Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition: Key Ingredients - Marc Van Ameringen

The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition provides an effective model for fighting malnutrition. Executive director Marc Van Ameringen tells Nigel Ash how public private partnerships and market forces, rather than the traditional aid donor models, are the keys to its success.

The international community has been fighting malnutrition for 50 years but the problem has been getting worse. There are now over a billion people around the world considered to be undernourished and for Marc Van Ameringen, executive director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), the traditional view that economic growth solves the problem is not necessarily correct. ‘India is experiencing strong growth but the number of malnourished Indians is growing even faster,’ he says.

Since 2002, GAIN’s proposition has been to promote projects for the nutritional fortification of staple foods, such as flour, milk, cooking oil and condiments such as soy sauce with micro-nutrients tailored to local needs.

In South Africa, for instance, the addition of folic acid to maize meal has brought about a dramatic decrease in birth defects. ‘The challenge is to persuade local manufacturers, often working with their governments, to produce and market fortified foods to consumers who are living on between $2 and $6 a day,’ says Van Ameringen. ‘The unit cost has to be less, the packaging has to be cheaper, the marketing is quite different as is the distribution.’

Nutritional values

"We already work with some of the world’s leading food companies. We want to work with more of them."

Among GAIN’s successes have been the fortification of Egypt’s staple baladi bread and Morocco’s vegetable oil and wheat flour, the introduction of fortified yoghurt in Bangladesh in a project with Danone and Grameen Bank, calcium-boosted milk in Nigeria with Tetrapak, iron-fortified biscuits by Britannia, India’s largest biscuit manufacturer, the adding of micro-nutrients to soy sauce in China and to fish sauce in Vietnam. GAIN is also working with UNICEF on a substantial salt iodisation project and with PATH on a pilot project for a new technology to fortify rice.

‘A particular target for us has been pregnant mothers and children from six months old up to two years. If they don’t get the right food during that period you cannot fix the consequences later on in life. It means the child could be stunted, have a lower IQ, lower productivity as an adult and will have various chronic diseases as he or she matures. GAIN’s solution has been to promote the manufacture of weaning foods, such as porridges.’

Multiple benefits

GAIN’S 60-strong Geneva-based staff represent an eclectic range of skills including investment banking, management, food technology, nutrition and quality assurance. With each project they provide the private sector partner with the business model to make and distribute inexpensive but nourishing foodstuffs.

‘It is good for their own businesses. They are building new markets and at the same time a lot of the new formulations they are using for the poor also have spin-offs for higher margin products as well. It is a win-win proposition,’ says Van Ameringen.

The key, he says, is to create a sustainable business for nutritionally fortified products, which will require no further intervention after the project advice, and sometimes the start-up funding that GAIN provides.

In a move to extend this formula, GAIN has been creating an innovative finance programme. Working with the US venture philanthropy fund Acumen and the International Finance Corporation, GAIN is targeting direct investment in local food manufacturers to boost the production of nutritious products for infants and young children. GAIN’s work is underpinned by baseline surveys to understand the different nutritional profiles in malnourished populations and identify what beneficial impacts intervention can achieve.

‘We want to reach a billion people, so we are always looking for scale’ says Van Ameringen. ‘The nutritional fortification part of the process is simple. The complexity lies in putting together the sustainable private public partnerships to manufacture, market and distribute these products. We already work with some of the world’s leading food companies. We want to work with more of them.’

Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition executive director Marc Van Ameringen.