Spirulina is famously used in the fight against malnutrition. Gourmet Spirulina’s fair-trade model includes sourcing most of its spirulina with a humanitarian farm in Burkina Faso as an exclusive supplier. Our purchases act as a “buy one, give one”, where the humanitarian distribution of spirulina among vulnerable populations is financed by our purchases. For this reason, Renaud, yours truly, development director and core member of the Gourmet Spirulina team, has recently been interviewed by a researcher, María Fuensanta Hernández Gil from SOAS London, on the role of spirulina in the fight against malnutrition and the hurdles spirulina is encountering in achieving more impact.
Do note as a disclaimer that the following does not necessarily reflect an official company policy. Within our company, we are free people with our own singular opinions, values and disagreements. Gourmet Spirulina is a common vehicle and we are all passionate about spirulina for a variety of often, but not always, overlapping positions. Any shortcomings are my own and do not hesitate to get back to me personally should you want to discuss the issue more in detail.
Preliminary explanation: what solving malnutrition would mean
Before proceeding to the interview, I feel it is important for me to define what I mean by the expression “to solve malnutrition”. Indeed, the issue of malnutrition is most often framed with the understanding that we all share the same conceptual premises and yet this is rarely the case. In one major point of disagreement with carefree do-gooders, I believe that feeding malnourished people is unfortunately rarely a way to solve the “hunger problem” – it may prove satisfying, tangible and easy but in fact any effort that does not address the roots of malnutrition will generally only aggravate the problem on the long run.
Malnutrition is a highly complex issue that results from the compounded effect of problems such as:
- Perverse economic effects – after all the number of food calories produced at a global scale is well beyond what would be enough to feed the present human population but unfortunately an immense proportion of that food is wasted (one third), used for the inefficient production of meat and dairy (another third) and, a more recent trend, to produce biofuels (about 5%).
- The local mismatch between population and available resources (carrying capacity).
- The traditional overattachment in many developing countries to reliable and filling staple crops that happen to have a poor micronutrient profile (white rice, cassava…).
Far from being a miracle solution, spirulina does have the potential to be used on several fronts in the fight against malnutrition:
- Spirulina can act as an efficient dietary supplement for undernourished children – roughly one third of school-age children in developing countries are affected by compromised brain development due to the nutrient deficiencies, and in some countries such as Laos, up to half of infant mortality is due to iron and vitamin A deficiencies, both easily corrected by spirulina supplementation.
- Spirulina seems to do miracles as a “ready-to-sprinkle” therapeutic food for people affected by extreme cases of malnutrition as well as cases of malnutrition aggravated by HIV/AIDS.
- Spirulina can serve a staple topping to raise the nutrient profile of diets that are lacking in micronutrients due to excess reliance on starchy staples for instance.
Question 1: Affordability
Organizations have come up with innovative marketing strategies (e.g. cross-subsidization, package downsizing…) to make Spirulina affordable for those who need it the most. Still, price appears to be an issue for accessibility. Are economics a major roadblock for the acceptance of Spirulina as a feasible tool in the fight against malnutrition? If so, how feasible is it for research, development and engineering to address this economic challenge in the short-term?
Of course, achieving anything cheaper would have a tremendous impact on the diffusion of spirulina to those who need it the most. However, I think it is important to consider total cost including delivery and that is actually most probably the major roadblock for the acceptance of spirulina as a tool for the fight against malnutrition. The absence of proper cost-efficiency analyses is a major issue for major NGOs and government bodies and I feel the prevailing opinion is that, in the absence of any body of proof, the impact of a single megadosage vitamin A shot would be much higher because once the shot is delivered the impact is pretty much guaranteed. With spirulina, therapeutic compliance is an issue and the general opinion is that strong (and measurable) benefits can only be delivered through either chronic consumption or perhaps a few weeks of intervention in cases of severe infant malnutrition. To ensure therapeutic compliance, there has to be an extremely positive perception of spirulina by malnourished users/consumers and this is something that is slow to bring about and demands major localized efforts mobilizing prescribers that are often interest-driven and/or conservative in their approaches such as the media (radio), traditional health practitioners, community leaders, etc.
Are lower costs something to be achieved by research and development? Far from it. Better designed projects could achieve most of the gain. Production costs of NGO locally-produced spirulina in optimal climatic conditions are typically many times higher than those of spirulina from Inner Mongolia, which is a real shame – and this is not only explained by the level of economies of scale in China, its cheap coal and fertilizers, good infrastructure and lax regulations. That should be a wake-up call and I believe the standard humanitarian farms should live up to this standard: basic production costs should be able to compare to those of China. The use of appropriate technology to drive down costs even more has been well researched – for instance using sugarcane waste in the culture medium, building the pools with low-cost HDPE lining instead of the much more expensive (and land-spoiling) concrete, etc. This could have a tremendous impact on price and this has been extensively tried and tested but never applied to humanitarian contexts.
The truth is every single of the dozens of small-scale spirulina farms I have had the opportunity to visit in either Africa or India are very much trapped in the wrong paradigm and have overinvested in useless infrastructure and underinvested in promotion, basic staff expertise, hygiene and organoleptic quality. Of course, this is a crude approach to understand the gist of the problem. Lack of reliable electricity in rural areas has a terrible tendency to cause projects to either have to invest in costly energy autonomy or to go Gandhian and forego basic technologies that drive down costs considerably (such as pool agitation).
Maybe one positive thing that could be done is to design open-source blueprints of a model spirulina farm with major disclaimers at every paragraph about things that could drive costs up with virtually no benefit for end users. Jean-Paul Jourdan’s famous cultivation manual is a major reference in terms of appropriate technology but I feel it is fairly lacking at the level of the economics for the simple reason that its limited disclaimers don’t drive the message to the point and are pretty much ignored due to the magical belief in the success of just any spirulina venture, something which seems to be linked to its tremendous nutritional qualities.
Another –much more controversial– approach would simply to ask ourselves what is the level of quality of spirulina that would be most cost-efficient for a given population, and maybe produce different grades with different target populations and uses. After all spirulina is grown in waste water for use in shrimp farms at a cost of barely a few euros a kilogram. How hard would it be to do the same while ensuring human-grade quality? Not at Western standards but local standards, good enough to have a positive impact in spite of its limitations. Some farms coupled to sugar mills could produce dirt cheap spirulina with high bacteria count that could be then be spray-dried or even irradiated and then used in starch-based manufactured products. This is not my approach but I am uneasy about the fact the issue doesn’t seem to have been raised: again, what are the priorities? Is this about complying with the highest standards of health regulation from countries that can afford to waste food and to be very selective on their quality standards or is this about trying to maximise impact in terms of lives saved in countries plagued by severe poverty? I have no answer to that question and the solution we are working on is rather to get the best quality product and to cross-subsidize local consumption of a sprinklable culinary-grade spirulina thanks to fair trade. We are making a tremendous impact on a very small scale but then again our vision is to do business while having a positive impact on the world, not to solve global malnutrition. We are a boostrapped start-up that cannot even afford a living salary to its founders, not the Gates Foundation or the FAO. So no, of course our company’s approach is only scalable to a point – and clearly not at the level that would be required to make spirulina a silver bullet against malnutrition. Impact would clearly be improved by finding a model of efficient low-cost approach that would not be reliant on international trade (or intra-country fair trade).
Question 2: Economic models and production partnerships
Balancing the social goal of affordability with the economic goal of financial sustainability seems to be a major challenge for business models using Spirulina in the fight against malnutrition. Furthermore, the financial structure of many programs means that, often times, the volume sales in the social market –against commercial sales– are much lower than initial expectations (around 20 per cent). This may raise concerns about programs’ impact. What is your opinion on these issues? Is there a role for private and institutional partnerships to assist to strike a balance? What about private partnerships?
Clearly the 100% NGO model has underdelivered in the past decades. I a firm believer of the private/NGO model, where a private operator manages sales and an NGO manages the social model and impact assessment, and either of them is in charge of operations, thus contributing their core competencies to the venture. A percentage of a few metric tons of spirulina produced by an economically sustainable partner farm will have much more impact than a flailing NGO producing spirulina in the low hundreds of kilograms of spirulina and relying on donations that could be used for other important causes or projects that can only be carried out at a loss.
The issue of impact per euro invested is also a key reason why I am a firm believer in private partnerships. An underperforming humanitarian farm will have attracted funds that were earmarked for social impact and that could have lead to better outcomes. In the case of privately funded farms with a strong social component, there is no such opportunity cost – indeed, to take the example of our company, although all our investors are very proud of our social impact, most have not actually given a lot of thought to the social impact of their investment portfolio and as a result we can say in complete confidence that our project has diverted private funds to socially beneficial projects. Will the bet pay off? We’re striving to ensure that our endeavour will be a success on all fronts. In any case, social impact is already happening and without public or donor funding.
Let us not forget institutional partnerships. They are absolutely key in providing a positive environment for social spirulina projects to thrive in, most notably by giving impetus to the integration of its social model within the local health system (as in Burkina Faso) and isolating them from rampant corruption thanks to strong patronage. I had the unfortunate experience of setting up a social farm in a country (Laos) where the institutional apparatus actually restrained me from finding appropriate partners to distribute the social share of spirulina I had been producing according to criteria of social impact, instead nudging me towards making shows of largesse on behalf of a patron and distributing spirulina on the sole basis of a local strongman’s political agenda. I stood my ground and at one point I basically lost my right to give away any spirulina at all. This was a saddening and eye-opening experience.
Institutional partnerships could (should?) also possibly weed out the most poorly designed approaches by requiring project initiators to demonstrate feasability. Richer institutions/governments could also carry out quality impact assessment and foster the replication of successful models.
Question 3: Reasons why the use of spirulina isn’t more prevalent in populations in need
Spirulina is penetrating rural areas of the developing world thanks to the continuous promotional strategies of development organizations and their partners. Despite this, programs’ stakeholders agree that local consumption levels are still low. What are the main contributing factors and which solutions are available?
The use of food products takes time to dissimenated. The immediate appeal of spirulina is lower that that of a cellphone, electric lighting, a bicycle or motorbike, etc. So of course, if we compare the speed at which the use of spirulina is spreading to that of these very proeminent objects, there is some reason to find things are a bit on the slow side.
And things should indeed be faster. I think there are two main limiting factors to demand: (1) the acceptability of spirulina as a food, (2) its image.
(1) Most spirulina in the world is manufactured following the premise that consumers will take it for its benefits and will not care about its taste. As a result manufacturers produce spirulina that is hard to use and that really requires an act of faith to ensure therapeutic compliance and non-therapeutic use – “pond scum in a pouch” if you will. Humanitarian spirulina has fared fairly well as, fortunately, low-cost sun-dried spirulina is usually fairly palatable – still not as good tasting as our raw dehydrated spirulina but a far cry from spray-dried spirulina that dominates Western markets. All the same, palatable isn’t good enough. Spirulina should be associated to food in positive combinations – and these change from country to country and require proper research and promotion. In Laos for instance, it took me over a year to understand that white rice should never be sprinkled with anything and that promoting spirulina as something to be sprinkled on food was a poor choice. Consumers want white rice to appear pure and white, due to cultural factors I will not delve into here. As for glutinous rice, toppings simply do not stick to it. As a result the mental category that could enable the idea of a sprinklable nutrient boost simply do not exist in Laos. I finally found a decent food category: “jêeu”, the sauce in which glutinous rice is dipped. My mother Danielle (another spirulina fan!) chanced upon another one: thick crisps to be eaten as snacks.
(2) Image is another crucial issue. I became acutely aware of this following the problems encountered in marketing spirulina in West Africa in the early 2000s. The promotion around the use of spirulina for HIV/AIDS had been so successful that spirulina actually became stigmatised. Many interested users were apparently reticent to take any spirulina to avoid social stigma. A more efficient way of promoting spirulina is to drive its consumption with positive imagery. To refer back to the case of Laos, I deliberately marketed spirulina locally as a high-end product. Common folk in the village where my production unit was situated felt privileged that they could use spirulina because I had a few ministers who were taking it and even they had started taking it because they had received gifts of spirulina from top Chinese delegates or had tasted fresh spirulina as invitees of the Royal Court of Thailand. My wish is to soon have the possibility to start promoting our high-end brand Gourmet Spirulina among the wealthy classes of countries such as Burkina Faso simply to boost social mimcry and have malnourished people know that it is something that stars/rich people/Westerns are paying dearly for and is good for them, not just “good for poor people”.
Question 4: Other challenges faced by humanitarian/social farms
In your opinion, are there any other challenges Spirulina farms in the developing world face in their aim to fight malnutrition worth highlighting?
I am afraid to unwittingly start writing a book given the length of my other answers! I haven’t touched upon a few other challenges. Economies of scale. Hygiene problems. The usual missionary/mercenary/misfit triad, to which one could add the “mystic”persona. Excess reliance on spirulina as a silver bullet among believers. Lack of goodwill from major NGOs. The focus by private donors and caused-based mini NGOs on the metric of sqm of pools built instead of more appriopriate metrics such as total spirulina delivered and cost in donor money per kg delivered. Lack of coordinated action among humanitarian farms – which often seen each others as competitors for funds, assistance and low-hanging social outlets.
Question 5: Spirulina critics and the role of large international organizations
Spirulina critics use much higher standards with Spirulina than with any other food or medicine. What is needed for Spirulina to finally gain the stance as an internationally recognised viable solution in the fight against malnutrition? What is the role of large international organizations working in the realm of food security and nutrition such as WFP and FAO in this regard?
This is something I can only have a fairly uninformed opinion about given that I lack experience in the development field. The common opinion I have been encountering among humanitarian farm operators or supporters is that WFP is mostly using surplus production from US staple productions–maize, soy, wheat–, and is counterproductively undercutting local producers. A common opinion regarding the FAO is that it is focused on urgency and not so much on capacity-building. And of course, big agri is not going to help as there is no proprietary mix, no proprietary cultivar or genes, no milk and no maize/soy/wheat in the spirulina equation.
Question 6: Evidence and recommendations
The proliferation of evidence that Spirulina enhances the nutritional status of malnourished individuals has tended to come from randomized controlled efficacy trials. However these analyses provide little guidance on what works in the context of poor-stricken areas in the developing world. There seems to be a need to fill the gap between trial effectiveness and program effectiveness to demonstrate real improvements in nutrition in field settlings. What is your opinion on this? What would be your recommendation for program planners and managers of Spirulina farms?
I think that trial effectiveness should come before programme effectiveness and that unfortunately, randomized controlled efficacy trials have not proven quite enough yet. Should trial effectiveness be proven beyond any reasonable doubt, ideally controlled against the golden standards of ready-to-use therapeutic foods such as PlumpyNut© and F-100, then quality programmes would be rapidly developed by well-endowed and competent organizations and probably convince at least a few governments. There are a few African countries with serious assets after all: traditional cultural acceptability in Chad; major natron deposits in Tanzania, Kenya and Chad; CO2 accumulating lakes in Cameroon and in the Kivu region, etc.– and quite a few have committed serious investments already (with success in Burkina Faso, less so in Sénégal, and utter failure in South Africa).
I think there is a need for at least four different robust studies to (potentially) prove the point on the trial effectiveness of spirulina:
- A definitive study on severely malnourished children – controlled against PlumpyNut©, F-100 and the likes. I am no expert on study design but also finding a way of controlling versus “no intervention” in a morally acceptable way would be ideal. Of course spirulina alone may be less interesting than a combination food, so the very best pratically deliverable spirulina supplementation should be studied.
- A study on the health status of mothers and newborns to validate the efficacy on pregnancy outcomes for women taking spirulina during their pregnancy.
- A study on the energy levels / work output of labourers in the spirit of the famous study of iron supplementation of male rubber plantation workers in Indonesia – a relevant study yielding positive results for spirulina could enable easy cost-benefits analysis at different scales and promote pragmatic use by labour-intensive export businesses (cotton, sugar, banana, etc.) and generalize the use of spirulina.
- A study controlled against PlumpyNut©/F-100 on HIV-infected individuals. Here, given the complications between HIV/AIDS and malnutrition and the scientific studies on the subject, I firmly believe that spirulina would probably emerge as the golden standard of therapeutic food and prove to have an excellent cost-impact ratio even at the current unsubsidized cost of humanitarian spirulina.
On a closing note, I guess my recommendation to programme planners and spirulina farm managers would be to keep it real – do your best but be very realistic about what an efficient spirulina project really is: a 365 days-a-year operation demanding a lot of effort to keep on track.