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Achieving better nutrition, one cookery class at a time

by Rajani Kumar | ICRISAT
Wednesday, 17 January 2018 09:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Reducing widespread malnutrition, low growth and anemia by teaching better ways of preparing cereals rich in iron and zinc

A recently published research paper reveals how technology, knowledge and effective communication can help to address dietary misconceptions and encourage better nutritional practices in rural settings. The paper reports on the success of the innovative methodology used for knowledge transfer (collective cooking) among women in rural communities in Mali during the An Be Jigi (‘Hope for All’ in Bambara) nutrition project. The intervention, driven primarily by women, resulted in a significant increase in adoption of the use of whole grain sorghum for food preparation, especially for young children.

When the An Be Jigi project began in 2006, women and children in the Koulikoro region of Mali suffered from malnutrition, low growth and anemia. Despite sorghum and millets – cereals rich in iron and zinc – being a significant component of the local diets, researchers found that uptake of these essential minerals was low because of the way the grains were cooked.

For example, to prepare a local dish , women pounded the sorghum grains for decortication (removal of the seed coat). The women explained that decortication was considered essential as incompletely pounded grains were considered a sign of laziness on the part of the cook in their community. Decortication also imparted a wealthier status to the family. Unfortunately, the removal of bran also resulted in about 50% loss of iron and zinc.

To solve this issue, the project team developed alternative methods of cooking whole grain sorghum (without pounding out the bran): soaking and drying the grains before grinding in a mill. They also created new recipes that used the flour obtained by this method. For spreading these ideas among the main stakeholders of community nutrition – the women (especially young mothers) – the team conducted group cooking (cuisines collectives) sessions to teach women the recipes and discuss child nutrition and hygiene issues. Several remarkable women came forward to become nutrition leaders in their regions, conducting workshops and information sessions. They explained that using whole grain not only increased the nutritive value of their food, it also freed up the time that the women would otherwise spend pounding the grain in a mortar and pestle.

Aminata Sanogo and Assa Kayentoo are two such nutrition leaders who use the local idiom to explain the science behind nutrition, growth and health. To make an impact on a largely illiterate audience, they use pictures, drawings and examples drawn from day-to-day life (Proteins are essential – like the bricks to build a house).

During these sessions, apart from learning new, wholesome recipes, women could also discuss among themselves other problems and difficulties. This led to greater understanding of the workings of rural communities, the roles played by women in the family and the age-old perceptions associated with food. A post-project survey in 2015 revealed practical problems faced by the rural women in including whole grain in their diets, such as not having a flour mill close by for grinding the whole grain sorghum into flour, and having to depend on men to drive them to the mill.

Nevertheless, the work done by An Be Jigi has resulted in a significant increase in the consumption of whole grain sorghum in the region, especially among young children. The above-mentioned paper about the study, conducted after conclusion of the project, revealed that over 71% of the women were feeding whole grain to their children at least every other day. About 56% of families were having whole grain diets every day.

By reaching out to the women in novel ways and digging deep to understand their motivations for adopting certain cooking practices, An Be Jigi researchers have broken new ground in social science research. They have shown that knowledge and technology sharing reaps richer rewards with a cultural understanding of the local milieu.

Mothers in the Koulikoro region of Mali are leading by example to create a more capable younger generation. While some challenges still exist – removing gender-based distinctions on activities (e.g. riding motorbikes) – women like Aminata, Assa and others have contributed immensely to changing the mindsets and practices of villagers in Mali, giving the children a solid base for a stronger, healthier adulthood.

Partners: Malian National Agricultural Research Institute, IER (Institut d’Economie Rurale); Helen Keller International; McKnight Foundation; Association Malienne d’Eveil au Développement Durable (AMEDD); Union Locale des Producteurs de Céréales de Dioila (ULPC); Coopérative pour la Promotion de la Filière Semence de Siby (COPROSEM); Wageningen University (Netherlands); Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD, France); Département de Technologie Alimentaire of IRSAT (Burkina Faso); ICRISAT.