Photograph — IOM

About two billion people are malnourished globally; 1.9 billion adults are overweight and 462 million are underweight, according to the World Health Organization. This is due to increasing poverty, high cost of food, and low affordability. Worse still, the pandemic is “intensifying the vulnerabilities and inadequacies” of food systems around the world, consequently increasing health care costs and perpetuating a cycle of poverty, diseases, and ill-health.

As a result of these compounding issues, the 2020 edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World calls for a global switch to healthy diets and a transformation of food systems to reduce the cost of nutritious foods and check increasing hunger and malnutrition. Thankfully, organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation are well on the path to making this happen. 

Part of the commitments of the Foundation is to nourish the world, and it is doing so by creating and advancing sustainable, resilient, and equitable food systems. Ventures Africa had an interview with Betty Kibaara, director, Food Initiative, of the Rockefeller Foundation where she sheds light on some of the Foundation’s approach to nourishment, food security and agricultural development.

The Rockefeller Foundation has a focus on protective foods. What is your definition of protective foods? How are they different from everyday diets? And how do our diets need to change for them to become protective?

Kibera Betty: Protective foods are foods that significantly lower our risk of diseases, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and fish. These are critical to nourishing the growing population in a sustainable manner. These foods have been proven, once consumed in the optimal quantities, and in which some are currently under-consumed because of different challenges, they have the ability to protect us from diseases. Majority of the leading diet-related deaths actually stemmed from the under consumption of protective food. For example, in East Africa, less than 10 percent of the plate has fruits and vegetables. To put this in perspective, 14 percent of the deaths in East Africa are attributed to individual dietary risk, and that’s a worrying trend.

Our understanding is that if we don’t do anything, the trend will continue and by 2030, death by dietary risks is going to surpass death from infectious diseases. So, we really need to do something about it. We need to increase consumption of protective foods and there is a lot of science out there on what protective food does to our bodies. We can improve health outcomes in a sustainable way.

Based on your experience, what food and agriculture challenges need to be urgently addressed in developing economies, that are possibly impeding the shift to sustainable food systems?

Very good question and I will go back to the question which has been asked before because I really want to expound on that and I will try and divide this into about five points.

One of it is that our food system has been optimized for yield and calories and the consumers have also adopted healthier diets consisting of foods that are sustainably produced. And I did mention that diet is the number one cause of premature death in the world and undernutrition persists across the continent, with obesity, diabetes, and hypertension creeping in. Should present trends continue, Africa will be the continent experiencing the fastest growth in age-adjusted prevalence of diabetes which is estimated to be about 143 percent increase in the next 25 years and this would be resulting in about 47 million diabetic cases in the region by 2045 if we do nothing about what we are consuming.

So, the Rockefeller Foundation is focusing more on improving protective food value chains, making protective food affordable and accessible to consumers, therefore improving their diets. That’s one area I honestly think we need to work on; what we are focusing on in the diet we are eating. There is something around growing food safety concerns, which have become a major barrier to increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, and fish.

Now you can imagine, with COVID, transportation and labour supply have also been disrupted because of the lockdown across the continent thereby increasing the issue of food safety. I also think another important thing to highlight is the problem of food loss in Sub-Saharan Africa. I have worked in an initiative where we focused on reducing post-harvest losses, we do know that 30 percent of the food which is produced for human consumption across the continent is lost due to inadequate post-harvest management solutions, it is lost because of lack of structured markets.

When I talk about markets, I always say most producers in Africa produce with a strategy of hope. You know, you do not know who you are going to sell to, you just produce with a strategy of hope that somehow the market is going to show up. Inadequate storage at the household level, at the farm, and limited agro-processing. I do believe that if this is not well addressed, it will continue to be a major impediment to sustainable food systems in the African continent. 

I think the fourth one which is a challenge that I am turning around as an opportunity, is the issue of reliable solar power energy; I do believe that this is a continent where we have sunshine 365 days in a year. We need to explore how we can continue using solar energy to unlock agricultural potentials to drive development. And I do know the energy function of agriculture offers important raw development opportunities as well as one means of climate change mitigation by substituting renewable energy for fossil fuels.

Just to give you an example, animal traction is still very widely used in the African continent; five percent of farm power is coming from animals. But we do have opportunities to explore how to use solar solutions to power the African market and agriculture. I think, for example, we can make use of solar energy for irrigation, for cold storage, for agro-processing. We can convert threshers from diesel engines to solar power. I do believe there is something to be said about the use of solar power for energy solutions.

Betty Kibaara, director, Food Initiative, of the Rockefeller Foundation.

What is the future of food and of people eating protective diets based on what the Rockefeller Foundation is doing?

I think this is a very good question and to answer you I will say that at the Rockefeller Foundation, we have a vision to transform the world food system so that it nourishes people, it protects and regenerates the environment and it also enables the flourishing of culture and communities. Our hope is to achieve this food system transformation by demonstrating innovation, sustainable models for production, aggregation, logistics, processing and retail of protective foods. We also want to achieve this by engaging and influencing stakeholders in promoting protective foods to drive consumers and institutional demands and enable increased supply. 

We know we cannot do it alone, we have to work with others. At the Rockefeller Foundation, we have prioritized ensuring nutritious food is more accessible, available and affordable to everyone. We do hope that it increases the consumption of key protective foods to recommended levels to minimize chronic disease risk and maximize human well-being through an improved food system that protects and regenerates the environment. 

Our current work is going to help to increase production and consumption of protective food in East Africa, and of course in the US we are advancing the science of nutrition. We are catalysing visions of the future, we called for proposals for the food visions of the future and we are also taking action towards transporting food systems. The Rockefeller Foundation also has a role to play in emerging global policy priorities in the area of food, agriculture, and nutrition. We do have our work well cut out and we are excited about where we are going with it. 

There is a growing interest in the use of insects as animal feed. What is unique about insect-based feed?

For me to answer the question on the uniqueness of the insect-based feed, we need first to ask ourselves what problem are we addressing? Access to livestock production, access to high proteins which is a key ingredient in animal feed. It remains a critical challenge in a determinant to ensure a high and efficient production system for animal production. 

We do know that conventional sources of protein for animal feed comes from soya bean mill, seed cake, and several grains including the small fish that is called Omena in Kenya but it’s called the pelagic fish. So, we are actually using food which should be consumed by humans as proteins for animals. If you think about soy production, the ingredients create an unsustainable pressure on the land and the fish stock. We have to compete for the small fish; humans want it, chickens want it, so it becomes a challenge. 

Another challenge is that the protein is declining in terms of availability. For instance, the availability of the small fish can be a challenge. Also, the cost associated. For example, it is well established that the cost of protein additives represents about 60 to 70 percent of the animal feed cost. For instance, if you look at a bag of animal feed for poultry, 60 percent of an associated cost is coming from protein. So, if there is a way we can substitute that 60 percent with cheaper protein, which is also one of the benefits of insect-based feed, then we can lower the cost. 

What is so unique about insect-based feed? First, the service of insects is very well developed in other countries. For example, in Europe and the US, there are large companies who are already scaling this up. The black soldier flies which goes through a life cycle from the egg, larva, pre-pupa, pupa, to fly. But it can be harvested just before it becomes a pupa, you can harvest the larva; it goes through hot water treatment, and then it is dried using solar or electricity. 

And it just becomes like that small fish you see when looking at animal feed ingredients. In comparison, the protein content of the black soldier fly and the protein content of the small fish and other proteins are very comparable. The black soldier fly has a protein content of between 38 percent and 62 percent, this compares very well. Also, the black soldiers fly has additional micronutrients of iron, zinc and amino acid. 

Many studies have been done as to why we recommend the use of black soldier fly, one of it is that it has shown positive impact in terms of increasing egg productivity, pigs grow one month faster than if they are just fed on other feed and this is also a plus for the farmer. Another reason is that the insects need to eat in order to grow and what they love best is organic waste from the market. For example, in my country Kenya, the urban market generates about 3.5 million metric tons of waste a year. This waste goes to the dumpsite and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. But organic waste can be used as a substrate the insect can eat it, so we harvest the larva and give it to the livestock.

It also has a quick turnaround time. You don’t have to wait long to harvest your black soldier fly; within about 45 days from the egg all the way to when the fly emerges. And then, we most recently are conducting an estimation of demand. Dahlberg is going ahead with a study to assess the demand for insect-based feed in Kenya. And it’s very surprising that we currently produce only about 5,000 metric tons but the potential and demand for the market is very high; about 65,000 metric tons.

 What is unique about the insect-based feed? The science exists, the science is proven. Countries like South Africa, for example, AgriProtein is one of the largest companies in Africa; it’s really scaled up insect-based feed. But other countries have been left behind. This is the reason the Rockefeller Foundation is interested in investing in this sector. 

Your last statement is interesting because it  leads to the next question. What are some initiatives the Rockefeller Foundation has on insect-based feed?

We actually do not have too many, we have just one. Building on my last comment, the rest of the world; Europe, US, South Africa have moved ahead producing insect-based feed in large volumes. They also have developed commercial models for production of insect-based feed. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa we are still not there, we are yet to decide which model works, I mean who has2 commercialized insects? 

So we had to start by asking ourselves which model works. About two years ago, the Rockefeller Foundation collaborated with the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology. It is called ICIPE for short. ICIPE is a leading international organization in the science of entomology and we talk to them because they have done science for five years. They’ve been in the lab and tested all the different variables and so we felt it was time for us to take the technology from the lab to the land. 

This usually is my tag line when it comes to talking about this because we have all these scientists who are sitting on very good innovation and we keep on talking about potentials.  like Akin Adesina, the president of AFDB says, you don’t eat potential. For me, I say take the technologies from the lab to the land. And so we sat down with ICIPE and said, “how do we even begin to scale insect-based feed?” 

We started by presenting the science to a group of stakeholders and the willingness to accept was very high; the feed millers were asking for it, asking if they can be supplied 50 metric tons per month. Long story cut short, we decided to do a quick guess and we came up with a couple of models. We gave some findings to ICIPE to test different models and these are vertically integrated models; typical company production and end-to-end processing.

We also did the outgrower model where the company does 70 percent and then outsources 30 percent to an out-grower scheme. Then, a community-driven model where the dryers used could be shared as the cost of investment may be a bit high. We also have another model on how a smallholder farmer can produce black soldier flies in their backyard. The one which is very exciting to us,  has  potential, it has not really been scaled a lot but I think this is going to drive the African insect-based feed work is where the company does the whole hog of production but once it get to day five of the larva, it sells them to farmers. 

Farmers take these five-day old small worms, go to their backyard, sprinkle the worms on top of chicken waste if they rear chickens. After 11 days, the worms become big and then they can be washed or dipped in water and sold back to the company.

We do have a similar model like that in Kenya called the Kenchic model where farmers buy a day old chick. We believe people can buy five-day old larvae and multiply them in the backyard. So far, we have supported about six small and medium scale enterprises and more than 2,000 farmers have been trained. Our support has included technical support, that is the biggest input. 

The other thing we have done is support them with a starter kit, because how do you even start an insect-based feed business? We acknowledge that this is science and this is why we had to have a solid technical partner in this process. So that is where we and we are excited about this work. We have also developed manuals for the production of insect-based feed. We have worked with governments around policies because this is new. We have been working closely with governments to come up with the protocols for production of insect-based feed.

You said Rockfeller has supported 2,000 farmers. Is this across Sub-Saharan Africa?

No, the project is only in Kenya, we have supported six SMEs and we have trained 2,000 farmers on insect-based feed.

Are there plans to expand to other countries?

This is a pilot programme and I cannot speak on that because it depends on the direction of where our work is going, but we are waiting to see results. I believe when we get the full result then …

Once you get the result then you can scale?

Hopefully, although the foundation will be focusing more on AgEnergy solutions. I don’t want to commit [with an answer] because this was just a small project which may not be anchored on our overall project.  

Alright. How are you approaching the challenge of consumer acceptance?

From our survey carried out by ICIPE, a baseline survey with more than 400 farmers, it is very interesting that 88 percent of the farmers are actually willing to use feed formulated with insects. Other studies that have been carried out by ICIPE especially around the value chain actors, they are also very willing to use the insect-based protein ingredient in their feed formulation. 

One of the largest feed millers in Kenya has been reaching out to us for the last one year to show them some of those small-medium enterprises that can continually give them 50 metric tons of insect-based feed. 

Now we are finally there, we do have one company that is able to meet that but the demand is so high. Meanwhile, a ton is sold at a thousand dollars, so you imagine this young lady is doing about 40 metric tons a month. If a company can do 40 metric tons a month, that translates to 4,000 dollars. There is money in insect-based feed. The demand is there, I don’t think that is an issue. I think the issue comes when we talk about insects for food but not for feed. We don’t have a problem with acceptance.

Is there a particular initiative that you would like to talk about, something that the Foundation is working on?

Perfect. I would start with my pet work, the smart market, and I will start by providing a little background that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need to reconsider contact in our everyday life. Yet, markets throughout Kenya and I do believe in Africa are places where contact is inevitable with little social distancing between people working and shopping in it. I do believe it is a challenge. Also, 90 percent of consumers actually source their food from open markets, these open markets lack infrastructure, clean water, and sanitation. 

The Rockefeller Foundation is collaborating with Ideo, a human-centered design company in the Eastern Africa Grain Council, to re-imagine the management of open markets in Kenya to enable the high standard of sanitation, comfort, sustainability and economic opportunity. We came up with the idea of the smart markets for the future; this a market that utilizes the space and design to first ensure the comfort of the users, and to ensure that we have adequate circulation including social distancing requirements. 

We want to explore how we can use the roof of the market to capture solar energy. Also, water harvesting is a big challenge. We are blessed with five to six months of rain in this continent, there is no reason why we should not have enough water in store. Where does the rain go? We don’t have water in the markets and yet we have roofs that can capture water. We also envisioned a market where we can recycle the waste. I did say urban markets in Kenya generate about 3.5 million metric tons of waste. We also envisioned a market where agro-processing can take place. Why wait to lose 17 percent of fruits. We can convert some of those fruits into juices and reduce waste. We can also have refrigerated services; I am always excited about the Nigerian entrepreneur who has come up with the idea of cold storage. Why can’t we have something like that in the marketplace. 

Currently, we are at the point where we have just finished prototyping; we do have our prototype of smart markets that includes all the components I have just mentioned, including a digital solution to ensure that we are facilitating the government to collect the necessary revenue, we are tracking different metrics in the market. 

I think that is one thing that is really exciting to me, the other thing is that the Rockefeller foundation recently announced committing one billion dollars globally for the next three years to catalyze more inclusive and quick recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. One key initiative of that is a partnership with IDFC, where we are looking at catalyzing change for healthy and sustainable food systems. This is more of a research project where we want to look at how to catalyze change to improve the quality of life for low income and vulnerable people in Eastern Africa who face the burden of malnutrition and environmental threats. This research partnership is going to look at ways to improve understanding of the complex interplay between the market competitiveness of the different individual household vulnerability drivers of purchasing food habits in the Eastern African region. 

We are really excited about this collaborative partnership; this research is going to support researchers and stakeholders in Africa to build a more equitable and sustainable food system. The idea of the smart market for the future which we hope that it can be scaled to other markets in the region and also around our work in research on nutrition.

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