Rural Kenya. Photo: Maria Grahn
A new initiative sees researchers studying knowledge from rural Kenya, in the hopes that it will lead to better health and a sustainable food supply. Photo: Maria Grahn.

Researchers in quest for sustainable food

​“Forgotten” plants, insects and crops. A new initiative sees researchers studying knowledge from rural Kenya, in the hopes that it will lead to better health and a sustainable food supply.
Ulf Svanberg. Photo: Maria GrahnFundamentally, my approach is that “Fundamentally, my approach is that challenges should be defined by those facing the problem. Sometimes, where we’re trying to improve the situation, we have ideas which seem good but which don’t really focus on the major problems. However, in this case I think we’re spot-on”, says Ulf Svanberg, Professor of Food and Nutrition Science at Chalmers.

The initiative was launched by President and CEO of Chalmers, Stefan Bengtsson, to bring about greater collaboration with Universities in East Africa. Keeping in mind the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals - aimed at combating extreme poverty, reducing inequality and injustice in the world, promoting peace and justice and solving the climate crisis - Chalmers has identified three focus areas: food, water and energy. The partnership has been formed around Chalmers researchers from these fields.
In early April, researchers from Chalmers and the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology, JOOUST met for a workshop in the Kenyan port of Kisumu, on the northern shores of Lake Victoria.
Monica Awuor Ayieko, photo by Maria GrahnBefore travelling, the researchers had sent descriptions of their specialist fields. But when Svanberg tried to find a potential partner with a background in food, he found that there really weren’t any.
Then, along came Monica Awuor Ayieko, heading a research group whose focus included the nutritional value of insects, at the Africa Center of Excellence in Sustainable Use of Insects as Food and Feeds, INSEFOODS.
“I had no expertise in that area, so I read a comprehensive research article from the Netherlands. Insects are eaten in Africa and Asia and I immediately saw the connection between Monica’s research and my own”.

Svanberg has a well-established background in food and nutrition science. In the early 1980s, his first doctoral student was Alex Mosha in Tanzania, who worked at the country’s Food and Nutrition Centre. They travelled around, weighing and measuring children in rural areas to investigate the prevalence of malnutrition and anaemia.
Iron deficiency anaemia and malnutrition are global health problems entailing diminished quality-of-life and increased risk of death from infectious diseases like measles and malaria. Currently, over half of preschool children in Africa are affected by iron deficiency anaemia.

Svanberg and his doctoral student discovered Power Flour. This sprouted flour could transform the thick porridge the children were eating into a nutritious gruel and help reduce the number of malnourished children in the region. 
“Without enough protein, children will be of shorter stature relative to their age. There is research showing the societal effect of this, including lower GDP in countries where the population is iron-deficient,” explains Svanberg, pointing out that food and nutrition are at the centre of the UN’s global goals.
“That’s how I got involved. I’ve also run research projects in a number of other countries such as Ethiopian, Uganda and Mozambique. But, up to now, Kenya was one of the few East African countries where I didn’t have a partnership.” 

So, how do insects help? Iron from animal foods is easily absorbed by the body but the iron present in cereals such as rice and maize is much less absorbed.
“This is the cunning part. If you add a little bit of meat with the cereals, more of the iron from the cereals is absorbed. Mixing insects into cereal foods may therefore have a   positive effect on iron uptake”, says Svanberg.
At the Kisumu workshop, the researchers brought together a research project which they called “Hidden treasures of underutilised plants and insects: from molecule to landscape”.
Svanberg explains that they set out to study and map insects and “forgotten” plants; nutrient-rich green leaves used in rural villages for purposes unknown to us. Researchers will also study land use in cultivation. Food wastage is a problem in Kenya, with some 30 percent of perishable foods in the cities going to waste.

Cakes with a base of insects, photo by Maria Grahn“So, there’s a lot to do in this project. This is a new university, but the researchers we met are incredibly talented. They have a drive and a positive attitude to research collaboration. We’ve already appointed a tentative doctoral student for our project and a partnership within the other fields is also underway.

Svanberg received a pack of biscuits from JOOUST, to which Monica had added 10 percent insects.
“It tastes pretty much like shortbread but with a slightly bitter aftertaste. In June, when we discuss this partnership with the department, I’m going to hand those biscuits around at coffeetime!”
Just as the interview is ending, Svanberg mentions a quote from then US president, John F. Kennedy, at the first World Food Congress, held in Washington on June 4,1963:
“We have the ability, as members of the human race, we have the means, we have the capacity to eliminate hunger from the face of the earth in our lifetime. We only need the will”.
“President Kennedy was right. He understood and had the vision. It’s 40 years since I first came to Africa but now we’re finally here to realise the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals; to eliminate hunger and malnourishment by 2030.

Maria Grahn is the photographer for all photos. From the top: Ulf Svanberg, Monica Awuor Ayieko and the biscuits.​
Text by: Ann-Christine Nordin

JOOUST: Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology​
Bygger broar med Östafrika (More about the initiative in Swedish)
Reduces malnutrition using germinated fluor
The Global Goals​

Published: Fri 07 Jun 2019. Modified: Mon 17 Jun 2019