Impact at Scale: Innovation for the Next Generation of Nutrition

By Food Industry Asia (FIA)

Despite significant progress in recent decades, malnutrition is still a huge barrier to children’s health and development around the world. The numbers speak for themselves: Poor nutrition is an underlying cause of nearly half of all child deaths, and leads to stunted development in 155 million children every year.

In imagining a better future, there is a thorny question that we can no longer ignore: Is there a role for the private sector in the journey to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs) related to nutrition, such as reducing the number of children under 5 who suffer from stunting by 40 per cent by 2025? My hypothesis is yes, absolutely. Enormous potential lies within private sector food, beverage and ingredients companies innovating across the value chain, as part of efforts to bring us closer to a malnutrition-free world.

When you look at how most families around the world get their daily food, it is clear that businesses have a critical role to play. Already, in countries like India, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, more than 80 per cent of food is purchased rather than home-grown. But systemic market barriers, coupled with the misperception that affordable nutrition cannot be profitable, have meant many private sector companies have yet to step into this effort in a serious way.

Innovations in food science and technology for better nutrition

The food & beverage (F&B) industry, in particular, has the power to vastly improve nutrition—from developing nutritious products, to influencing consumer demand through marketing. We’ve seen the industry drive some profound nutrition innovations in recent years. One great example is in food processing, by making changes that boost the nutrient value of foods, and ensuring that those nutrients can be properly absorbed by the body.

From the ancient practice of parboiling rice, which helped eliminate beriberi disease – caused by a vitamin B1 deficiency – in Asia; to soaking, dehulling, cooking, fermenting, and extrusion-cooking legumes for more digestible proteins and starches, processing changes have helped transform foods into better sources of nutrition. To be fair, we must also acknowledge that food processing technologies have no doubt enabled the mass-scale production of nutrient-poor foods that can be detrimental to consumers’ health if consumed in excess. All this to say, food processing technologies are neither wholly “good” nor bad”.

What gives me hope is that I know the food industry is an amazing innovation engine that leaps into action as it sees a well-defined problem, and internal champions can build a viable business case for the solution. Rising concerns about obesity have driven some businesses to take clear actions. In response to front-of-pack (FOP) product-labelling regulations and associated consumer demand, more than 1,500 items, or 20 percent of all products sold in Chile, for example, have been reformulated since a national food-labelling policy was adopted two years ago. Increased consumer demand has also led many businesses to voluntarily look for methods to cut sugar out of their products, such as yoghurt in the U.S., with several brands announcing plans to cut sugar content by 20 per cent or more.

A need to scale up for the Base of the Pyramid (BoP)

However, there is still more work to be done, especially in low- and middle-income markets. The same push that led manufacturers to reduce sugar in yoghurt in the West has not yet reached developing countries in Africa and Asia. More than 10 years after its approval as a food additive, and a large-scale commercial launch, only four percent of the global new products containing stevia were launched in South/Southeast Asian or sub-Saharan African markets.


Photo credit: Prashant Panjiar, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

I often get the question: “Do the poor, and especially the rural poor, really consume packaged food?” And my favorite piece of data to illustrate the answer is this: 80 million bouillon stock cubes are sold every day in Nigeria. That's about two cubes per household. What’s more: bouillon cubes also happen to be potential vehicles to carry iron and other key micronutrients. Consumption of other packaged foods is similarly widespread: one study found that 80-90 per cent of children aged 6-23 months in places like Dakar, Senegal, and Kathmandu Valley, Nepal, ate a commercially produced packaged food item within the previous week.

The sheer reach of these products demonstrates the huge untapped opportunity to improve nutrition for families. There are well-intentioned actors on both sides of the public-private spheres, making genuine efforts to make good nutrition a reality for low-income consumers, such as government efforts to scale up micronutrient powders, or projects like a fortified yoghurt venture in Bangladesh. And there is a clear opportunity to work with private sector companies to impact the nutrition profile of products consumed by lower-income populations, through sustainable business at scale. Business profits and better nutrition must not be portrayed as enemies if we are to fundamentally change consumption habits.

At the same time, we have yet to see a large-scale, proven sustainable business model for nutritious foods that can be replicated. Too often, projects to serve the low-income consumer languish in corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, and are not given the full consumer research, business model, marketing, and product development attention needed to have a real shot at commercial success.

A Grand Challenge for affordable, accessible and appealing nutrition

Recognising this gap, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has launched a Grand Challenges Explorations opportunity, awarding grants of US$100,000 to support and build a community of innovators dedicated to making nutrition affordable, accessible, and appealing for all. There is a lot to learn in order to make sustainable impact at scale, and we want to support new ideas—from ingredients to delivery to demand generation. Innovation can come from many places, and we look forward to submissions of proposals from all respondents, particularly those from the private sector and/or entities that have partnerships with the private sector, to ensure a pathway to commercialisation at scale.

Published on 13 Jun 2018