Dispatch From Abroad: Vitamin A, Sachets, and Slums in Nairobi, Kenya

By Grant Tudor

Kibera, Kenya: Africa’s largest slum. Photo: Grant Tudor

I’m a rising Elliott School senior who has spent the majority of his time (and money) on international affairs-y things like war, peace, war, and some anthropology. For those of us interested in development, we study things like aid policy and political economy, ready for World Bank recruitment come May. So naturally I was surprised a few months back when I found myself in cramped Nairobi offices gathering data on vitamin A, iron and iodine intake figures, and in Africa’s largest slum mapping maize distribution channels and pricing patterns.

I didn’t come to Kenya planning to research nutrition and business strategies in slums. But after a series of events and small epiphanies, I realized that to make the biggest impact on our world maybe the World Bank, UN and USAID aren’t the only post-graduation paths out there. So here’s my quick story of going from a World Bank-bound Elliott kid to an entrepreneurship-and-public-health-strategy enthusiast.

I came across figures last February that caught my attention. For example, Kenya is losing 2-3% of its GDP per year because most people don’t consume food like fortified flour – flour with micronutrients like iron and folic acid. That’s the equivalent of the financial crisis’s impact on Europe. When Kenyans lack nutrients, their IQs suffer, they drop out of school, they can’t work as productively, they’re more susceptible to other illnesses like HIV, and women take the brunt of it. This lesser-discussed health catastrophe called micronutrient deficiency is outdoing AIG.

I also found out a few other things that our neighborhood development ‘experts’ don’t talk about very often: in 1990, the UN pledged to eliminate most micronutrient deficiencies by 1995. It is 2009, and 1 of every 3 people still suffers from deficiencies. Basically, the plague of micronutrient deficiencies is as rampant as ever, with little thanks to the UN. Agencies like UNICEF and the World Food Programme often give out aid-financed nutritional supplements (handouts) to a few at-risk populations such as refugees and then call it a day.

I talked to a woman named Lucy at the Micronutrient Initiative in Nairobi, who summed it up like this: “UNICEF doesn’t produce flour, business does.” So if international aid agencies aren’t up to the task, and if the Kenyan government is failing miserably (which it is), then maybe the private sector could help solve this development disaster – and make some money at the same time. After some number crunching, I estimated aggregate food market expenditures in Kibera – Africa’s largest slum – to be around US $18.75 million per month just for the poorest half of its residents. That seemed like a pretty big number to garner business attention.

I later discovered Insta Products, a Kenyan company that produces fortified flour. With a recent investment by the Acumen Fund – a social venture capital group – they’re poised to tackle the issue in a whole new way: by selling micronutrient-rich flour sachets for USD 25 cents that feed a family of four through informal distribution networks. This entrepreneurial innovation will dramatically enhance Kenyan’s nutritional status while simultaneously turning a profit – a far cry from UNICEF handouts.

Most of us – probably including myself – won’t end up innovating business strategies to combat micronutrient deficiencies in severely low-income markets. We don’t learn about vitamin A at the Elliott School, and we certainly don’t concern ourselves with business. But I think there’s a good lesson learned for soon-to-be-graduates-and-job-hunters: in a complex world where the UN and World Bank don’t have the answers to everything (or much), we shouldn’t forget to take a look at what’s out there beyond the Foggy Bottom big-names. So to all other rising seniors, keep your eyes open, and maybe we’ll catch each other designing flour sachets in Africa.

Grant is a senior majoring in International Affairs concentrating in International Development and International Economics and minoring in Political Science. He’s studied in both Argentina and Kenya and works passionately in the field of social entrepreneurship.

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