New solutions to an age-old problem: Asia’s entrepreneurs fight malnutrition with innovation

15th September, 2020

Malnutrition is a far-reaching and centuries old threat to public health, taking millions of lives each year. No world region has managed to escape the effects of this crisis, least of all Asia, where child stunting is at a crippling 22%, according to the 2020 Global Nutrition Report. New solutions and emerging innovations are crucial in the battle against this ever-present struggle, and entrepreneurial small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs) across the continent have accepted the challenge.

Fish-based food supplements

Cambodia has one of the worst levels of child stunting (32%) and wasting (9%) in the region. In addition, 48% of women of reproductive age are malnourished. Every year, malnutrition costs the Government of Cambodia US$250-400 million. Using locally available nutritious ingredients, Cambodian entrepreneur, Lyndon Paul, and a Danish philanthropist have joined forces to tackle malnutrition. Danish Care Foods (DCF) incorporates Siamese mud carp fish along with mung and soy beans and rice into their ready-to-use therapeutic and supplementary food products. Their specialised product range includes wafer snacks, snack bars and fortified powder to help with improved nutritional health and wellbeing.

“Malnutrition effects are seen in rural and urban communities alike,” says Paul, DCF managing director. He explains that the company’s products are high in energy and provide the required levels of protein, fat and micronutrients as stipulated by the World Health Organisation’s standard for treating moderate acute malnutrition.

According to Paul, distribution of DCF’s Nutrix snack bar has also contributed to a reduction of therapeutic food imports in the last six months. “We have supplied more than 2,500 kg of supplementary products, and we still have 15,000 packs worth of orders on the waiting list. I think that is enough proof of the impact created by our products,” he says. DCF’s Nutrix bar is 20% cheaper than imported peanut and dairy-based therapeutic foods and has been recognised by the Cambodian government making it the world’s first ready-to-use, therapeutic food using local fish species.

The consumer response has also been overwhelmingly positive: “Our customers are very happy and there are good results on nutrition and acceptability. Currently, we are serving about 100,000 customers and targeting to reach half a million in the next 2 years,” says Paul, explaining that the company intends to scale out by introducing a new fortified snack and opening a food grade, fish-meal production factory.

Meanwhile in Indonesia, social enterprise Duo Mitra Raya is also making nutritious fish and vegetable-based products to address malnutrition in the country, where more than 19 million people suffer from nutrient intake deficiencies. The company’s affordable and nutritious drink, I-Fit Serealikan, for example, is made from pangasius (type of catfish), milk and cereal and is suitable for treating anaemia, stunting and malnutrition in children and pregnant women.

The drink provides consumers with their daily nutritional requirements in only one serving, states Rani Meldiyani, founder of Duo Mitra Raya. “Our focus is to provide an equal opportunity for everyone to get good food,” Meldiyani says, noting that I-Fit Serealikan is superior in nutrition and price compared to equivalent products on the Indonesian market.

Retailing nutritious rice bran

However, fish products are not alone in the fight against malnutrition in Asia. Thanks to Eka Novitri, local crops are also making an entrance. When Novitri was informed by doctors that she had a tumour, her life changed in more ways than she could have predicted. Her illness motivated a serious lifestyle change, chiefly in regard to her eating habits, which in turn opened her eyes to the lack of healthy food and beverage options in her community. It was this realisation that sparked a desire to improve nutrition in Indonesia.

Her social enterprise Bale Sehat collaborates with local farmers to create packaged, tasty, nutritious Indonesian food and beverages. The company has an extensive range of over 20 foodstuffs, which include highly nutritious red rice bran products to tackle malnutrition. “The business idea is not entirely new, but the innovation we bring is affordable processing of locally-grown crops that maintain their nutrients,” says Mohammad Zacky Rizano, Eka’s son and head of business development at the company.

Established in 2008, Bale Sehat targets consumers aged 20-65 who believe in adopting healthy eating, but the company is also promoting healthy snacks for young children and teenagers. “These target segments are quite loyal, and we saw that the early adopters of a healthy lifestyle were keen consult us if their colleague or family has a health problem,” emphasises Rizano.

The company is growing its market in Jakarta, where the rice bran products are distributed to 15 retail markets, and is using social media to reach more customers. “The COVID-19 pandemic is actually opening people’s eyes towards health, nutrition, safety and hygiene. The demand for nutritious products is increasing and this is an excellent opportunity for us.”

Wholesome foods win prizes

All three Asian businesses were finalists in this year’s global Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Pitch Competition, which connects SMEs in developing markets with technical assistance and investment from private sector organisations. The most innovative SMEs that were able to demonstrate through 3-minute pitches that their nutritious products were also affordable – and tasty – received cash prizes from the SUN Business Network, organiser of the Competition.

Whilst Bale Sehat and Duo Mitra Raya garnered positive feedback from the Competition’s panel of judges, it was DCF that received a cash prize of US$10,000 as the first runner up. “Winning is awesome! It is a great feeling to see how hard work and dedication pays off,” says Paul. “This award will help us to further strengthen our business,” he concludes.

With such innovative solutions and a passion to make a difference, these entrepreneurs are key to helping fight malnutrition in their communities.

Busani Bafana

Busani produced this article in collaboration with WRENmedia, which is supporting the SUN Pitch Competition communications.

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