To improve nutrition for the poorest consumers, try a market-based approach
By Sean Mattson
Uganda’s newest health food craze began in the slums of Kampala. It started when a handful of women tried an unusual porridge, which is made from five grains grown in nearby hillsides, instead of their normal porridge, which is typically made from a single main ingredient like maize. Soon they began selling the new product door-to-door. Nutreal Limited, the local company that produces the porridge flour is now rushing to keep pace with demand.
“I tried, and I liked and decided it would be good to sell,” said Roy Nabirye, a woman leader in her community. “Also, after I learned that it was healthy, I wanted to extend it to other people. I saw that it was helping people and the community.”
If Nabirye sounds like she’s overselling a US$ 15 cent packet of an instant porridge mix, she can be forgiven. Affordable, safe, nutritious, and convenient food is a novelty in her beleaguered neighborhood of Nabulagala, which was haphazardly carved into the red soil on the city’s ever-swelling outskirts. Open sewers run past schools surrounded by high walls with barbed wire. Women as heads of households far outnumber men due, in part, to the scourge of HIV and AIDS.
Poor diets are the norm, and large swaths of the population are either overweight, malnourished, or deficient on essential nutrients. Sometimes households have a combination of all three. Cheap, calorie-dense, increasingly ultra-processed, and unhealthy food makes up the diets of most residents.
“Here in Kampala, the economy is tough,” said Faridah Nakimbugwe, the chairwoman of a women’s collective group, who says having a serving of porridge in the morning improves well-being and keeps stomachs full until the next meal comes along. “We don’t know when lunch is going to be or if we’ll have lunch at all.”
Super Kawomera, which means, “super tasty” in Luganda, isn’t a silver bullet for nutrition problems in East Africa, but it’s a paradigm-busting step in the right direction. Matthias Jager, a specialist on value chains and markets at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), said the driver of Super Kawomera’s success was approaching the problem of nutrition as a business opportunity.
“Traditional approaches of many aid organizations simply aren’t sustainable,” said Jager. “We wanted a 100 percent market-based approach.”
Before developing Super Kawomera, the project team consisting of colleagues from CIAT, Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), and the University of Goettingen in Germany studied the target market and related food environment to better understand their food preferences, nutritional needs, and willingness and ability to pay for more nutritious products. They teamed up with a small local food company, Nutreal Limited, and developed a porridge made from maize, amaranth grain, millet, soybeans, and biofortified beans bred by CIAT scientists.
They decided on single-serve packets that would provide small profit margins but still fit into the budgets of the target consumers — the so-called “bottom of the pyramid” or the urban poor in Kampala.
“There’s no other product like it on the market,” said Jager.
“The real innovation is the holistic approach,” he added. “We have lots of projects that create more nutritious food at the farm level, which is great, but they stop there. And you have many, many projects that work on the consumer side on awareness creation around nutrition. But you don’t have projects following a holistic approach that links supply-side and demand-side interventions to a nutrition-specific problem at a target population. If you don’t combine these interventions, your impact will be limited.”
That’s economist-speak for “it’s harder than it sounds.”
CIAT and partner institutions around the world have invested years of time and money to develop crops that are more productive, require less cooking time, and better withstand heat, drought, and disease. These include hundreds of varieties of biofortified beans that have been released and adopted by farmers around Africa and the Global South.
Initially aimed at improving subsistence livelihoods, biofortified beans are now seen as a key natural ingredient for improving nutrition in poor urban areas that are expanding rapidly due to migration from rural areas.
Super Kawomera — and the Toto Tosha and Jamii Tosha, similar products created for Nairobi, Kenya — were funded by German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, or BMZ, to connect farmers to consumers via local enterprises, with the aim of creating improved rural livelihoods, generating local jobs, and addressing nutritional problems at the local level.
Known in development lingo as “LINK Methodology,” this multidisciplinary approach has been a standout success for bean farmers in Uganda, said Stanley Nkalubo, a plant breeder with Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO).
“The project brought farmers to the negotiation table and showed them the benefits of negotiating directly with buyers,” said Nkalubo. “Farmers sometimes produce without thinking about the market, but there are some things that the market requires.” In the case of the porridges, this includes a reliable supply of ingredients.
Farmers, too, have needs, and one of the biggest is access to finance. The BMZ project helped farmers get access to credit directly from buyers as part of an inclusive business deal to assure supply in the long term for the mutual benefit of both trading partners.
“Trust was created,” said Nkalubo. “We’ve seen a positive trend in all aspects.”
Almost too positive, perhaps.
“The demand is increasing and I’m thinking that what farmers are producing at this point will soon not be enough,” he said. “We are looking for more farmers and scaling out to having larger fields.”
From subsistence to leader
For Josephine Nabuuma, one of 17,000 farmers in a cooperative that supplies Nutreal with beans, said the BMZ project’s key intervention were workshops focused on gender roles. Uganda’s rural communities are generally male-dominated, even if women do equal or larger amounts of work when it comes to cultivating land and supporting families.
“The gender training enabled us to work as a household,” said Nabuuma, who said she and her family barely had a subsistence living. She is now a sought-out community leader and credits BMZ, NARO, CIAT, and the cooperative, Community Enterprises Development Organisation (CEDO), for helping her family become healthier and more prosperous.
“We use improved planting material and methods, and because of what Nutreal does, we know that beans are not just grains that we can eat but have an added value if processed into flour,” she said.
In collaboration with CIAT and CEDO, the BMZ project funded and provided training to boost the productivity of nutrient-rich crops, implement the use of solar energy-based post-harvest technology to dry commodities and protect them from contaminants, and avoid physical loss and loss of nutrients between harvest and consumption of the final product.
At a bustling health clinic on the outskirts of Kampala, Maria Kalanzi, a counselor, helps a steady stream of patients with ailments ranging from poor nutrition and diabetes to tuberculosis and AIDS. She says Super Kawomera has been one of the best products she has found for helping children with inadequate diets.
“Many malnourished children are having an observable improvement in their well-being,” said Kalanzi, who credits the porridge as a key component in a diet improvement regime. “There are other products out there, but none are nearly as diverse or nutritious as this one.”
Health clinics, like the one where Kalanzi works, have become some of the biggest customers of the product. But researchers haven’t had the funding to carry out randomized controlled trials to actually measure the health benefits related to an improved dietary regime that includes Super Kawomera.
“We hope these trials can be part of a potential second phase for this project for which we are currently exploring funding opportunities,” said Jager.
2m customers, climate and policy permitting
The potential market for the product is as high as 2 million consumers in Kampala alone, said Stella Namazzi, an economist based at CIAT’s Kampala office who conducted market surveys before Super Kawomera was developed. But there are obstacles to growth.
“We see that demand is going to grow, and that will entail work on enabling factors, including access to credit and working around post-harvest handling and climate change,” she said. “The risk is on the production side, especially with unreliable weather.”
Stella said regional policies to permit easy cross-border trade of grains are also a key to growth. And, of course, more people need to hear about the product.
“We need to go massive on the marketing along with nutrition awareness campaigns,” she said.
Time to invest
Even given these obstacles, Super Kawomera consumption has grown by about 5 percent per quarter this year, said Dorothy Nakimbugwe, a food and nutrition scientist at Kampala’s Makerere University and the founder and CEO of Nutreal Limited. She recently hired 10 more staff and has directly employed 25 people between processing and marketing of the product.
“What we need to do is scale-up. We need investment to scale-up production and benefit from economies of scale so as to keep the product affordable. We also need to invest in awareness-raising and last mile community-based distribution models that reach the most vulnerable” said Nakimbugwe. “We knew it already, and monitoring data is confirming that low awareness and access are negatively impacting on Super Kawomera porridge flour uptake.”
Jager is optimistic for the future — as long as the right investors are found.
“We’ve proven a business case for nutrition and have now developed an investment case. Nutreal needs to grow, and that requires not only infrastructure; it requires also organization and capacities. And that requires investment,” said Jager. “Investment possibilities and, in general, access to finance in Uganda are very limited, very expensive, and basically out of reach due to high interest rates. So, we have been exploring several options for impact investment.”