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Real manna for hungry people

Issue: "Bob Geldof: Whose jubilee?," June 25, 2005

While the policymakers toss billions between Africa's aid and debt ledgers, two French nutrition experts scored a breakthrough in famine relief while sitting at their breakfast tables.

Pediatric nutritionist Andre Briend and Michel Lescanne, chairman of the French food company Nutriset, long dreamed of a high-protein paste that could replace the ubiquitous milk powder that is a problematic mainstay in the world's refugee camps and famine-stricken zones. The powder requires clean water, a scarce commodity in such places, and onsite help from aid workers to properly mix and administer. Other alternatives, like enriched chocolate or other protein bars, were unappetizing or put a strain on young and already compromised digestive systems.

Eyeing a jar of the European hazelnut spread Nutella over breakfast one morning in 1997, Mr. Briend suddenly had the idea of making a peanut butter spread, and phoned Mr. Lescanne.

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The long-sought result is Plumpy'nut, a cheerfully packaged peanut butter paste delivered in a foil wrap about the size of a popular juice drink pouch. Each packs 500 calories of a complex yet easy-tasting blend of protein, carbohydrates, and nutrients. Because peanuts (often called "ground nuts") are a staple in much of Africa, children subsisting on Plumpy'nut face few allergic reactions. Better, the packaging means no mixing, no bacteria risk from dairy-based products, no traveling to aid stations for formula and filtered water for malnourished mothers and their children.

Results, so far, also spell success. Mark Manary, a St. Louis pediatrician at Washington University School of Medicine, reported recovery rates soaring from 25 percent to 95 percent after distributing Plumpy'nut in Malawi. "We didn't need a statistician to tell us this was better," he told The Wall Street Journal.

Large-scale relief groups like Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, and World Vision are currently distributing Plumpy'nut, according to Adeline Lescanne, international development director for Nutriset. She said the food maker is also working to set up franchise networks in Africa, placing production closer to the need and in the hands of locals. On June 13 UNICEF certified Plumpy'nut production in Niger for its refugee camps. Factories in Democratic Republic of Congo and Malawi are also underway. "We will help them, train them, provide machinery, and validate their products," said Ms. Lescanne. Nutriset has a policy of selling only to "social health, aid organizations, and hospitals," she said. "Never to armies, which in Africa sometimes create famine," she added, and not for commercial use.

The largest recipient of Plumpy'nut currently is the Darfur region of Sudan, she said, where Save the Children has fed over 30,000 children "Plumpy," as they call it, and with marked results.

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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