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 child deaths, and leads to stunted development in 155 million children each year.
When you look at how most families around the world get their daily food, it is clear that private sector companies have a critical role to play in bringing us closer to a malnutrition-free world. Already, in countries like India, Nigeria, and Bangladesh, over 80% 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.
The food and beverage 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 ensure that those nutrients can be properly absorbed by the body. From the ancient practice of parboiling rice, which helped eliminate beriberi disease (B1 deficiency) in Asia; to soaking, dehulling, cooking, fermenting, and extrusion-cooking legumes to make their proteins and starches digestible – 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 consumer’s 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 when it sees a well-defined problem, and internal champions can build a viable business case for the solution. Rising concerns about obesity, for instance, have driven some businesses to reformulate their products. In response to front-of-pack product-labeling 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 the 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 yogurt in the U.S., with several brands announcing plans to cut sugar content by 20% or more.
However, there is more work to do, especially in low- and middle-income markets. The same push that led manufacturers to reduce sugar in yogurt 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 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.
The food and beverage industry often overlooks poor households in low- and middle- income countries as viable consumers and fails to innovate with them in mind. But the demand is there. 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 by MAGGI are sold every day in Nigeria. That's about two 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% of children age 6-23 months in places like Dakar, Senegal, and Kathmandu Valley, Nepal ate a commercially-produced packaged food within the previous week.
The sheer reach of these products demonstrates the huge untapped opportunity to improve nutrition for average families. Public and private partners are 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 Danone and Grameen's fortified yogurt venture in Bangladesh. But 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 programs, not given the full consumer research, business model, marketing, and product development attention needed to have a real shot at commercial success.
Recognizing this gap, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has launched a Grand Challenge Explorations, 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 to make a sustainable impact at scale, and we want to support new ideas—from ingredients to delivery to demand generation. Innovation can come from many places, so I call on:
• Researchers working to better understand ingredient production, processing technology, packaging materials, and more
• Bench scientists at food, beverage, and ingredient companies who had a great idea for an affordable nutrition product that didn't make it past last year's annual project prioritization process
• Great thinkers in ancillary fields like animal feed and pharmaceuticals, who are energized by potential translations for existing technologies to human food
• Social entrepreneurs who see new ways to deliver private sector products to rural areas
• Start-ups whose innovations can target low-income consumers from day one
• … And still others we haven't even imagined yet!
Please visit the foundation’s Global Grand Challenges page to learn more and apply. Applications are due by May 2, 2018. We look forward to your submissions.