046 – Moustapha Moussa: Processing Food

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
046 – Moustapha Moussa: Processing Food


David Stern talks to Moustapha Moussa about his work with communities in West Africa on processing centres to transform local food into nutritious products. They discuss how a chance encounter led to Moustapha working with the McKnight Foundation to build upon his research, and how focus shifted from urban areas to working in deep collaboration with women’s groups in rural communities.

[00:00:00] David: Hello and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. I’m David Stern and I have the privilege of being here today with a colleague of mine called Moustapha Moussa. We’ve been working together now for 10 years on your work in processing. It’s so great to be here discussing with you. How are you doing?

[00:00:26] Moustapha: How are you doing, David? Thank you so much. And thank you for giving me this opportunity to have an interview with you.

[00:00:36] David: It’s a pleasure. It’s a real privilege.

[00:00:38] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:00:38] David: Because we’ve known each other now for quite a while and I’ve always admired your work so much. To hear about it now and to be able to discuss it with you in this way is going to be great.

[00:00:48] Moustapha: Yes, thank you so much.

[00:00:50] David: So, I want to start with, you’ve been working now with farmers in Niger, which is where you’re from.

[00:00:58] Moustapha: Yeah.

[00:00:59] David: But not just Niger, in Burkina Faso and now Mali as well, on processing.

[00:01:05] Moustapha: Yeah.

[00:01:05] David: Transforming local food into nutritious products in a way which is, I think transforming in many ways the way that rural communities are working.

[00:01:21] Moustapha: Yeah.

[00:01:21] David: And you’ve not just worked in rural communities, you’ve worked in urban communities as well, and that’s maybe another set of discussions we could have. But I’d like to focus on when you started working with these rural communities, on the processing units you’ve been building with them.

[00:01:37] Moustapha: Yeah.

[00:01:37] David: Did you ever imagine it could have the sort of transformational effect that you’re now seeing? What was your thought?

[00:01:46] Moustapha: Okay, actually, to me, I would not imagine that I would be part of a system that can really bring this change, starting change, it’s very impressive. But to me, we really got to make it because there are so many things starting by collaboration, integration of discipline and listening to people. And also be more specific on what we want to do.

So I think that’s what make, to me, this success. I remember 10 years ago, as you mentioned, we had a workshop, I think, in Burkina Faso. And that time it was Roger Stern that was leading the team of research method. And that was the first workshop we had on data entry, which I saw very amazing how to set variable, how to set the dependent and independent variable and how to really match everything and to make sense, to visualize result and the value we put still on, I mean data understanding to type of analysis to do.

But the second thing that amazed me, I think it was 2011, there was a session, he say, you all have to define your research question. And that was my first time to hear the word research question.

[00:03:42] David: And this is really interesting. And I’m realising that, listening to you, I know what you’re talking about.

[00:03:46] Moustapha: Yes, yes.

[00:03:46] David: But I’m not sure that the audience can yet tell what you’ve done. So let’s just get concrete now.

[00:03:53] Moustapha: Okay, yeah.

[00:03:54] David: In a number of places in Niger, you’ve taken various types of equipment, which have now been used by these women’s groups, to be able to take locally produced cereals, and all sorts of other crops.

[00:04:12] Moustapha: Yes, exactly

[00:04:13] David: Even some wild native plants, some of the trees and use them to be able to get these products, which have now been shown to be at least as nutritious as the best international baby foods and other things.

[00:04:31] Moustapha: Yes, yeah.

[00:04:32] David: And locally built.

[00:04:33] Moustapha: Yes, absolutely. The first part of my answer to your question was more on statistic, just your area. But to come to your question, I think is a long history because it was just when I first finished my masters in 2007, early 2008, then Bruce, my professors who advised me and mentor me, gave me that opportunity to get that education to the US camp. Then we had a big workshop in Niger, I think it was in the Grand Hotel, we invited the policy maker, the scientist, and I presented my work. And then after the presentation of the work, we really showed that we can make product from sorghum that can go to market.

So it was still on extrusion, but the particularity is the type of product we develop could get away in the market. But to get that way to the market, we thought about consistent and homogenous grain supply that should come from farmers.

[00:05:54] David: So yes, so this is about having the actual raw products.

[00:05:57] Moustapha: Yes, exactly.

[00:05:57] David: Of the right quality to be able to consistently make these products.

[00:06:02] Moustapha: Exactly.

[00:06:03] David: And if I’m not mistaken, at that point you were really looking at urban markets.

[00:06:07] Moustapha: Yes, but we then from that, we say to get that, we have to work with farmers.

[00:06:16] David: Absolutely.

[00:06:17] Moustapha: And if we work with those farmers, though we’ll give them maybe information about improved varieties, we’ll tell them that we have varieties that we tested to do this specific product, it will be good for that specific product.

But to get that consistent supply without stones, without foreign matters, and with the same size of grain, the same consistency in term of colour, we have to show them the way to do it. Then we say, okay, so we have to go on the post harvest. After they produce the grain, then they have to thrash it.

Then our first idea was to get thrashing equipment that can help them to do that without thrashing on ground and affect the grain that is going to processing and which will end up with maybe stone, sand and so on and then it will affect the quality.

[00:07:23] David: Of course.

[00:07:24] Moustapha: So that was what brought us to village.

[00:07:27] David: That’s right. Let me just check I’m understanding what you’re saying.

[00:07:30] Moustapha: Yeah.

[00:07:31] David: You started with the idea of actually doing this for the urban market.

[00:07:34] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:07:35] David: And you traced it back the value chain to say we need to work with the farmers so that we’re actually getting the right supply of raw ingredients.

[00:07:44] Moustapha: That’s exactly how we started. Then we had a two page concept note. Then we visited many organizations in Niger and also in the US, we went to the UNDP. We started to work, you know, the process was so long. And then at the same times McKnight has started his program in West Africa. Then it was in 2009, they had a call for activities that can be linked to processing.

[00:08:23] David: Okay.

[00:08:25] Moustapha: And believe me, I just hear that in a taxi. Yes. I was just in a taxi, with some people from INRAN and they were talking that, did you hear that they send a message because at that time, you know, the internet was not so efficient, it’s hard paper. So the, the McKnight, that new project had a call and I think it fit very well with what you are doing, Moustapha. So then the person told me…

[00:08:57] David: Sorry, I have to interrupt you for a second, because you said you were in a taxi.

[00:09:02] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:09:02] David: Now I’m not sure, I’ve lived in Niger for a long time, so I know what you mean. I need to explain that in Niger, taxis work differently than many people would expect in Europe. So in a taxi in Niger, you don’t tend to buy the taxi, you buy a seat in the taxi.

[00:09:17] Moustapha: Exactly, yes.

[00:09:18] David: So this means that you actually had other people who had other seats with this, going somewhere else, but in the same sort of direction. The taxi run almost like buses in their lines.

[00:09:28] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:09:29] David: And so you happen to be in that taxi with them, just travelling home after work or something.

[00:09:35] Moustapha: Yeah, actually, it was coming from town.

[00:09:38] David: Okay.

[00:09:38] Moustapha: To INRAN.

[00:09:39] David: So it was totally by chance that they happened to be in the taxi at that point and you happen to get it.

[00:09:44] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:09:45] David: This is incredible.

[00:09:46] Moustapha: Yes. So when I get the information, I just, at that time, we don’t have internet. At the institution you have to go to cyber coffee.

[00:09:56] David: A cyber cafe somewhere. Yeah.

[00:09:57] Moustapha: Okay. Then I came back. I took another taxi again, because that time I didn’t have a car. I went to a cyber, and then I just put McKnight Foundation. And I saw the call. Then I downloaded the call, and I wrote a draft. We already have that first draft we had with Bruce. Then I wrote on that, and I sent it to Bruce. And I inform Bruce that there is a call that if we are lucky we may get. Then Bruce also work on it front and back. And when it was okay we send it.

[00:10:39] David: And I should really clarify that we know each other for over 10 years because you still have a continued set of projects now, from McKnight now since 2010 or 2009. This has built your career in many ways. And I have the privilege of having been involved in the research methods support team for these grants since 2013, 2014, so for over 10 years now.

[00:11:07] Moustapha: Yes, yes.

[00:11:09] David: And so that’s how we’ve known each other.

[00:11:11] Moustapha: Yes, exactly.

[00:11:12] David: And at the same time, this is, I believe, in what you’re now saying a almost chance encounter that got you into this.

[00:11:23] Moustapha: Yeah, to where we are today.

[00:11:25] David: And so I want to come back a little bit to sort of say in that big story, we need to talk a bit about where it is now. Because the scale and the way, once you got to the farmers and to the farmers fields, you suddenly found there was another opportunity that you didn’t need to just serve the urban market.

[00:11:45] Moustapha: Exactly. Yeah. Actually It brings a very big shift to our thinking and our activity with Bruce, because they gave us sixty thousand dollars for two years and that’s how we started and then we bought the thrasher, we do all the testing of the grain of the farmers. And after that the women farmers in those locations they say they really want to do processing. They don’t just want to provide grain to urban processors. But they would also like to know how to process those grains and sell them in their local market.

Because many economists misconceive that. They say, no, you are going to waste your time, they don’t have money, they have time. Nobody will buy the product in the village, just focus in cities. Well, the request was from them. Then we decided, when McKnight said, okay, we are satisfied, you can write another two years. I think they gave us two years. Then we just decided to say, okay, we are going to do the processing with those women groups.

And that’s how everything started.

[00:13:07] David: And I want to clarify here again to the audience, I’ve had the privilege of following your work for 10 years, and seeing this explosion happen in many ways. And you’ve not given up on working in these urban contexts, there’s still things which have happened there, but you’re most excited, as am I, by what’s happened in these rural contexts.

[00:13:26] Moustapha: Yes, yes.

[00:13:26] David: These women’s groups who have taken on the processing.

[00:13:29] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:13:30] David: Who are now innovating, they’re sharing, they’re expanding, they’re scaling in so many different ways. And it’s just livelihoods are changing, the nutritional impact, it’s giving resilience to systems which are very fragile, which have been hit by all sorts of challenges over the years.

[00:13:50] Moustapha: Yes, yes, yes.

[00:13:51] David: And yet these groups have just been, so central now to their communities.

[00:13:58] Moustapha: Yeah.

[00:13:59] David: They built communities.

[00:14:00] Moustapha: Yes completely. And even their status, because their attribute has changed. People look them differently than before in the village. Many of the community consider them as health professionals, as servers in the village. And the local authorities also see them as the insurance of food and nutrition in their community.

So they have a lot of governance in the local authority just because of their contribution to the community.

[00:14:50] David: Absolutely. And there’s so many stories we could tell about that. And I’d love to have the opportunity to talk to you about some of those specific elements.

What I’d like to just make sure we do, to sort of tell this story well, is to come back to where you started with this element of the research, and the statistics, and the data because actually a big part of this challenge for you, has been this sort of, is this a development project? Is this a research project? You’re a researcher, that’s sort of what you do, you’re part of a research organisation in Niger.

[00:15:25] Moustapha: Yes, yes.

[00:15:27] David: But you found yourself in a position where really what you’re enabling is powerful development.

[00:15:33] Moustapha: Yes, exactly.

[00:15:34] David: And this is something where we’ve done little bits of support as we can, as is our role.

[00:15:39] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:15:39] David: But the reality is that tension between those two has been so difficult because you’re following what the communities are asking, and yet you’re also getting research evidence at the same time related. Can you talk a bit about that experience?

[00:15:55] Moustapha: So I think that’s what bring that is really to me we give an opportunity to the woman to express their knowledge, to express their thinking, to express their feelings. Then as researchers, we try to bring a linkage, how we can work together collectively.

[00:16:21] David: Yeah.

[00:16:21] Moustapha: It’s really a collective action, but by putting them at the centre of the action and by taking what they feel in their gut, explore it together and support it with evidence in science. That’s exactly, I think, what make our work to succeed. We did not impose.

[00:16:49] David: Maybe just one thing on that, which you’re describing. Can you talk to me about how these infantile nutrition products came about with that? This was a need because malnutrition is a big problem in these areas. It’s sort of regions of the world where this is still a serious issue.

[00:17:09] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:17:10] David: And so these infantile products, there are internationally accepted products, but they’re not easily accessible in these regions and there was this feeling that they should be able to be. Who expressed that need? Was that coming from you? Was that coming from them?

[00:17:27] Moustapha: So the problem they brought is the malnutrition.

[00:17:33] David: Yeah.

[00:17:33] Moustapha: And also the problem they are having with the products sending by health centres. Sometimes they don’t come in time. Sometimes they have to walk for 20, 30 kilometer.

[00:17:46] David: Yeah.

[00:17:47] Moustapha: And sometimes, when they bring it, the children don’t like it. So this is a big problem. But they have never known that they have local ingredients that if they bring this, that, at such percentage, that percentage, bring them together, cook them at certain temperature, certain time, they can come out with a product that is much more better preferred by their community children than the one they are having from the health centres and they are obviously seeing changes when they start to administer the formulas to their children.

[00:18:34] David: Let’s be clear here. You’ve also done some of the research work needed to check the safety of these products, the nutritional value.

[00:18:43] Moustapha: Yes, exactly.

[00:18:43] David: And my understanding is your results have shown that these perform.

[00:18:47] Moustapha: Actually, I can say this work, what make us to really succeed is the details and the limitation of the objective. Like we have a lot of mile, I don’t know, you say milestone or milestone.

[00:19:12] David: Yeah, you’ve got the milestones which you set.

[00:19:15] Moustapha: Yes. And this to me Roger Stern play a very, very big role because I remember, one time he said, look Moustapha, first, it will be very difficult for you to put so many variables together. You will not understand anything. I will advise you to first test all the millet varieties you have and see what it contains. And also see what the consumer prefers most.

You do the same thing for your peanut varieties. The same thing for the cowpea varieties. Then You can now go to another level of stage where you can take the best one. And you do your combination.

[00:20:08] David: This idea of breaking it down, breaking the problem down. This is the scientific processes that you’ve brought to the table to help support.

[00:20:15] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:20:15] David: So these problems have come from the community.

[00:20:17] Moustapha: Exactly.

[00:20:18] David: The women’s groups are saying they want to solve these problems. You come with the scientific approach and you then listen to what their problems are.

[00:20:27] Moustapha: Yes, yes, yes.

[00:20:28] David: You try and find potential solutions. And then you are co-creating those with them to see what’s acceptable, what’s not.

[00:20:35] Moustapha: Yes, exactly what happened. Then after that, now we have the best varieties of each ingredients. And he said, now you can know why this product is preferred that this product. And you can also understand the reason.

[00:20:58] David: Yes.

[00:20:59] Moustapha: But if you put all everything together, you will not know. That’s how we did. And then after that, the farmers, the women, they came to discover through those testing, like if we take the millet, that some are black in colour, brown, yellow, and the tests are different. They have never known that there is such a diversity.

It’s through this research work that they came to understand that. And when we do the product also, we notice that if you take like specific varieties, it has this characteristic to do porridge, this has this characteristic for couscous, this has this characteristic for bread making, you see. And we do all this work together, collectively and in a participatory manner.

And they see what research can bring as information for them to make choice.

[00:22:03] David: There’s so many of these stories that I’d love to dig into.

[00:22:06] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:22:06] David: We’ve not even talked about the beta.

[00:22:08] Moustapha: Yeah.

[00:22:08] David: They were amazing. Macaroni from the, from the Terra region. Yes. But that’s a whole nother story. We’ll have to do that on another occasion. But the thing which I’m loving, which you’re bringing out here, which I think is probably going to be a good point for us to finish on, is this changing of the relationship between the researcher and the partners, particularly these farmers groups, these women who are doing the processing, and how that evolved for you, but generally, in some of the areas that you’re working, where it has become this real collaboration which, correct me if I’m wrong, everybody’s won from.

It’s not just that the farmers are gaining from this, it’s you as a researcher, you’re now having study results which you probably could never have dreamt of doing in other ways.

[00:23:01] Moustapha: Yes, yes.

[00:23:02] David: So, I’d just like you to finish by telling me a little bit about, from your side, I know you’ve always been very good at the listening side, that’s been one of your characteristics, but have you felt that change happening, not just in you and your colleagues, and what does this mean in terms of the research that you’re now doing or you’ve done over the years?

[00:23:26] Moustapha: Yeah, I think it really changed our mind of thinking because many scientists think that farmers don’t know anything. You can just come and tell them, do this, do that. They are really mistaken. And they’re also missing opportunity to also learn from the farmers because they are very shy of opening themselves. But if you give them a role, responsibility and chance, they will do it.

[00:24:11] David: And let me just be clear about when you say they will do it. What you’re talking about is that actually most of your big innovations have come from that deep listening, where you’re allowing them to come beyond their shyness, the power dynamics, which were there, which I see you interacting now with your collaborators and you’ve removed a lot of the power dynamics. That collaboration is very genuine.

[00:24:33] Moustapha: Yes, yes.

[00:24:34] David: But, originally, there’s always been this barrier where the farmers dared talk to the scientist who knows everything. Whereas actually breaking down that barrier has led to these amazing opportunities where things that you would not have thought of doing have come out from what they need and what they know.

[00:24:56] Moustapha: Yes. Yes. To me, it’s really the fact of showing them they know what they want. They know what is good. But there are things they don’t know, like this combination of formulas.

[00:25:09] David: Yes.

[00:25:10] Moustapha: The bringing of varieties, diversity. All this, the farmers cannot know. But if they have the opening to discover them, they also bring their own knowledge to make the things to fit in their context and to be much more successful in their community.

[00:25:36] David: I love the way you’ve brought in the contextual aspect and the community. Because this is what I see as being central to the success of a lot of your work, is that the scaling is happening naturally, because it’s not driven by the researchers, it is just followed by the researchers. You’re observing what’s happening, but it’s happening and it’s driven by the processes in the community, and by the context within which they’re working, and the opportunities they’re finding.

[00:26:07] Moustapha: Yes.

[00:26:07] David: And because of the deep trust that’s been built between you, when that happens they involve you. And so you get involved in this, them working with the refugees, which are now on the border because of the insecurity in the region. And they then got sucked into doing that, into supporting that, into using their products in these difficult situations. And because of the relationships of trust, they didn’t just do it alone, they brought you along in that journey with them.

[00:26:36] Moustapha: Exactly.

[00:26:36] David: This is the power or part of the power of these collaborations, these deep collaborations you’ve built over the years.

[00:26:42] Moustapha: Yes, exactly. Yes, like I want to say, beyond us, if we come to the health centres, the health centres now are recruiting those women to go and do the works for them.

[00:27:00] David: This is a whole other story. Because you’ve told me other stories about what’s happening in the market, with schools, with the health centres. And so, we need to have another discussion about this, bringing some of these stories out. But I really enjoyed the way this has come out and the way your broad story has come out.

I’ve also have the privilege of talking, you’ve mentioned Bruce a few times. I had the privilege of doing an episode with him as well. So there will be some further details that will come out in that. And then I really hope we get to have another conversation like this and can dig into some more details because this has been so enriching.

[00:27:39] Moustapha: You know, and even indicator, I will just give you a kind of anecdote. They have indicator that they can know. Like I remember the last time we visited, there is a village just around the giraffe, the giraffe area.

[00:27:56] David: Out of Niamey as you go outside, yes.

[00:27:58] Moustapha: So I was with, Roger Stern, Bettina, and I think some other people that came from McKnight that year, and our group. So we had a milling machine that we brought in that village and the women group are using it for the processing. And then in the afternoon the village people bring their grain to have flour for the evening dish for the evening porridge. So before that machine there was not any machine in that village and they were all pounding.

So that time when we came, after we had the meeting, they were so excited, the women, and one of them said, I want to ask you a question, when you came, what did you hear in this village as noise? She just said as noise. We were confused, we said as noise? She said, yeah, what did you hear? She said but there is no any noise of mortar and pestle, just because of that equipment.

And then another of them bring her hand like that, and he say, okay, please touch. He even said to Roger to touch, he said, do you see my hand? They are all very smooth, because for one year, I did not pound. I have time to socialize and my husband like my hand. It is very, very smooth. So it bring change.

[00:29:47] David: What I love about that particular story.

[00:29:50] Moustapha: Yeah.

[00:29:50] David: And it’s perfect to finish this episode on.

[00:29:53] Moustapha: Yeah.

[00:29:54] David: What I love about that story is: this is change. Simple, meaningful change happening. But that’s change. And that’s change which happened almost 15 years ago now. And that’s before your story got interesting. This is what’s so amazing. You were bringing change 15 years ago. And since then, every year since, you’ve gone further and further. And the change has got bigger and bigger, and more impressive. And still the story from 15 years ago is moving, it’s important and it’s showing impact. Wonderful.

[00:30:31] Moustapha: Yes. And you see the economists said they don’t have money, but they had a truck because when we came.

[00:30:39] David: So I should explain, a truck is a barter in exchange.

[00:30:43] Moustapha: A queue of pot, you have the millet, then they have a small pot, with a small millet. And that is their compensation.

[00:30:53] David: Exactly. They paid in grain.

[00:30:55] Moustapha: In grain.

[00:30:55] David: And this is the sort of thing, there’s always ways to make these things work. And understanding the value of that in these really low resource environments and building for this is so exciting. And I have great admiration, I am looking forward to our next discussion. I am certain this will not be the last.

[00:31:14] Moustapha: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk. They would have had more to say, the woman in all those locations.

[00:31:22] David: I know at some point it needs to go beyond me talking to you. This is something maybe we can help you to tell these stories over time.

This has been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

[00:31:34] Moustapha: Thank you, David.