A game changer – humanitarian assistance as a business

Globally almost 300 million, one-third of the developing world’s children, suffer from chronic malnutrition.  This is nothing short of a disgrace.  The devastating longer-term consequences are often not fully appreciated.

There is a critical period, from conception to 24 months of age, when without adequate diversity of diet and range of nutrients, both mental and physical development is severely impeded – and this damage is irreversible.

Without proper nutrition, a child is intellectually blunted, resulting in significantly decreased educational attainment – irrespective of what support may subsequently be provided. Furthermore, increased ill health, sub-optimal earning capacity and greatly reduced life expectancy all stunt economic growth of developing countries.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have a sustainable business model for treating malnutrition. Furthermore, Valid Nutrition, the Irish-based company I founded in 2005, has a proven track record in this area. It is also the only company in the world exclusively manufacturing and marketing a range of ready-to-use therapeutic foods in Africa”, says Dr Steve Collins, who has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2010 global Ashoka Senior Fellowship award for social entrepreneurship and an MBE from Queen Elizabeth for his services to humanitarianism.

A medical doctor with a PhD in nutrition, he is a world-renowned expert on malnutrition, and publishes widely in major international medical journals such as Nature Medicine, The Lancet and The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

For the first time in the history of human civilisation, the world now has the capability to combat malnutrition at real scale and help the children of the poorest nations realise their full potential. The development of highly fortified nutritious pastes, commonly referred to as ready-to-use therapeutic foods, together with community-based therapeutic care, a new approach to delivering nutritional care to people in their villages rather than in hospitals, have revolutionised our ability to treat severe malnutrition”, Dr Collins notes.

Dr Steve Collins on Newstalk – July 1st 2010

These innovative ready-to-use foods contain a mix of proteins, fats, carbohydrates and 40 different nutrients. They do not require mixing with water or any other liquid and can be eaten directly from the sachet pack. Because bacteria cannot grow in the packs, they can be stored safely for over 12 months without the need for refrigeration. As well as being highly convenient, children find them delicious. Those who are treated with the foods make a complete recovery within six weeks and do not relapse.

By providing ready-to-use foods to mothers in their local communities rather than in conventional hospitals or health centres, which are often located far from villages, we have seen a dramatic improvement in treatment and prevention. Death rates have been cut by a factor of five and the lives of hundreds of thousands of children have been saved”, adds Dr Collins who first pioneered the concept of community-based therapeutic care (CTC) in the late 1990s.

Since then, his approach has been endorsed by the UN, adopted by the World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme and UNICEF, and is their preferred model for the treatment of severe malnutrition in children.

Valid Nutrition has operations in Malawi, Kenya and Zambia.  These operations will produce some 2 million life-saving sachets in 2010, and production is expected to grow by some 30% a year thereafter.

Last year, in Malawi alone, 50,000 children were treated with Valid Nutrition’s ready-to-use foods, and with new manufacturing operations coming on stream in Ethiopia and West Africa, some 200,000 children will be treated with these foods by end 2010.

As well as being hailed as a humanitarian success story, the Valid Nutrition business model has a number of interesting aspects.

First, although it is a social enterprise, it is run as a fully fledged commercial foods business, with the same governance and financial controls in place. The fact that it has no shareholders – allied to its status as a registered charity with related tax advantages – means that it can re-invest all of its profits in furthering its humanitarian aims.

Second, where possible, it sources ingredients for its products locally from small-holder farmers and local suppliers, thus bringing major advantages in terms of cost, quality and a multiplier effect to local economies – a sustainable approach in the broadest sense.

In keeping with Valid Nutrition’s humanitarian ethos, this local production approach to the treatment and prevention of malnutrition enables the company to help its customers avoid the high cost of raw materials, labour, transport and duties associated with importing this food from developed countries.

With our manufacturing coming to scale, we are reaching a point where we can set a benchmark for price and quality which other companies in the ready-to-use foods market must meet. This will allow us to punch above our weight and use our presence in this market to leverage a much wider ethical engagement in under nutrition from other commercial players,” says Dr Collins.

In order to help Valid Nutrition reach that critical stage in its development, the company is seeking investors to offer interest-free loans, or donations of cash or services.  The loans will be repaid after 3 years, so the net donation to Valid Nutrition is the interest that might otherwise have been earned on the money.

Complete details are available here.

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