Dr Brinda Ramasawmy, Senior Lecturer in Agricultural Economics and Management at the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Mauritius
Dr Hudaa Neetoo, Senior Lecturer in Microbiology and Food Safety at the Faculty of Agriculture of the University of Mauritius
In this article, Brinda Ramasawmy and Hudaa Neetoo present a research project aimed at developing a food solution addressing contemporary malnutrition trends in Mauritius. Their research sought to bring theory into practice beyond the prime objective of food product research and development. The project encompassed 1) the commercialisation of the product, 2) wider community impact trough a nutrition sensitisation campaign and 3) the development of a Food Innovation Laboratory to support entrepreneurial research within the University. For the authors, their project is evidence that universities can, and, need to wield a greater role in supporting research with turnkey solutions that have a direct relevance for the local community.
SIDS and the triple burden of malnutrition
Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are geographically and economically isolated countries with a narrow resource base , making them highly reliant on remote markets for their food supplies. Some of the unique challenges faced by SIDS which threaten their food and nutrition security needs include:
- scarcity of arable land for food production;
- an ageing population with decreasing productive labour;
- high vulnerability to external economic shocks and natural disasters (cyclones, flash floods, droughts etc.);
- dependence on limited number of economic pillars; and
- distance from regional and international markets.
SIDS are also plagued by the triple burden of malnutrition – undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight and obesity. Although there has been a fall in undernutrition for the past three decades, obesity has increased sharply with about one-third of obese adults in the Caribbean countries and over 40% in many of the AIMS nations (Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea) and is prominent among women.
The nutrition transition in Mauritius
Mauritius, a nation belonging to the AIMS group of SIDS, has been undergoing a nutrition transition that started about 25 years ago. This has led to a concomitant shift in consumption from low caloric, nutrient-rich foods to energy-dense products which are devoid of nutrients, often referred to as “empty calories”. Hence consumers have slowly moved away from traditional foods which have been consumed by previous generations. This phenomenon has been compounded by trade liberalisation policies which have led to the introduction of an array of imported highly refined and processed food products that are high in sugar, salt and fats, resulting in an upward trend in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and most specifically diabetes.
Moreover, with the change in lifestyle and more disposable income, consumers across age groups (children, teenagers, and adults) are increasingly making unhealthy food choices, directly contributing to a rise of diet-related NCDs. Indeed, evidence suggests that a rise in income leads to consumers spending more on food items high in sugar, animal and vegetable fats and less on complex carbohydrates. This nutrition transition from traditional foods to a Westernised diet takes a toll on health care costs for the country resulting in an additional stress on the governmental budget.
Food insecurity & COVID-19
The unprecedented occurrence of the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown measures adopted by the Mauritian government also had an impact on the food security of a number of households. According to a telephone survey carried out by Statistics Mauritius, the country’s national statistical agency, from May to July 2020, households reduced their food consumption (27% in May to almost 40% in July 2020) due to a decrease in their monthly income. In September 2020, 80% of households were facing difficulties to meet their basic expenses and about 4 percent of households had at least one member skipping meals for a whole day as a negative coping strategy . It is therefore reasonable to believe that the pandemic’s impact on the Mauritian economy is widening gaps in the food and nutrition security of its population.
The SmartBite project
One of the current strategies of the World Health Organization (WHO) is the “reformulation of food products to reduce the total fats, free sugars and salt content and to virtually eliminate industrial trans fats from processed foods”. In the face of the growing food and nutrition security problem in Mauritius, a team of researchers from the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Mauritius (Public University), worked on the formulation of a healthy snack bar made from pulses and other low-cost natural ingredients as a healthier alternative to currently available energy dense snack bars that are imported and highly processed. In addition to having a higher protein and fibre content compared to commercially available counterparts, the SmartBite snack bar is also considerably lower in fat (table 1). The product was developed to respond to all consumer segments requirements including vegetarians and vegans. Various savoury and sweet flavours of the snack bar prototype were subsequently developed by the team. Sensory trials carried out with consumers provided a positive feedback both on the palatability of the prototype and its acceptability as a healthy snack. After optimising the formulation, the prototype was subjected to a series of laboratory tests to ascertain its nutritional profile, safety and shelf-life. Last year, the team got the product registered under the trademark of Smartbite. The team is currently approaching various SMEs involved in cereal production for potential partnership for the commercial uptake and upscaling of the product.
The Smartbite project, however, has not only been about a product innovation. The project also led to two upcoming important outcomes:
1) a nutrition sensitisation campaign with pulses as sustainable protein alternatives; and
2) the development of a Food Innovation Laboratory for the University of Mauritius.
Promoting food and nutrition security in Mauritius
This project has been a stepping stone to shedding light on other aspects of food and nutrition security in Mauritius. Two years ago, the team decided to investigate the food and nutrition needs of children from vulnerable areas of Mauritius, where pockets of poor communities are concentrated. A major finding that emanated from this survey was that 40% of children aged < 12 years reported often skipping breakfast and 60% of those having a breakfast meal, mentioned not feeling “full” afterwards. The survey additionally indicated that the majority consumed a snack daily and 16% of the children were overweight or obese. These findings clearly point to the need for concentrating more efforts towards alleviating the nutrition security problem in these areas. As such, the project includes a sensitisation campaign, currently underway, to promote the consumption of pulses as a sustainable source of protein.
The role of public universities in supporting translational research
Mainstream research done at public universities, especially in developing countries, often culminate as reports, conference presentations and publications in prestigious journals that eventually stay within the academic community. However, taking science “out of the lab”, through development of healthy food prototypes that have a commercial potential or research with a strong community outreach dimension, is a path that few researchers are willing to take. The Smartbite project is a testament to the fact that public universities in SIDS, in spite of limited research funding, can do translational research (bringing theory to practice) with entrepreneurial or social outcomes.
Funding from the project has also been used to set up a Food Innovation Laboratory (FIL) within the AgriTech Park of University of Mauritius for use by students and researchers for new food product development trials. The FIL, with its training facilities, also purports to act as an incubator space for food businesses wishing to “try out” new prototypes. The idea behind the FIL is to promote research that has an entrepreneurial outcome as well as provide the necessary capacity-building for start-ups and medium food businesses, especially in the area of food safety and agripreneurship. By interfacing with food businesses, the FIL can provide the necessary technical and logistical support and facilitate the penetration of healthier and more sustainable food products on the Mauritian market, all with a positive impact on the local food system. In addition, universities with their important role in knowledge creation as well as diffusion can help in educating local consumers on healthier and wiser food choices.
The Smartbite project is also in line with the vision of the University of Mauritius to contribute towards addressing specific UN SDGs. This project directly speaks to the importance of ensuring responsible and sustainable food production patterns (SDG-12: Responsible consumption and production) and alleviating hunger (SDG-2: Zero Hunger). According to the United Nations, “the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030”, hence, enhancing more sustainable food production can help alleviate the perils of hunger and nutrient deficiencies locally.
A paradigm shift towards tangible innovations
Taken together, universities need to wield a greater role in supporting research with turnkey solutions that have a direct relevance for the local community. University researchers especially those in science related disciplines need to be sensitised on the fact that there are so many opportunities to apply the results of their research to the immediate and day to day challenges faced by local communities. The paradigm shift from a research publication-centric approach to a community-engagement centric approach can lead to various innovations arising from university-led research work. Hence, public universities should be encouraged to optimise the use of their research infrastructures to produce tangible innovations which, when transformed into marketable products, can become major game changers in the landscape of developing countries as they are focused on solutions to real-life problems faced by local communities.
The Charles Telfair Centre is non-profit, independent and non-partisan, and takes no specific position. All opinions are those of the authors/contributors only.