Cal Poly Professor Jenni James and student Morgan Howe-Cobb help curb malnutrition in Malawi
By Stacia Momburg
Agribusiness student Morgan Howe-Cobb (left) and Professor Jennifer James spent time in Malawi last summer as part of a nutrient supplement study managed by UC Davis.
Many of us are aware that hunger and malnutrition permeate the Third World, but few of us truly grasp the complexities associated with feeding the hungry there.
At Cal Poly, an agribusiness professor and one of her students are working with faculty at UC Davis to prevent early childhood malnutrition and address that challenge one village at a time.
In the fall of 2008 UC Davis agricultural economist Steve Vosti contacted Cal Poly Professor Jenni James regarding the International Lipid-Based Nutrient Supplements (iLNS) Project, which is being managed by UC Davis. The project aims to identify highly nutritious and cost-effective supplements that can be added to weaning foods to combat malnutrition, as well as to develop cost-effective methods of distributing the product to low-income and resource-poor families.
The UC Davis research team is working with French company Nurtriset to develop peanut-based supplements for pregnant and lactating women and children under the age of 2. Last year the UC Davis team landed a five-year, $16 million research grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The funds help support what is being considered one of the most comprehensive international early childhood nutrition trials ever undertaken. The research team is working with public and private institutions in Burkina Faso, Finland, France, Ghana, Malawi and the United States.
Marketing and product distribution are where James and agribusiness student Morgan Howe-Cobb come in. As part of the five-year study, the professor and student will analyze complex food and fiber markets in Malawi to determine the most efficient ways to get iLNS into local markets. Similar research is taking place at other ILNS project sites.
Last July, James and Howe-Cobb spent a month in Mangochi, Malawi studying the various ways food and other products are bought and sold at markets. The goal of the trip was to determine seller types, details about the sellers and to track market prices.
In a country where the average life expectancy for both men and women is roughly 44 years old and the average per capita income is $800 per year, finding ways to promote the adoption and use of iLNS products in Mangochi, and places like it, will be no small feat.
James said the challenge she and Howe-Cobb face is determining how to effectively introduce the product to a highly unstructured market system.
“We want to increase the chances for the nutrition team to reach its target client – resource-poor homes with very young children,” James said. “Services and products in Mangochi are sold from individual homes, at local open-air markets, at wholesale shops, and in convenience stores and supermarkets. The difficulty is determining how and where the product will get the most traction.”
Other hurdles include working in a country with a shaky infrastructure and a culture in which contracts are not binding. Additionally, modern technology does not exist in remote areas, which means that inventory and tracking are all done manually. Lack of timely information and unclear product distribution channels will be issues the Cal Poly team will address in a distribution strategy.
Howe-Cobb volunteered for the project, and part of the study will serve as her senior project. While in Malawi, she collected data on products currently on the market in that country that are like iLNS, as well as products that iLNS can be used with, such as porridge, maize, milk, biscuits, baby formula and juices.
“My task is to analyze the prices of these competing and complementary products and recommend a pricing strategy for iLNS. Ultimately, we want to price it so that consumers will purchase the supplement and consistently include it in their children’s diets,” Howe-Cobb said.
“Morgan is doing a fantastic job of organizing and analyzing the data,” James said. “Her contribution to the study will persist long after she graduates. We plan to repeat her study to track changes in the markets over time.”
Howe-Cobb, who will graduate in June, said she feels lucky to have taken part in the research.
“It’s been really eye-opening,” she said. “I have a much better sense of the world and how I can play an important part in making it a better place.”
To read more about the iLNS project, managed by UC Davis, visit http://ucdavismagazine.ucdavis.edu/issues/win10/tiny_packets_of_hope.html.