By Stefan Palzer
Chief Technology Officer Nestlé S.A.
Home to around 1 billion people, sub-Saharan Africa is very diverse with a fast-growing and young population. While the region has experienced steady economic growth for a number of years, many communities continue to face severe challenges such as poverty and malnutrition. About 40% of the region's population continues to live on less than 2 US dollars a day. Many children and families lack access to affordable nutritious foods often resulting in a lack of essential nutrients in their daily diet. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn will probably further aggravate these issues. Additionally, the region must tackle other global challenges such as packaging sustainability, while also limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
Affordable nutrition delivered sustainably is a priority for our company. To achieve this, science and technology are pivotal and solutions need to be adapted to the local context. This requires a significant level of expertise, local insight and – last, but not least – entrepreneurial spirit. Accordingly, we're collaborating with universities in sub-Saharan Africa to develop new and innovative technological solutions while considering local relevance, raw materials as well as consumer needs and preferences. To strengthen local expertise, we also support passionate young scientists and start-ups from the region in their efforts to identify effective solutions.
Leveraging our African R&D capabilities to develop relevant innovations
Scientists and food technologists at our R&D center in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, develop affordable nutrition products for sub-Saharan Africa. The teams take into account local nutritional needs, consumption habits and consumer preferences. They incorporate regionally sourced nutritious cereals and plant protein sources in the product formulations and fortify them with micronutrients such as iron, iodine, zinc and various vitamins. Our local experts are also focused on delivering solutions for sustainable and affordable packaging. Using a test and learn approach, they pilot reusable and refillable systems as well as paper-based packaging. Furthermore the local teams have access to our global expert network, cutting-edge analytical equipment, labs and pilot plants at all of our 23 R&D locations.
The center also supports our local factories in the region and provides learning opportunities for students from many African universities.
Collaborating with African universities to close gaps and grow local talent
Since 2019, we have established collaborations with several leading universities across Western, Central and Eastern Africa. We are working directly with local researchers to put resources towards existing science and technology gaps related to affordable and sustainable nutrition.
For example, we are investing in nutrition and sustainability projects at the University of Ghana. Through a 5-year program we are supporting a large number of PhD and master students in food science, nutrition and food process engineering. The specific research themes include the development of highly affordable nutritious foods, the impact of iron fortification on public health, as well as the implications of climate change on food security and nutritional quality.
We are also collaborating with the University of Ibadan in Nigeria to understand the dietary intakes of Nigerian children aged four to thirteen years. This data will enable Nestlé and the local government to identify and understand the nutritional gaps and inadequacies. This understanding will be applied for the development of affordable nutritious food and beverages.
Our academic network in sub-Saharan Africa also includes a number of other well-known universities in Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Benin, as well as the Swiss Center for Scientific Research in Côte d'Ivoire. We also have collaborations in the area of engineering, where Nestlé and other industrial partners set up a 3-year masters program together with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) and the Ashesi University in Ghana.
Besides the development of new solutions, we aim to grow local talents and support scientific expertise which is needed to overcome the various challenges related to nutrition and sustainability. Students from sub-Saharan Africa can embark on internships in our regional innovation center in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, our local experimental farms or in one of our other global R&D centers. Currently, we have students performing internships related to farming and post-harvest practices, technologies allowing us to valorize local raw materials, affordable protein sources and creative solutions to reduce plastic waste. Training is provided by Nestlé experts and solutions can be tested immediately under real-life conditions. This academic program is an integral part of our global Nestlé needs YOUth initiative.
Combining creativity with expertise
Providing safe and affordable, nutritious products using local protein and carbohydrate sources, as well as environmentally friendly packaging, remains a challenge. Managing related trade-offs requires a lot of expertise, local insight but also remarkable creativity. We collaborated with local start-ups and entrepreneurs including those in local universities, in the frame of a pan-African innovation challenge. The finalists were awarded the opportunity to further explore their ideas in our regional R&D Accelerator located at the R&D Center in Abidjan. Beyond the innovation challenge, we continue to work with and support local start-ups and a large number of agripreneurs in their efforts to test and scale-up innovative solutions.
Through this comprehensive pan-African innovation program, which complements our R&D expertise with academic capabilities and entrepreneurial creativity, we can make an impactful contribution towards affordable nutrition. Making good nutrition affordable and accessible to everyone while ensuring a minimal impact on the environment should be a huge motivation for all of us.