress possible together.”

Zilch, nada, nothing on hunger and malnutrition, the dying, those in need. This speaks of course to the hermetic myopia of many local politicians, preoccupied and consumed with the day-to-day matters of running a city. This is the difference between being a politician connected to the greater mass of humanity and a mere political administrator.

It was left to the Norwegian ambassador to South Africa, Trine Skymoen, to touch on why exactly all of us were sitting at the launch with a small, squishy foil packet of nut paste in our hands.

Even more heartening is that while this business partnership brings economic benefits to both South Africa and Norway, it also tackles the global challenge of child malnutrition, which is a matter of grave concern to us all as citizens of the world,” she said.

And in that moment, the potential recipient of the eeZeePaste Nut ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) supplement joined the gathering under the tarpaulin in the spring sunshine at the factory’s new premises.

Guy Baxter, CEO of GC Rieber Compact South Africa (GCRCSA), said the multimillion-rand project could produce around 3,000 metric tons of paste products per year and that the Cape Town facility was also close to critical areas, making it easier to ship supplies. Last month Unicef had ordered supplies from the Cape Town factory to be delivered in North Korea.

At present there are plans to extend the warehousing facility of the factory to a neighbouring property. GCRCSA has tendered to provide the supplement to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Cape Town factory could be defined, according to Action Contre la Faim International (ACF), as a ‘national level producer’ which relies on large-scale machinery and skilled staff to meet the international standards set by the UN in 2007. Ingredients for the paste are not locally sourced.

The product is a ready-to-use therapeutic food used in the management of severe acute malnutrition of children over six months. It contains roasted peanuts, skimmed milk powder, sugar, vegetable oils, minerals, emulsifier, vitamins and antioxidants. No preparation is necessary, the food has a long shelf-life and is simple to handle and transport.

Since the introduction of nut pastes as an emergency measure five years ago it has helped to lower mortality rates in famine stricken areas. Those who attended the launch were told how a child on an RUTF regimen can bounce back from near death in less than a month. And instead of spending time in badly resources hospitals the paste can be administered at home.

Andrew Rice, writing for the New York Times Magazine in 2010, traced the origin of the use of the nut supplements to a French doctor who searched for a simple method to treat malnutrition and had struck on the idea after using a jar of Nutella one morning. This led eventually to the development of Plumpy’nut which became the intellectual property of Nutriset, which manufactured the paste exclusively at its facility in France. In 2010 Unicef was the primary client buying 90% of supplies from Nutriset.

But, as Rice found, manufacturers in countries like Haiti simply ignored the patent and produced the paste – which is easy to do – locally. Nutriset registered the patent in 1997 and it exists in 28 countries. The company later relaxed its licensing, allowing it to be manufactured in the ‘developing world’. In 2009 Nutriset registered a sales income of $66-million and had produced 14,000 metric tonnes of the paste and other related products.

In 2009, the World Bank estimated that the cost of funding community-based management of acute malnutrition (CHAM) at a global level would be $2.6-billion a year. This was based on an estimated full cost of treatment of $200 per child, but the cost of strengthening health systems (a precondition to scale up CMAM) was not included in the calculation.

According to a 2011 ACF evaluation, this might have been an underestimation considering that around 19-million children globally suffer from severe acute malnutrition and that these children would require more than one cycle of treatment.

The Norwegian and South African partnership in Cape Town, while it might offer rich rewards to its shareholders in the long run, will also bring some relief to those on our continent who suffer from a condition that, in an ideal world, is entirely preventable. DM

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