Wednesday, January 25, 2012

PepsiCo. and Nutrition in Ethiopia

Fast-forward from Cape Town (there are no words to describe...) to my new job in D.C., which has already sent me to several very interesting lectures on topics of interest to the non-profit community.

Last Friday, I attended a forum titled 'PepsiCo. and the World Food Programme (WFP): A Public-Private Partnership to Transform Nutrition Across Africa', and was inspired by the observations made by the representatives from these unlikely partners. As MSME (Micro Small and Medium Enterprise) enthusiasts, non-profit workers might be inclined to mistrust multi-billion dollar corporations, perhaps even more so when they claim to incorporate humanitarian acts into their business model. The forum last week, however, put my former perspective into perspective: perhaps PepsiCo. will be part of the solution instead of the problem.

The non-profit sector is full of do-gooders who can hardly afford to buy a bottle of 3-buck chuck at Trader Joe's, including yours truly, while Pepsi and the like are lining their pockets with currencies from all over the globe. But what if there was a way (and more importantly, a will) to use the incredible resources that companies like Pepsi have at their fingertips to make a serious dent in global hunger? With developed world markets becoming increasingly saturated, the movers and shakers at the top of the capitalist food chain are naturally looking toward new markets, and what better a consumer base than the hungriest people in the world.

In Ethiopia, as in most African nations, a large percent of children do not have consistent access to the nutrients they need to become healthy energetic adolescents and subsequently adults who can participate effectively in global economies. Certain nutrient rich, locally produced foods are already a part of the diet and culture and could be the key to improving nutrition from the ground up. Well aware of this, the World Food Programme (WFP) has recruited one such legume to be the star player in their newest campaign: the humble chickpea. This little nitrogen-fixing plant has begun to make a name for itself around the globe, as dedicated carnivores have found a taste for hummus and Indian food is all the rage in cities, but it's always been important to Ethiopia. This year WFP developed a sweetened chickpea-milk compound packaged individually and targeted at malnourished youth that could not be better suited to local demand, and Ethiopian leaders and farmers are simply ecstatic to start manufacturing and distributing the product locally. This is where Pepsi comes in.

Anticipating the concerns of many audience members at the forum, the WFP representative warned us that there's really no reason to be surprised or alarmed that Pepsi may have motivations beyond the humanitarian for investing in this project as this means they are incentivized to see the project through. Because their investment depends on it, Pepsi worked to ensure that the product stays at price-point so as not to become irrelevant, a safety net that is invaluable to WFP as they begin to promote their product, at first in Ethiopia but potentially to a much wider consumer base. Large companies will have an increasingly important role to play in global nutrition, and transparent arrangements such as this one are trail-blazing the way to a new understanding of the potential of public-private partnerships.

As the WFP representative told us, "there's so much more at stake than compassion". Feeding practices during the first 24 months of life are critical in a child's brain development, and access to this powerful package of sweetened chickpea could go a long way in improving that development. Pepsi's long term goal may be to diversify their own source for chickpeas as global demand soars, but a necessary step toward achieving that goal is supporting smallholder farms which leads to improved incomes. Ethiopian farmers have always cultivated chickpea for small-scale domestic consumption, but with Pepsi's investment and WFP's guidance, the chickpea could have a real impact on child nutrition in Ethiopia and around the world.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

My Transformation

Cape Town.

It's uncanny that a mere two and a half hours on a plane can take you to a place so exactly opposite from where you've spent the last year. And it was quite an enjoyable journey at that - it's amazing the difference between traveling on Mozambique's single airline to traveling with the world renowned South African Airlines. I usually hate flying, but an essentially empty plane with a steward who is eager to keep the white wine flowing makes for a pleasant trip! And if riding in cars made me pensive, then flying alone to a new country, yet again, is emotionally almost more than I can bear. I see that money buys the same things everywhere. Elaborate bushy sweaters for the cold months in the Cape, little girls in trendy leggings and pigtails, smiling people who can afford this direct flight. And I know that I am once again leaving those I care about behind, off to see new things and new people, all the while thinking of those I love but left back home long ago.

And then Cape Town. The land of traffic lights (called 'robots' by South Africans), bubble baths, 10pm sushi, 7am yoga, health food stores, museums, coffee shops, stainless steel bathroom fixtures that respond precisely to my temperature and pressure needs, zero struggle to make correct change in stores, recycling bins, wheat bread, washer AND dryer, the newest in fashion, and 5 different ethnic cuisine options on every block. I am beside myself, and more than a little ashamed that I have so easily fallen into the lap of exquisite luxury. Is this what I need to truly be happy? I maintain that I do not in fact NEED it, but is it wrong to want it? To just be grateful for my privilege and move forward?

Last night was an invite only Gibson guitar event that I managed to get into with the help of a friend. I'm so lucky to be here as someone's guest; it's enabled me to dive straight into the social scene, meeting musicians and getting to know all the best local spots. And I'm spending my days as a tourist, wandering around trying to keep my eyes in my head, discreetly ducking into a cafe to pull out my map from time to time. But really, it's quite an easy place to get to know. Big, but not confusing, and after yesterday's City Bus Tour (admittedly NOT the most discreet, but very informative and an efficient way to see the whole city in a hurry) I feel like I could walk just about anywhere I want to go. Maybe I'll go back down to the Water Front and have another Milk and Honey beer with a basket of fried seafood. Or cook up another Mexican feast for the neighbors. The possibilities are endless, and for now, I'm busy just trying to soak it all in. I'm almost thankful for this rainy day, to reflect on the past 3, send some emails, and convince myself this isn't all a dream.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Watering the Mambas

People say that Africa gets inside you, grabs a hold of something in you. That for many it’s hard to get away once you’ve lived in this land of red earth and tall grass. I’ve seen so many beautiful and so many terrible things this year, and I’ve often tried to put these experiences into words, perhaps sometimes succeeding in communicating the true sentiment of the moment to a reader.

There are many things I will miss. Fresh tropical fruit, and other foods of the season and region; last week we went to the mountain town of Gurue and came back with beans and sunflower seeds for roasting.

The Francisco family of Nguanje; the many children of this tight knit family make up the membership of one of my favorite (sshh) youth groups. This week we visited their garden together for the last time. Jacama kept running ahead of us, jumping out of each bushy hiding spot when we passed, singing one of our favorite tunes. The girls giggled and held my hands.

Cooking with Mozambican women; I cook with my best friend in her home in Quelimane almost daily. She blames me for making her gain weight, and I accept it. This week, we went to Morrumbala for a ‘Dia de Campo’, or field day, with my kids groups, spending the whole night before preparing vitamin rich foods like sweet potato juice and soy milk to share with the children at the celebration. My neighbors came to help as well, peeling oranges as we patted out sweet potato cakes. It was one of the best nights I’ve had in Morrumbala. And on our last night, we went to my neighbor’s house for a dinner of cow liver, my first, and apparently a Mozambican favorite. It wasn’t terrible, as most Americans might fear, but I was glad I chose this evening to teach them how to make banana pudding. A nice palate cleanser.

Other moments of excitement, shock, awe, anticipation, humility. Playing an extra in a Portuguese film. Near head-on collisions; who would expect another vehicle to come around that grassy middle-of-nowhere curve? An unexpected lunar eclipse viewed from the bush. A gift of a goat valuing 15 dollars, a fortune for this family who doesn’t have electricity or running water. Who live in a mud and grass hut in the middle of the bush. Stopping on the side of the road when you can’t hold it anymore to water the grass, and hopefully not water any mambas. Playing mancala in the dirt with kids who can’t write their own name, but who have mastered this intricate game of counting and strategy.

And also many times I just wanted to shut my eyes, to hold the tears in. Children fighting over the chance to have a small cup of soy milk or sweet potato juice; would this ever happen in America? Pedestrian mortalities. Ubiquitous Catholicism which has taken the place of traditional spiritual rites, the result of years of resource dumping into schools, churches, infrastructure. So much good has been done in the name of a God that was not born on this continent. The many, many, many instances of ‘what have you brought us?’ The culture of receiving has been so ingrained here, perpetuated by a generation of foreigners who wish to atone for the sins of their grandfathers, who often feel helpless to do anything but dump charity onto Africa and its people, who have thus transitioned from “Do what you’re told and you won’t be beaten” to “Do what you’re told and I’ll give you a t-shirt that advertises my organization”.

After our Dia de Campo, I was told that the community was very pleased with the day’s activities, but that they were quite displeased with the snack we brought. “Why?” I asked. They seemed to like the sweet potato juice and soy milk and cookies.“Oh yes, they did like them. But they were expecting a full meal.”

At the end of the day, we brought out a soccer ball and the kids played their hearts out until the setting sun commanded our departure. They would have played all night had we let them, and the next day too until their tired, skinny, dirty little legs would propel them no further and they collapsed to sleep, puppies in the dirt. Sometimes I think I’ll give up on effecting complicated social change and simply distribute soccer balls across Zambezia. But how then would I be any different from any of the other dumpers to whom I condescend? To give or not to give, that is the question. Were it as simple as taking the sweet potato off the plate of an 8 year old American who refuses to eat it and popping it into the mouth of a child in Africa…but we know the redistribution of resources depends on so many political, economic, and social factors. “There are starving kids in Africa” is true enough, but it doesn’t make the food come.

I often marvel at the stark differences between socio-economic classes; how must my Mozambican colleagues feel when they go to the bush and see their countrymen who have so much less than them? When they walk past a barefoot woman in the city streets, carrying all her belongings on her back? What they must feel is this: that could very easily be me, and I categorically refuse.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Speed of Light

I’ve written on this topic several times before, but highway etiquette here never ceases to amaze me and makes for endless amounts of writing material. Nine months in this country and my teeth must be ground to nubs. All drivers are constantly on the offensive, laying on the horn when I, in their place, would reduce my speed significantly, and nary a seatbelt in sight. Both north and southbound travelers treat the same road as though it were one way. And until recently, I maintained hope that all the stories I heard of vehicular homicide involving NGO or government cars and rural pedestrians would remain just that: stories. Unfortunate tales that I could try not to think about. But this week, as I accompanied some colleagues visiting from another district to see the junior farmer groups in our province, we came upon an accident that left me short of breath. The feet of a frail woman, most likely old beyond her years, protruding from a black cloth spread across the center of the road. Lettuce from her basket scattered across the lanes, and a government car pulled off on the side of the road.

The woman who sat in front of me crossed herself, and we traveled on. There was nothing else to do.

Another story, the validity of which I hope to never witness proof of, is that of women who actively shove their children into the road when they see NGO cars coming, hoping to receive handsome compensation for the ensuing injury or death. Absolute desperation does very ugly things to a person, and I thank the heavens and whatever is up there every day that life has handed me such good fortune.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Crocodile Crossing

Road-signs are a bit different here, most notably the ones framing low bridges that warn passersby to mind the crocodiles. “Cuidado Com Crocodilo”. And people would do well to heed this warning, as I just learned that more deaths are caused by crocodiles than any other animal in Mozambique. Not at all surprising, considering that large animal populations in this country have declined significantly in the past several decades. What was a bit surprising was the information that a crocodile had somehow made its way to Quelimane, a relatively large city, where it promptly took up residence in a canal and began terrorizing the neighborhood. My initial reaction was “Why doesn’t the government get rid of it, even shoot it if necessary? After all, a human life must be more valuable than a crocodile’s” and the unexpected response I received was that the crocodile hasn’t hurt anyone (yet) and they would have animal rights groups all over their case. Animal rights groups? In Mozambique?? Where wildlife populations have been systematically obliterated without the bat of an eye? Huh. Guess it’s never too late to start caring.

The numerical results that foreign donor groups demand from on the ground NGO staff often pose unfortunate limitations on our ability to focus a sufficient amount of attention and resources on projects that have the potential to produce very meaningful results. Instead of consistently supporting a modest number of beneficiaries, we’re often running around trying to start ‘x’ number of groups with ‘x’ number of members receiving ‘x’ number of visits in order for quarterly reports to seem meaty when they reach Washington. Conversely, huge amounts of money and effort are dedicated to one-day events that have no real impact on the people our organization was designed to support and care for.

For so many people, this is just a job. Not one they chose because they want to make a difference, but simply the best option for carving out a lifestyle free from the poverty we would, in theory, alleviate. NGOs are among the most important employers in Africa, making for an interesting dynamic. For me, the machine is often frustrating, and has me longing to belong to a smaller, organic operation, albeit working on the same types of projects. But for many of my colleagues, the largest concern is, naturally, where they will find work when their 2-3 year life-of-project contract is up.

And although that has nothing to do with city-dwelling crocodiles, it leaves me equally riled up.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Grasshopper Graveyard

When I leave in July, I will certainly miss the sites that a small Mozambican city has to offer. Young men holding hands in the street. Two women walking side by side in identical wraps. An old man in a black fedora, riding a pink bicycle with a basket on the front.

Other things I won’t miss so much. It seems every time I return home, a different bug has set up camp in my humble abode (and even, at times, inside my humble body, although that’s another story. The one that tells of all the parasites I have had in the past few years). This time, it was the grasshoppers. Brown ones, green ones, fast ones, slow ones, but at least they crunch when you kill them, as opposed to making the much less desirable squish of a big hairy spider.

All creatures great and small are an important part of daily life here. Mozambicans are endlessly entertained by the commentary a passing piglet in the road can inspire. “That one was asking for it! We almost had a barbeque tonight – hahaha!” Every time.

A Love Affair With Food

I fell in love with food in Africa. Maybe I also fell in love with Africa through food, but that’s a different story.

Comforts are so few and far between here, so the amount of pleasure a well-thought out and carefully executed meal brings is remarkable. And although it takes a lot of effort and careful planning, I have the resources to frequently create a wide variety of exciting and flavorful meals. This is not the case for most rural Africans, who have experienced significant hunger for so long that food has become the apex of much of their folklore.

“See that mountain over there? With the big white rock on the front of it? That is a door that spirits travel through.”

“Oh? And what do they find when they get inside? Gold? Treasure?”

“No. They find food. Endless quantities of food.”