My team and I are trying to tackle malnutrition in 6-24 months old children in Sierra Leone where one-fourth of children die before their fifth birthday and maternal mortality is the highest in the world. Before we even considered what kind of food we were going to make, the first question was why. Why is malnutrition still such an insurmountable problem despite efforts made from all over the world and despite the availability of nutritious foods in Sierra Leone? The basis of the issue is that children are not getting access to nutritious foods, and when they do, it’s only temporary. Over 70% of the population lives on less than $1 a day so food must be cheap. Rice is a staple in Sierra Leone and is typically consumed at every meal, but it does not have any nutritional value. Cultural taboos hinder what can and cannot be eaten. Many families choose not to eat meat, eggs, or bananas for various reasons. These taboos are passed down by mothers and other women in the family, and they are currently the ones being heard. When a mother has a question about medicine or nutrition, she typically goes to another woman in the household for advice, not a community health worker. Because of this influence, mothers are often not exclusively breastfeeding until six months, or they aren’t feeding their children properly, causing malnutrition and developmental issues. We are working to make a food that is nutritious, cheap, and easy to use to fix these problems. Ease of use is kind of a difficult thing to tackle. Most people in Sierra Leone do speak English, but there are things about our future product that are difficult to explain in words, especially on packaging, which is why we need clear, concise images on our packaging to prevent confusion on how to use our product. This graphic packaging will have directions for use, ingredient amounts, and limited words that are easy to follow to alleviate any potential confusion.
Unfortunately, many of these issues cannot be applied to the US. Many people in Sierra Leone live on less than $1 per day, and the average American household spends $20 just on food in one day. Food insecurity and hunger are definitely problems that still need to be fixed, but children do not go malnourished at any rate close to those in Sierra Leone. Like food anywhere, our product needs to taste good, have a normal texture, and have easy, attractive packaging. This includes a packaging with clear images of portions or any recipes our product will have. One thing in our favor, is that people of Sierra Leone tend to be drawn to packaging that looks American- they see it as high quality.
Sierra Leone presents different challenges than the US because people have such little money to spend. First, making a product that has enough micronutrients and still costs only a few cents to make will be difficult. It will be hard to purchase materials and foods while still being able to pay for labor costs. Next, Sierra Leone severely lacks physicians and it is difficult to connect with community health workers, especially from remote areas. This is difficult for us because these would potentially be the people helping us connect with mothers and families to communicate with them and ask them to try our product. Finally, Khanjan has explained that many people in Sierra Leone expect compensation if they are ever asked to attend training sessions or similar meetings. We will definitely have to interview mothers and families, and hope this doesn’t prove to be an issue for us.
With that being said, there are resources in Sierra Leone that will help us. We are expecting World Hope International to be a great resource and guide for us during fieldwork. We are also already in contact with one of the program directors, Allieu Bangura for advice on our recipes and life in Sierra Leone. Many families shop in a marketplace, which is where we would sell our product. We will be able to visit these markets and learn how they work during fieldwork to see how our product would be sold to families. Lastly, with products like Bennimix and other micronutrient treatments, babies are used to eating porridge-like foods which is great in our case. We had always assumed that children eat foods with a porridge consistency because they’re soft and easy to eat, but it’s not just that. A nutritionist informed us that porridge is a great product for children in our age group because it aids in sensory development and teaches kids to chew and swallow food like they’re supposed to.