045 – Bruce Hamaker: Processing Nutritional Foods in Low Resource Rural Environments

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
045 – Bruce Hamaker: Processing Nutritional Foods in Low Resource Rural Environments


In this episode, David Stern talks to Bruce Hamaker, Distinguished Professor of Food Science at Purdue University. They discuss his projects in West and East Africa, making nutritious foods for local markets using local ingredients, and IDEMS’ role, through the McKnight Foundation, of providing research method support. They consider the transition of focus from urban to rural areas, the move to working with women’s associations and the viral scaling that this enabled.

[00:00:00] David: Hello and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. I’m David Stern, a founding director of IDEMS, and I’m here with Bruce Hamaker, a professor at Purdue University, who we’ve been working together now on a processing project in Niger, or the West African region.

[00:00:25] Bruce: That’s right.

[00:00:25] David: And we’re here together in Mali.

Hi Bruce.

[00:00:27] Bruce: Hello David, glad to be with you.

[00:00:31] David: Great to be here, and it’s been really interesting discussing over the last few years some of the work you’ve been doing with colleagues, particularly in Niger, but now Burkina Faso, Mali, and you’re doing work all over.

[00:00:44] Bruce: That’s right, and Senegal, East Africa too.

[00:00:47] David: Yes, and the essence of the work has been working with these processing units, using local ingredients to make nutritious foods for local markets, is really at the heart of it.

[00:01:00] Bruce: Exactly so. That’s it. And I would say both in urban and rural areas and that’s really probably what we’re going to talk about today.

[00:01:09] David: Absolutely.

[00:01:09] Bruce: The rural side.

[00:01:10] David: Well, I still remember the first time I was exposed to this work almost 10 years ago. There was comparison between the rural and the urban. And if I’m not mistaken, when you started out on this, the expectation was that the urban processing units would be the ones that were most exciting. Is that a fair description?

[00:01:30] Bruce: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Because we’ve been working in the region, mostly West African region, Sahelian region, since around 2000.

[00:01:41] David: Yeah.

[00:01:42] Bruce: And it was really, you’re right, focused on urban entrepreneur processors and helping them to be successful, incubating them into successful businesses, and like you say getting nutritious products out into the marketplace.

[00:01:58] David: I still remember visiting one of the urban centers a number of years ago, and it was extremely impressive. But as you said, now we’re probably going to be talking about the rural side.

[00:02:08] Bruce: That’s right, because it is really something quite different from the urban. You know, we talk in the urban side about entrepreneurism.

[00:02:15] David: Yes.

[00:02:16] Bruce: Which is generally single entrepreneurs with businesses, well and good. But when you go to the rural area, it becomes associations, at least in our case. And I think probably that’s the way to do it. So associations of women, and it no longer is a single entrepreneur led kind of activity.

[00:02:39] David: Absolutely. And I will have the privilege of discussing with a Nigerien colleague, Moustapha, at another date about his journey on this. But the thing which I’m really interested for you to tell us a bit more about on your side is, if I remember correctly, this move to the rural areas, as you said, it was totally different because it’s not coming from the same area.

It was, brought in, as I understand it, almost as a sort of secondary thing. And yet now, unless I’m mistaken, this is what you’re most excited about.

[00:03:10] Bruce: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s kind of odd, you’re right, it happened in Niger.

[00:03:16] David: Yeah.

[00:03:16] Bruce: We’re trying to get money, as a lot of times it’s the case, to continue a project or build a project. It was all about urban processors, entrepreneurism, as I said. And we got in touch with an employee from the United Nations Development Program, UNDP. He said, we could be interested in what you do, but it has to be in rural communities. So that was it. And Moustapha and I, I’ll never forget that, he’ll say the same thing, we went back to the hotel, and that afternoon we wrote out a draft proposal to move this into the rural area. And a lot of things begin to develop out of that.

[00:03:57] David: Yeah. And now why are you most excited about that? Because, I mean, the urban stuff hasn’t stopped. There’s still exciting development to that.

[00:04:05] Bruce: Yeah.

[00:04:05] David: But the rural stuff seems to be sort of exploding in ways which you could never have predicted. I’m certainly so impressed and so excited by it. I know you are. So tell us a bit about why.

[00:04:15] Bruce: Yeah, thank you. Really the exciting thing is that women’s associations in the rural area, I guess there was a question initially, really, are there markets for such products, right? Turns out that there are. And the women’s associations, the processors, were beginning to make money. And what happened? Profit, they’re beginning to see differences related to selling nutritious products and even having relationships with the government health centres in those areas. And then what has happened in every site that we’ve been involved in, which is five principal sites in Niger, but they expanded on their own, just naturally expanded.

So the women took it under their own initiative, outside of the design of the project, to train other women. And in some places now going out to nearly a hundred kilometres from the original site.

[00:05:15] David: I have a concept in education, which I sort of, I’ve been trying to get going on viral scaling and about how a good initiative should be able to scale peer to peer and this is what you’re seeing. You’re seeing that peer to peer scaling happening in ways which are so inspiring.

[00:05:34] Bruce: Yeah, to me it’s just knocked me over because it was something I hadn’t thought, even thought about.

[00:05:40] David: Yes.

[00:05:40] Bruce: You know?

[00:05:41] David: And I can actually see that because when you started out a lot of it was around the equipment that was being brought in to help build up these groups so that they could do it. But the expansion has gone way beyond relying on equipment. It’s not that equipment doesn’t become part of it, but the expansion, as you say, is mostly about the training. It’s about knowledge.

[00:06:00] Bruce: It’s about knowledge. Yeah, really, these are mostly smallholder farmer women, not all, but mostly. And they have a set of skills and knowledge that allows them to do something new and to make money that goes basically into their households and children, towards their children. It’s exactly what you hear, that’s what you see. And it’s something that they feel, and have told us, that it’s really a responsibility of theirs to expand it.

[00:06:31] David: This word responsibility is really important because you started off talking about the entrepreneurship which was the urban context and you differentiated the associations from that. But you’re describing something which sounds like entrepreneurship, but with this element of responsibility. And so I would argue that this is social entrepreneurship.

[00:06:51] Bruce: Well, that’s what Moustapha calls it, and I think you’re exactly right.

[00:06:55] David: And it’s an incredible concept because in there, it’s not formalized as that. There are big movements for social entrepreneurship, and it’s not associated to them at all. It’s just emerged as that because it’s community based, very much around these associations, it’s around groups. It’s driven by the incentive of improving nutrition. But it is entrepreneurial because it’s financially viable, it’s scaling, it’s sort of going out to others, creating opportunity for others. It’s using, entrepreneurship in its best form for social purpose, social entrepreneurship.

[00:07:34] Bruce: I agree. You know, if you do it and if you look at it in strictly a financial, monetary way, it doesn’t seem like it compares to the urban, that potential. But as far as what we see as impact, local community impact, this seems to really exceed that.

[00:07:52] David: And I want to come back to this because I still remember that first comparison which a student had done, which we’ve both critiqued in the past, where in the calculation for the economic comparison between the urban and the rural, they included labour. And they costed labour the same in the urban and the rural environment. And of course then, the amount of labour that went into the rural environment just meant that it was not economically viable.

But the point is that that labour is multipurpose. It’s also an opportunity for the women to get together. It’s part of the association. It’s serving social purposes as well as the economic purposes. And this is exactly where the social entrepreneurial aspect really comes out.

[00:08:34] Bruce: Yeah, you’re right. I remember, well before COVID, probably about six, eight years ago, going to one of these sites in rural Niger, and asking the women through interpreter, of course, what is the benefit that you see? And actually the first thing somebody said was we didn’t know each other like we do now.

[00:08:57] David: It’s amazing.

[00:08:58] Bruce: And that was the first thing. Not that the other is not important, you know.

[00:09:02] David: Yes. It’s building communities. It’s strengthening social communities in ways which are incredible. And these communities, we’ve got to sort of start from the fact that actually, social structures are strong already compared to what we’re used to coming in from the UK, the US. They have strong social structures. But this is reinforcing those strengths.

[00:09:24] Bruce: Yeah, it really is, and it’s also a business opportunity on top of that. So that they really see there’s a way to benefit themselves. They’re their own unit. This is a system that was set up in the capital city at the Agricultural Research Institute INRAN. There’s a laboratory that they stay in close touch with, right? I say laboratory, but it’s bigger than a, you know, just a physical laboratory, right? So even the way that they handle their finances and distribute their profits are different in every place. It’s what they decide to do with some guidance from what we call the hub.

[00:10:06] David: Yes, and what I love about this, we’ve got, in the work we do in the region, we support others to do these collaborative research processes. There is a real research component to this. And you’ve got recent research studies which have come out with some really interesting results about nutritional benefit which have come out of these processes. And Moustapha himself has been doing research on this for years. But, it’s the nature of the research where that balance of power and that exchange of knowledge has totally shifted and changed. The research in the urban context was more standard or traditional.

Unless I’m mistaken, you’ve been pushed into doing totally different things because of the nature of what’s happening in this rural context.

[00:10:51] Bruce: Absolutely. As Moustapha says, it really is truly co-creation of tangible things like products, but also the way that these enterprises are run.

[00:11:04] David: Absolutely. And that co-creation has been so important. So some of the products that have been created, the lab, the research lab has been able to help check nutritional value, safety, compare this to international baby food standards and to make sure that it’s actually safe and valuable in those communities. And the results of that again have been really surprisingly good.

[00:11:30] Bruce: Yeah, they really have. This has been a joint project, I would say, with an agency in the U. S. government, U. S. Agency for International Development, and McKnight Foundation. McKnight Foundation, which really drew this into the rural area. It wasn’t there before, and without them, that would not have happened.

[00:11:49] David: And our role in this has been through the McKnight Foundation, where we give research method support.

[00:11:54] Bruce: That’s right.

[00:11:55] David: And that’s how we’ve been part of this in supporting the research.

[00:11:58] Bruce: Yeah, it’s really been a great collaboration, more than collaboration I would say.

So that nutritional aspect, really we told ourselves at the beginning of this, you know, processing is one thing, right? But really what’s the outcome? The outcome are nutritious products into the market, that people are buying, children are eating them, and there should be some nutritional benefit, right? That’s really the outcome you’re looking for in something like this. Processing really then becomes a tool for development rather than an end unto itself.

[00:12:36] David: Absolutely, and what I really like about what you’re describing there, which really resonates with what I know from the project is these products which have got out into amazing things, they’ve gone into the refugee zones, they’ve had an impact there. There’s been stories around in Burkina Faso where some of the internal displacement meant that the health center closed down somewhere. And then these nutritional products produced by the local women’s association were the only thing that was now available. And so it helped build resilience within communities, which are really difficult communities and very difficult situations.

And we’re really seeing how that local innovation, which has been driving this, this co-creation, has been empowered by it. Some of the things that I’ve heard from some of the women’s groups we’ve interacted with on this are things like the power dynamics in those areas. This has also helped the women, you know, gain some elements of independence because of the financial contribution they’re able to make to the household through this work.

[00:13:47] Bruce: Yeah, absolutely, that’s what we see. Actually right now we’re just going to start this year, and finish, a gender study, a gender role study to kind of understand that in a better way outside of my own field, but we have somebody who’s really, really excellent who is designed that.

[00:14:05] David: And this is I think common for both of us, maybe moving beyond this, I’m aware in this sort of work, we’ve often found ourselves in that situation where we need to contribute into things where we’re outside of our comfort zone, outside of our direct expertise, but we’re in a position where we recognize the need, as you’ve just explained, for a gender study, to go into this and understand this. And we then enable it.

This is also part of the role that you’re playing, supporting Moustapha on this, enabling a number of these things. And it’s also part of the role we play. It’s rather an interesting generalist approach.

[00:14:43] Bruce: Yeah. And we talked about that earlier in a conversation, David. I think it’s a really important point, you know. We’re both scientists, mathematician, and scientists too. And in the end, really, you need to follow where the questions lead, isn’t it? And then maybe it’s a little bit outside of one’s comfort zone, but find a way to do it, and do it in a proper way.

[00:15:07] David: Absolutely. And I like that emphasis on the proper way. We come from enough research specialization to understand the limits of our knowledge, but also to know enough to be able to say, well, okay, we don’t know everything, right? We’re not experts in this domain, we’re experts in other domains. But we know enough to be able to make sure that if something’s going to be done, it needs to be done well.

[00:15:33] Bruce: That’s right. Absolutely. And so this last year in 2023, in Niger, in this rural project that we’re talking about, we did a big nutritional assessment study. 3, 000 individuals were surveyed in four different sites and we looked at two big questions. We looked at, over the course of this, which has been as much as 10 years, in some places less than that, but has there been improvement in diet quality, basically, which is a nutritional indicator, right?

[00:16:11] David: Absolutely.

[00:16:12] Bruce: And so that diet quality was compared in a way for people who had purchased this, not purchased it, in the intervention sites versus a control in each of those four sites. And the second study really is this kind of geographical or reach out this kind of natural expansion of these processing activities and getting nutritionally enhanced products into the market. Are people benefiting?

[00:16:39] David: Yeah. And we don’t want to spoil the suspense on people who might want to read about this, but the results are pretty positive that we’re starting to see.

[00:16:50] Bruce: Thank you too. We’re working on this together.

[00:16:54] David: It’s really, really powerful results which are coming out. And, of course, we can’t know exactly what’s causing some of this, this is not a causation study. But one would hypothesize that really knowledge sharing is an important part about this. Actually, the awareness within the communities is playing a big role, as well as the availability of products.

[00:17:19] Bruce: Absolutely.

[00:17:20] David: And that is really what the non consumers, if you want, in that community are enabling us to understand.

[00:17:25] Bruce: Have improved, it looks like, right? Improved but not as much as those who consume it, but still both have, seem to have improved.

[00:17:34] David: Absolutely. And of course, if you think about that difference between the non consumers and the consumers and that additional improvement the consumers have, this is neglecting the fact that we’re not actually doing the measurements because of course, they are eating the product, which is itself having this sort of carefully balanced nutrition within it. So the benefits that we’re able to positively report, I would argue may be an underestimation of the actual benefits, which is really exciting.

[00:18:04] Bruce: It is, it is. You know, originally I will tell you that we had in the design of the project, the original project, to do an intervention study, it was longitudinal and measuring changes in some nutritional indicators, you know, like biochemical, you know like that. But this, instead, we decided to do a very large survey, a nutritional epidemiologist helped us design it, and it’s answering this question first.

[00:18:34] David: Absolutely. There’s obviously other questions that could be answered, but it’s so exciting that already this question, there’s really good results coming out from such a scalable approach. The thing I’d like to finish on in some sense is to get your views on the scalability of what you’re seeing and how you’re excited about that, what you see is the potential.

[00:18:55] Bruce: Yeah, thanks. So, as we’ve been talking, it’s kind of naturally scalable, but that’s not enough if you’re looking at a development project and development into rural areas for improvement in nutrition. You know, based at least on this model, it needs to then be kind of replicated and expanded, even perhaps out from these secondary sites. And we think that there’s a way. Of course, you can imagine, we think a lot about this. There’s a few other people involved in the study, you can imagine. Moustapha’s the lead scientist, of course.

[00:19:34] David: I have the privilege of interviewing as well.

[00:19:36] Bruce: Yeah, fantastic. And we do think there’s a way to scale this thing. Already, we see scaling in an organic way.

[00:19:45] David: Exactly.

[00:19:45] Bruce: Right? But then it’s like, how do you facilitate that to really penetrate rural areas, right?

[00:19:53] David: I love the word facilitate in this, because I think that’s such an important way to think about this. That you’re not having to do the scaling, you’re just having to facilitate it. It’s scaling naturally. So how do you actually change the conditions so it scales more, or more powerfully, rather than a top down scaling approach which would sometimes come where you’re trying to replicate.

[00:20:17] Bruce: That’s right.

[00:20:18] David: And that’s what’s so exciting about this approach to me, the scaling is happening, it really needs to be accelerated because of the urgency of some of this. So how could we be thinking about accelerating it? Facilitating it, as you put it.

[00:20:32] Bruce: Yeah, thank you. Look forward to talking with you more about it.

[00:20:37] David: These are good discussions. I’ve enjoyed it. Any last thing you’d like to say before we cut off?

[00:20:42] Bruce: No, it’s been great talking to you, David. And thank you for the opportunity to get some of what’s been going on out there. And I really appreciate it.

[00:20:51] David: No, it’s an absolute privilege and it’s been really great talking to you. Thank you very much.

[00:20:56] Bruce: Thank you.