Indigenous, instant superfood for rural children

Problem

Although malnutrition is not as endemic in South Africa as in some other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, it nonetheless continues to be a significant problem, which is compounded by extreme levels of poverty in some areas. Malnutrition can lead to a multitude of health and developmental complications in both adults and children, and in severe cases even to death. Despite the fact that South Africa's Department of Health has established various special programs and initiatives, such as the Integrated Nutrition Program to combat the detrimental effects of malnutrition, mothers in rural communities still often have no option but to feed their children food with little nutritional value.

Solution

For her PhD research, Dr Nokuthula Vilakazi, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Pretoria, decided to investigate the possibility of using two locally produced grains – sorghum and cowpea – to develop an affordable, nutritious, ready-to-eat meal that is comparable to some of the so-called superfoods sold in shops. She was particularly interested in improving the diet of young children in rural communities, and chose cowpeas and sorghum to achieve this as both these grains are grown in rural areas locally and across sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr Vilakazi prepared her superfood meal by milling sorghum and cooking it in a specialised high-temperature barrel called an extruder, which is also an energy-efficient cooking method. She then cooked the cowpeas using infrared light waves in a process called micronisation, after which she mixed the two grains together to make the final product.

Progress

Unlike other crops that often fail, sorghum and cowpea are well-established crops that are grown successfully in rural areas of South Africa, and Ms Vilakazi found that the pre-cooked, ready-to-eat meal she made using these indigenous grains compared well with a similar, commercially available maize and soy-based product. She also found that the meal could provide in most of the daily zinc, protein and iron requirements of young children, which meant that it was actually better than some other fortified instant meals on the market.

Dr Vilakazi hopes to teach the technologies she used to make her superfood to local farmers to enable them to produce it themselves in a cost-effective way. 'I would like to encourage commercial producers to become more involved in developing rural communities, to partner with scientists and to use my research to introduce and support the use of this technology in rural areas,' she says.

Dr Nokuthula Vilakazi
Published by Srinivasu Nadupalli

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