Tackling hidden hunger in Tanzania with biofortified foods

The United Nations Best Small Business: Good Food for All competition is welcoming applications from small and medium-sized food businesses. The organizers are looking for “everyday heroes” changing their communities, countries and the world for the better. Jolenta Joseph, from Tanzania, is one example of how entrepreneurs can create positive change and inspire others. An upsurge in cases of malnutrition among children in rural Tanzania, combined with the issue of poor markets for farmers, inspired her to venture into the nutrition business. To apply to the competition, visit this page.

With Tanzania’s staple food crop, maize, constantly being ravaged by pests, diseases and erratic weather, in 2002, the International Potato Centre introduced orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (OFSP) as an alternative option for farmers. The crop initially enjoyed massive uptake due to its fast-maturing rate, taking just three to four months to harvest, and being less susceptible to pests and diseases compared to maize. But as more farmers took up OFSP cultivation, the markets became saturated, and making a profit became increasingly difficult for farmers.

As part of her BSc degree in human nutrition with the Sokoine University of Agriculture, Jolenta was working on a nutrition awareness programme in 2017. Her interactions with farmers presented an opportunity: “I noticed the large swathes of land under OFSP production and the farmers’ struggle in getting their produce to market. That became my light bulb moment,” she says. She approached 10 farmers who agreed to supply her with OFSP, on the condition that she would provide a consistent and ready market. With a steady supply, Sanavita started out by selling OFSP to consumers but has evolved over time to add value to OFSP, beans and maize.

Scaling up with added value

From the initial 10 farmers, she now works with more than 2,000 who supply her with over 5 tonnes of OFSP every week for processing. But while the potatoes remain her company’s flagship product, she has also ventured into the purchase and value addition of pro-vitamin A maize, which has a higher beta carotene level than the potatoes and is high in iron. Sanavita has now grown its product portfolio to include OFSP puree, bread, flour, soya flour, pumpkin seeds flour and pro vitamin A flour.

In search of a production area, Jolenta was accepted by the Sokoine University Graduate Entrepreneurs Cooperative (SUGECO); an agriculture incubator which allowed Sanavita access to milling machines and laboratory services at a subsidised rate. SUGECO also provides Sanavita with access to a laboratory where they are able to conduct analysis on all value-added products before releasing them to the market. This enables Jolenta to ensure food safety and the optimum nutrition composition of her products.

Jolenta also received support from the Tanzania Sun Business Network, which enabled her to purchase new equipment, increase volumes and product ranges, and boost the company’s customer base. An electric chopping machine allowed Sanavita to more than triple the amount of OFSP cut per hour, and a bag-sealing machine led to a doubling of flour sales per month during 2020 as the company was able to package any quantity of flour for a wider range of customers, including wholesalers, local markets and shops.

The establishment of an OFSP multiplication site provides farmers with high quality, disease-free vines certified by the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute-Kibaha. “As we seek to improve nutrition at the household level, we want these farmers to consume OFSP in their own homes and only sell us the surplus. I am very glad to see those attending the trainings are seeing the value of this approach,” Jolenta explains.

To help spread the message of the importance of bio-fortified food consumption, Sanavita runs nutrition awareness campaigns via local radio, TV stations and social media platforms. This is complemented by nutrition education in schools and regular visits to clinics, where Jospeh and her team interact with pregnant mothers and encourage them to consume the OFSP to boost their iron levels. So far, the company has been able to reach 20,000 community members through this approach.

Succeeding despite the challenges

When COVID-19 first struck Tanzania, Sanavita lost wholesale buyers like market traders and schools, which were some of Jolenta’s largest customers. To help insulate her business, Jolenta was provided with a grant of TZS14 million (US$6,000) by GAIN’s Keep Food Markets Working programme, allowing her to cover operation costs and continue paying salaries. This grant has also enabled her to market her products in various regions in Tanzania. As a result, the company has reported sales figures far greater than would otherwise have been expected in these challenging times.

Undaunted by the setbacks the enterprise has faced, as the appetite for biofortified foods grows in rural and urban areas, Sanavita is now looking to scale operations to Arusha, Tanga and Kilimanjaro towns. Despite the towns being far from Morogoro, where the business is based, word of mouth and recent publicity in the local media is stimulating demand for more of Sanavita’s nutritious products. The company is also in the process of acquiring Tanzania Bureau of Standards marks of quality that will also enable her products to be sold in large retail stories and provide access to export markets.

“You cannot compromise on quality,” Jolenta says. She emphasises that the core mission of other food business entrepreneurs should be to change lives as they build their businesses. “If we are to give our products a high rating in the market, then we have to invest heavily in ensuring that the quality of our products is top notch,” she advises.

For more information, see the original article which was written by Kenyan correspondent Bob Koigi and published by SBN

Credit: Photo courtesy of Sanavita