Idea to revolutionize yogurt distribution seeking funding

Special to Western News

Since 2004, Western Heads East has been a grassroots Western-based program focusing on health and nutrition in East Africa. The program began in Tanzania and later expanded to Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Malawi.

Microbiology and Immunology professor Gregor Reid wants to revolutionize the way Western Heads East delivers its life-saving yogurt to the people who need it most.

Since 2004, Western Heads East has been a grassroots Western-based program focusing on health and nutrition in East Africa. The program began in Tanzania and later expanded to Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Malawi. More than 60 student interns representing all faculties have travelled to Africa over the past decade to work with ‘yogurt mamas,’ industry, institutions and government partners to run the program based on the probiotic research of Reid and Sharareh Hekmat of Brescia University College.

At the heart of the program is the empowerment of women, yogurt mamas, to establish community kitchens that make a sustainable difference in African communities economically and physically.

Reid’s new project would bring together his team in Uganda, with what others are doing in Kenya and Tanzania, to expand the reach – and healing power – of the program.

The idea was sparked by a colleague in Uganda.

“When Western set up the kitchens, I went a few times, and on one occasion, I took Remco Kort, a researcher from the Netherlands. He was very impressed and went away and created a foundation called Yoba For Life. They’ve set up a similar thing (to what we’ve proposed) in Uganda,” Reid continued.

Like Western Heads East, Yoba For Life aims to help people in resource-poor countries by local production of a probiotic yogurt, called Yoba.

Unlike Western Heads East, however, the organization has a central location where they train locals in the production of probiotic yogurt. These individuals then fan out to set up their own production plants elsewhere in the country.

While anyone could make yogurt, Reid said, probiotic yogurt needs a particular organism strain to add to the mix. In Tanzania, this strain is available only at the National Institute for Medical Research. The perishable product limits the amount that can be transported, by the mamas, and later limiting how much they can make.

“Every week, they grow it up, and then the mamas come collect it from them and add it to the milk. The process is time consuming and has too many extra steps,” Reid said.

To answer a similar problem, Yoba For Life created ‘a sachet’ – a small, disposable pouch filled with the necessary organism, only dried. The probiotic organism is grown in bulk, dried and powdered. Once done, it’s ready for distribution.

“All you do is you empty that into milk and they grow,” Reid said. “That’s what these sachets can do.”

Because mamas don’t have to travel to a central location, dried probiotics in sachets could reach rural areas much easier. It would bring the health benefits of probiotic yogurts to more people, empowering more women to open up kitchens, and enhancing the sustainability of the whole initiative, by removing its dependency on labs, which create the yogurt strain. Yoba For Life estimates its sachets could help an additional 20,000 people.

Reid’s project, once funded, could reach 100,000 more.

“Right now, we have 10 kitchens and they are limited by being able to get the probiotic from the institute. With the sachets, anyone could open a kitchen and, if they make 100 litres of yogurt, they’re going to make significant profit. That’s the difference,” Reid said.

A recent proposal based on revamping was rejected by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But Reid remains hopeful.

“The sachet is absolutely the way to go. It is a way for these communities to make some money and the growth is spectacular,” Reid said. “I think (the Gates Foundation) made a mistake and unfortunately this data wasn’t available when we applied. It’s unfortunate because the potential of this is huge.”

Other avenues are opening up. Last week, the Canadian government announced $370 million in funding through the Partnerships for Strengthening Maternal, Newborn and Child Health over the next five years. The funding will go to initiatives of selected Canadian organizations that help reduce maternal and child mortality and improve women’s and children’s health in the targeted regions.