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Big Brands Are Fuelling the Business of Nutrition

Dr Myriam Sidibe is a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School and is on sabbatical leave from Unilever.
Jane Nelson directs the Center’s Corporate Responsibility Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School.

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, Oct 29 2018 (IPS) - Food is an increasingly hot topic, no matter if you are rich or poor. Malnutrition – including undernutrition, overweight and obesity – affects 1 in 3 people around the world.

When it comes to the link between health and nutrition, consumers in both developed and emerging economies are facing high social and economic costs of being malnourished. While governments must take the lead in tackling malnutrition, this situation presents untapped commercial opportunities to develop new products and market-based solutions to deliver more nutritious foods. As people and policymakers wise up to the importance of eating a varied and healthy diet, an increasing number of commercial enterprises are springing up to satisfy this growing demand. It is in this context that over 200 experts recently gathered at the Nutrition Africa Investment Forum in Nairobi. The forum offered a platform for fresh ideas to develop the food value chain and to mobilize private sector investment and innovation to enhance nutrition in Africa.

Small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are widely acknowledged as key to the economic development of Africa. This is just as true for their role in the nutritional development of the continent. SMEs, with more agile business models and capability for nimble strategy pivots, are essential in driving the innovation needed to stimulate greater variety in diets. As they look to expand operations in Africa, more established corporations must take note of this. The smart ones are already partnering with and investing in smaller, more innovative companies, transforming nutrition on the continent in the process. There is an essential role for both large and small companies in creating the change that is needed.

Multinationals and SMEs must expand their collaboration beyond food production, packaging and processing. The next step should be towards dramatically increasing consumer demand for more nutritious and sustainable foods, facilitating a shift in the entire food system. Big brands have the ability to make nutritious foods that are better for the planet and to increase demand and accessibility. Nutritious food products made by big brands that are classified as ‘processed’ can enable people all over the world to cook delicious, healthy meals in a short amount of time for a relatively small amount of money. This empowers household cooks to expand the variety of meals they create, which is good for the health of people and our planet.

Changing consumer tastes are critical to the direction our food system will evolve towards. Diversified diets improve human health and benefit the environment through varied production systems that encourage more sustainable use of resources and greater biodiversity. Global brands have the power to lead a movement to affect this change, through their billions of consumers. Knorr, for example, is in the homes of 2.8 billion people around the world. This presents a huge opportunity to impact diets globally. The brand has serious influence in agriculture too, buying over 333,000 tonnes of vegetables and herbs every year, much of this from thousands of smallholder farmers.

Locally, these brands can influence tastes to improve nutrition. Royco, for example, is the local brand of Knorr in Kenya. Having earned a reputation for enriching the flavour of meals, Royco now has the reach and credibility to change consumer behaviour around what people eat and how they cook. These are notoriously difficult habits to change.

Royco’s Green Food Steps behaviour change programme inspires household cooks to add green leafy vegetables alongside iron fortified cubes to common dishes, ensuring they still taste as good as before. The programme was launched in Nigeria, where one in two women of reproductive age suffer from anaemia. It has made a small change with a huge potential impact to get millions of households to adopt this simple behaviour to increase their iron intake. Partners including Christian Aid, Amref and Well Being Foundation have adopted the programme and the messages to impact more households in rural areas. To date, the programme has reached over 20 million people in Nigeria and aims to reach a further 20 million. In Kenya, the target is Five million.

An evaluation of this program conducted in collaboration with University of Gent, Belgium, and University of Ibadan, Nigeria, revealed that over 40 percent of participants changed their behaviour, adding leafy greens and iron fortified cubes to their dishes. This and similar initiatives can make a significant impact on the intake of iron and the overall nutritional value of staple meals. It offers a clear example of how a brand can use its reach and influence to change the way people cook and eat for the better, using marketing resources and know-how to improve public health.

The Green Food Steps programme is just one example of how big brands can change people’s relationships with food and create a positive impact on society and the environment. Bold players leading ambitious movements that improve how people eat and experience their food will shape the future of African nutrition. With this in mind, investors at the look-out for those organisations with the ambitions and commercial potential to create the systemic change that our continent is hungry for.

The Harvard Kennedy School recently published a report focused on unlocking greater commercial investment into value chains that can improve access to nutritious foods among low-income consumers in developing markets.

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