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Production of Pre-cooked Fortified Blended Foods in Kenya: A Success Story

Author: Goete Hertz, Supply Officer, UNICEF Emergency Programme in Kenya 1992-1995. Now head of Product Development in House of Menji, Nairobi

The use of supplementary blended foods has been common in emergency situations for a number of years. The use of such foods has given rise to much debate involving health care workers, nutritionists, logisticians, donors and administrators. The most common debates usually centre around issues like whether the food is needed at all or whether it is better to ensure an adequate family food basket, what kind of food should be given, to whom, how much and how often.

Background

Five years ago in Kenya the demand for relief foods including foods for supplementary feeding programmes, was enormous. The humanitarian crisis in Somalia was finally being recognised and assistance flowed in while Somali refugees flowed out into Kenya, Ethiopia and other neighbouring countries (350,000 in total). By unhappy coincidence Kenya experienced, at the same time, one of its worst droughts in recent memory.

While the debate about supplementary feeding programmes (SFPs) and foods raged on in Kenya in 1992, another issue emerged for discussion. With the sudden increase in demand for blended foods the usual supply from the USA proved insufficient and slow and a number of people, led by WFP and UNICEF, in Kenya began to examine the issue of establishing local production. After all, it was argued, there is rarely an absolute shortage of maize and soya in Africa and supporting the local economy is one of the most appropriate investments which industrialised nations can employ in their efforts to provide meaningful assistance to developing countries. Furthermore, it was recognised that while those on the ground can often predict a looming crisis, funding for a response rarely materialises until photographs of malnourished children and the accompanying statistics are produced.

This often resulted in situations in which up to six months could pass before food arrived, having been shipped from Europe or the US. Meanwhile food security would have deteriorated further.

Setting up Local Production

Up to 1992, only a small quantity of raw blended foods had been produced in Kenya. The technology for producing a pre-cooked product did not exist in country. The coarsely milled raw blended food product had to be cooked for a minimum of 45 minutes and this produced a porridge which was often unpalatable and difficult to digest. A Kenyan family owned company was one of the first to invest in the necessary technology to produce a pre-cooked blended food. This company had previous experience in the production of biscuits, pastas and other food items.

With UNICEF support, the necessary technology was imported and a vitamin and mineral fortified pre-cooked blended food was produced. UNICEF Kenya got permission to use some funds supplied by donors for the emergency programme to establish this production. UNICEF financed the purchase of the first 4 extruders and the private company repaid the investment to the UNICEF Kenya country office over 4 years. This Kenyan blended food production company has now become one of the principal suppliers of blended foods for emergency situations and school feeding in the region.

The investment at the time was substantial and very risky. The investment to date in extruders, mills, packing equipment, buildings and laboratory exceeds US$1.3 million. The local company's major competitors are foreign donors and it is extremely difficult to establish production capacity and markets when competing with free food aid donations.

Output

To date over 30,000 metric tonnes of pre-cooked blended food have been produced for UN organisations, ICRC, NGOs and individual donors. While most of the food has been used within the region, consignments have also been sent to Angola and North Korea. A wide range of recipes has been used to adapt to the differing nutritional needs and the tastes of the recipient populations (always extra sugar for Somalia). While millet and wheat have occasionally been used, the most popular combination of ingredients is 75% maize and 25% soya flour providing 400 Kcal, 14g protein and 7g fat per 100 g dry weight.

Uses

The UNIMIX is used essentially for supplementary feeding programmes for children below 5 years and lactating mothers. However, in situations where general ration deliveries have failed, it is recognised that the supplement is probably eaten by all of the family members.

Within a short period of time, the manufacturing company was requested to produce biscuits for use in emergency situations. This required little extra investment in the existing biscuit factory and so production of high energy and high protein biscuits commenced using a recipe developed with WFP. Again, all local ingredients were used with the exception of the vitamin/mineral pre-mix.

More recently the biscuits and porridge have been used in school feeding programmes. In Kenya more than 50% of children come to school without eating breakfast. They walk an average distance of 5 kms per day. Their first meal is usually ready at noon due to the lengthy cooking time required to prepare traditional food. Furthermore, the meal is usually maize (and sometimes beans) and is, therefore, deficient in micronutrients. As part of the school feeding programme a nutritious drink and high energy biscuits are given in the morning with porridge added at lunch time. All food is fortified with vitamins and minerals so that the two meals provide approximately 2/3 of daily micronutrients requirements for children. Because the food is already partly cooked it requires much less water and firewood for preparation and can therefore be made available early in the morning.

Packaging

Initial packaging for the blended food was in reinforced paper similar to that used for American CSB but in response to cries of desperation from aid workers, who had to cope with tearing and bursting, improved packaging has been developed and has now been in use for over a year. The coated polypropylene bag with inner polythene liner (also produced in Kenya) has the advantage of being stronger and more durable and is capable of withstanding the frequent loading and off-loading encountered in most emergency situations. It is good to hear that the bags also have an after life as shelter material. Packaging of biscuits has been designed to cater for individual situations and is usually in boxes or vacuum sealed tins which ensures a five year shelf life.

Challenges

Meeting the demand

The factory now has the capacity to produce 2,400 tonnes per month and has produced over 30,000 tonnes over the past four years. When in full production, a total of approximately one hundred local workers are employed. Forty of these staff are casual labourers used for handling incoming and outgoing cargo. When production is reduced, the fixed term staff of sixty take over these duties. The need to be flexible and capable of responding to increased demand has an economic cost for the project as in 'slack periods' low production means that less of the fixed costs are covered by revenue.

The local purchase of high quality raw ingredients has proved difficult on occasion. While high quality maize is usually available in the region, recently it has had to be imported from South Africa and the US. This occurred as a result of the prolonged drought in 1996 and the beginning of 1997 experienced by Kenya, Uganda and northern Tanzania. The problems in the Great Lakes Region aggravated the supply problems as WFP as well as most NGOs tried to buy maize and beans in the region which already had a shortage. Approximately 6,000 Mt of blended food were delivered from November 1996 to February 1997. The production slowed in March due to lack of raw material but these were received in late March and all pending orders have now been delivered.

Soya beans are usually in plentiful supply in the region. The blended food company actively supports a GTZ project which promotes the production of Soya beans in Kenya. Other legumes have been used but soya is preferred due to its high oil (energy) content. If other legumes are used oil has to be added in order to comply with UN nutritional specifications.

Competition

The major donor of pre-cooked food is the United States. The fact that USAID donates the food and sends money for transport (for food supplied by the US only) makes it very difficult for the local company to compete with USAID. The European Union and a number of bilateral donors are increasingly encouraging local purchase of foods for emergencies.

Quality control

The maintenance of a high standard of quality and hygiene has been a challenge which the Kenyan company has taken very seriously. A vitamin, mineral mix, tailored to the needs of each organisation has been developed in co-operation with Hoffman LaRoche in Switzerland and each batch of food is tested both in the in-house laboratory and by an independent laboratory appointed by the buyer. Workers in the factory are regularly briefed on hygiene issues and undergo a cleaning procedure before entering the factory each day.

Conclusion

The advantages to users of a locally produced blended food have been widely acknowledged. The most obvious advantage has been the speed with which an organisation can respond to an emergency with an appropriate food. The response time has now been reduced from over six months (from overseas) to a few weeks (when produced locally). The Kenyan company usually relieves the organisation of logistical headaches by undertaking transport of the product to its final destination. The second major advantage is that the organisation can order a product which has the appropriate nutritional content for each situation. Furthermore, the product is freshly produced for each order and so has a shelf life of a minimum of six months without the use of any artificial preservatives.

Over the past five years, confidence has grown in the ability of a local company to produce a high quality product. Many donors have become aware of the need to support African economies through local purchase and are moving away from the automatic importation of food commodities from their own countries. The demand for such a food is now also growing in the Kenyan market and it is hoped that in the near future the pre-cooked blended food will be produced for the Kenyan retail market.

The company is not a charity, it operates a business which employs many people, purchases local farm produce and aims to make a profit. This idea of establishing local production of a pre-cooked blended food was born from a need arising in emergency situations. The response has been successful.

See also the Post Script to this article.

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Reference this page

Goete Hertz (1997). Production of Pre-cooked Fortified Blended Foods in Kenya: A Success Story. Field Exchange 2, August 1997. p5. www.ennonline.net/fex/2/production