It is no secret that malnutrition, especially among children, is a major issue in developing countries. But this is also true in parts of the world where the economical and sanitary situation has been evolving at a considerable rate in the last few years in what we commonly call the “emerging countries”. Take China: the world’s second economic power, with a two-digit yearly growth rate on average for the past twenty years. Among the poorest parts of its population (mainly in rural areas), while undernutrition has been significantly curbed, people are still exposed to malnutrition. 27.6 million Chinese babies in rural areas are thus at a risk of malnutrition; 10 million children present a high anaemia rate, and slow growth and low body weight are also major concerns. Professor Chen Chun Ming, from the International Life Science Institute (ILSI) Focal Point in China, an expert on the nutrition of babies and children, explains in a video that malnutrition in rural areas is caused by several factors: complementary baby foods are usually not very nutritious, people on low incomes cannot afford them, and these foods are often not available. There is also a worrying lack of knowledge about nutrition.
So Professor Chen Chun Ming and ILSI created a product called YingYangBao, a highly condensed milk-based nutrition supplement, in powder form, either added to complementary food (for children aged 6 months to 3 years) or dissolved in warm water for them to drink.
This product is packed with proteins,calcium, iron, zinc and vitamins A, D, B1, B2 and C and meets over 50% of children’s daily needs. In 2001, a test was carried out in Guansu with 1,500 anaemic babies aged 6 to 12 months: after 6 months, their anaemia rate decreased by 40%, and stunted growth was reversed overall.
The Chinese government and the Ministry of Health thus recognised the effectiveness of YingYangBao in the fight against malnutrition, and supported a programme to distribute it for free to poor children in the Sichuan, Gansu, Shaanxi and Qinghai provinces. In June 2012, the Ministry of Health received a governmental budget to extend the free sampling programme to another 10 provinces.
Supporting healthy nutrition with a healthy business model
Although this had already improved the nutrition of many babies and children, a number of experts and NGO members believed that malnutrition, as a real society issue, needed to be tackled globally and thus supported by sustainable business models. In other words, as Professor Chen Chun Ming puts it, malnutrition can be curbed in the long run thanks to four As: the availability, accessibility, affordability and acceptability of nutritious products.
In 2011, the project NutriGo was born from the cooperation between ISLI, Dumex (Danone’s Baby Food brand in China), two NGOs (One Foundation and NPI Foundation) and danone.communities with the aim of creating an innovative social business to help fight malnutrition.
The idea was firstly to conduct nutrition education programmes for rural mothers and caregivers, and secondly to ensure that YingYangBao complied with the four As: in other words, be accessible to the poorest families in every sense. This meant working not only on the production and composition of the product (Dumex contributed here to improve YingYangBao’s acceptability, but also on the distribution system and price. In December 2011, a pilot was launched in the Enshi Hubei region, one of the toughest areas in China, with the most difficulties in distribution, the lowest population rate and a high poverty level. After 6 months, the programme had reached 55 villages and around 1,000 babies, 5,000 caregivers had been trained and 50,000 bags of YingYangBao had been sold. An efficient market route was also found, since the village doctors, thanks to their credibility and commitment to health and nutrition, proved to be the best channel to reach babies and their families. With the support of the government and the Ministry of Health, NutriGo is now in a roll-out phase. The aim over the next five years is to provide 1 million babies with YingYangBao, 2 million women with education on nutrition, and 3,000 women with training as nutrition counsellors. To Professor Chen Chun Ming, this model shows that « food companies can play a real role in improving nutrition in a country ». And this is just the beginning.
Photo © Shutterstock / paul prescott