Malawi: This porridge is now just right
Porridge, often made with a corn-soy blend, is one of the food staples in Malawi, a southern African country that ranks among the 10 poorest nations in the world. Its residents – including schoolchildren, mothers and thousands of refugees – rely on this cooked grain to fend off malnutrition – which contributes to high mortality rates.
But what happens when that vitamin- and mineral-fortified porridge tastes terrible, has lost its nutritional value and is just plain rejected by the people who need it the most?
That’s when volunteers, including two General Mills employees, were called upon to share their food science expertise as representatives of Partners in Food Solutions, a nonprofit that provides food production knowledge to food companies in Africa.
Jeff Resch and Craig Lundquist, Minneapolis-based food scientists at General Mills, were in Malawi in November for nine days. They observed food manufacturing facilities and led training sessions for nearly 60 representatives of several corn-soy blend producers from Malawi and neighboring Tanzania.
Their efforts build on the pioneering work of Barmack Rassi, a technology manager with Cereal Partners Worldwide (our joint venture with Nestlé), who initiated the project.
Jeff, Craig and Barmack are just three of the 500 or so General Mills employees – along with employees from Cargill and DSM – who have volunteered their technical expertise to Partners in Food Solutions over the last four years.
Partners in Food Solutions teamed with another nonprofit, World Food Programme, to help solve the Malawi dilemma. The World Food Programme, which provides nutritional assistance, has long been a champion of the corn-soy blend to fend off malnutrition in this country where hunger, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, infectious diseases and limited access to basic health care are among the factors that contribute to high mortality rates in infants and children.
“There was a problem with the corn-soy blend,” says Jeff. “It had a bitter taste, bad odor and short shelf life. This caused schoolchildren and refugees, some of the main recipients of this food, to reject the porridge due to quality issues.”
The organization knew it had this problem, but didn’t have the resources to solve it.
“That’s where we came in,” says Craig, a first-time volunteer for Partners in Food Solutions. “I’ve always had an interest in global food problems and world hunger. I also thought it would be exciting to use my skills to help solve some of those problems.”
Meeting with the food companies
Malawi’s second largest city, Blantyre, was the destination for the one-day training session on Nov. 12. Jeff, Craig and other volunteers met with representatives from all 11 of Malawi’s corn-soy blend manufacturers, and another from Tanzania. This group of 58 included company owners, production leaders and equipment operators from small and large companies. All were eager to solve the corn-soy blend problem.
“They were excited to have experts from the United States help them make the product better,” Jeff says.
There were lectures and demonstrations that covered topics such as fortification, processing equipment, extrusion cooking, maintenance and safety. Overall, the attendees were curious, engaged and ready to learn, Craig says.
“One of the most encouraging things I heard came from an operator during a factory visit the day after training,” says Craig. “He said that when he arrived that morning, everything made more sense.”
Although the actual in-class tutorials occurred in one day, Jeff and Craig visited some of the corn-soy blend production facilities before and after the training session.
“We wanted to make the connection with the people running the small factories, and see with our own eyes what their production facilities looked like, what problems they were having, and find out what they wanted to learn,” Jeff says.
Feeding schoolchildren, mothers, infants
They also saw the corn-soy blend serving its purpose – feeding people – in two different scenarios. Jeff and Craig visited a large school in Blantyre, where 2,500 children ate the porridge.
“It was eye-opening in seeing the sheer number of kids on the school grounds,” says Jeff. “The same goes for witnessing the preparation of the corn-soy blend. We saw the school headmistress and cooks using six or seven huge cauldrons to make big pots of porridge over an open fire, using what looked like canoe paddles to stir it. The children lined up and were super excited to get a cup of porridge.”
The two also visited a rural feeding center where about 25 undernourished mothers and their infants were fed.
Adds Craig: “It was very moving to see the malnourished children – some who had distended bellies — eating a meal. There was obvious hunger there, but there was also joy and playfulness that highlighted the potential of the children.”
The problems, the solutions
The volunteers discovered there wasn’t just one problem.
The biggest was that the corn-soy blend was undercooked during manufacturing. Ideally, the cooking temperature should be 140 degrees Celsius. But on an earlier trip to Malawi, Barmack had discovered many producers were coming up 10 -to -20 degrees short.
“This led to the broader lesson of getting the basics right,” says Jeff. “We came in thinking that with a lot of General Mills knowledge, we could apply high-tech solutions to the problem. But that wasn’t necessary. If the food processors focused on the basics, they would be 90 percent of the way there.”
The back-to-basics approach led the team to focus on three key points:
• Keep the temperature at 140 degrees: Proper cooking will destroy or greatly reduce naturally occurring trypsin inhibitors in raw soybeans, and enzymes in the corn and soy. Trypsin inhibitors are an anti-nutritional component that prevents people from properly digesting protein in their diet. Also, if the corn and soy enzymes remain present, the fat breakdown reactions proceed more quickly, leading to undesirable tastes and odors. Proper cooking will produce a more nutritious product that maintains its high quality taste for a longer period. This provides a pleasant toasted flavor and can create natural antioxidants that slow down the fat degradation reactions.
• Maintain moisture content at less than 10 percent: A higher moisture content could enable the growth of spoilage yeast and molds that affect the taste.
• Keep the particle size at less than 1 millimeter: Larger particle sizes give a coarse texture and gritty feel in the mouth. They also are more difficult to rehydrate when the porridge is prepared.
‘I felt very humbled’
The training sessions went to so well, that the volunteers are looking for ways to apply this knowledge in other countries, including Zambia.
Now that Partners in Food Solutions has established relationships in Malawi, Craig says he’s eager to learn about the long-term impact of the training. It’s been less than three months since the venture, but he’s optimistic that success will be attained, especially after he saw women in one village espouse the importance of vitamins and minerals seven years after a similar training effort.
“I felt very humbled to take some small part in adding to their knowledge – knowledge that will hopefully lead to self-sufficiency for Malawi,” Craig says.