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Photos by Dominic Chavez and story by Christine Wambaa, IFC Communications

Rwanda has made significant strides in improving child and maternal health. Still, chronic malnutrition remains a serious challenge. Nearly 40 percent of children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth, which impairs their physical and cognitive development. This is one of the highest rates in the world.

When growth is stunted, children are trapped in a cruel cycle of poverty—they are less likely to succeed in school, are more susceptible to diseases, and earn lower wages over their lifetime. Stunted growth in children has also economic consequences. The broader costs associated with malnutrition in Rwanda are estimated at 11.5 percent of the country’s annual GDP.

Companies like Africa Improved Foods (AIF) have joined forces with the Rwandan government and partners to combat malnutrition. AIF offers vitamin- and mineral-rich foods at no cost during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life—the most critical window of development. Its goal is to reach 1 million malnourished children and pregnant or breastfeeding women annually by 2031, so that they may live healthy and productive lives. The company is supported by the Rwandan government and organizations including IFC, Dutch multinational Royal DSM, Dutch development bank FMO, and the United Kingdom’s development financial institution, CDC.

IFC’s $26 million investment in AIF in 2015 was made possible with funding from the private sector window of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP), a donor fund managed by IFC. The private sector window uses blended finance solutions and concessional funding to support projects that may not attract commercial funding due to perceived high risks in the food and agricultural sectors.

Jeannette Uwanyiligire sits on the edge of a hospital bed in eastern Rwanda, watching over her two-year-old daughter, Rebecca Ayinkamiye, as the child drifts in and out of sleep. Uwanyiligire and Rebecca have been at the Rukira Health Center for two weeks, sharing a room with four others.

When Uwanyiligire arrived, Rebecca weighed nearly half of what is medically advised for a girl her age—just 15 pounds instead of 27. When wrapped in her mother’s arms, Rebecca’s frail body could pass for that of a nine-month-old infant.

Community health workers are criss-crossing the country to identify young children like Rebecca who display signs of malnutrition. After being referred to the center for treatment, Rebecca has been recovering and is gaining weight. Because of AIF’s program, Uwanyiligire will now receive free packets of vitamin- and mineral-rich porridge every month. Every 100 grams of this protein-packed food—made of maize, sorghum, and soy—provides 400 calories, which can be life-saving for children who are suffering from malnutrition.

Uwanyiligire, a 21-year-old single mother, grows beans, sweet potatoes, cassava, and bananas on her parents’ farm, and sells the produce in the local market. Rebecca’s malnourishment stems from a lack of food as well as a series of illnesses she’s suffered from, including a recent case of meningitis. In general, the underlying causes of stunted growth in children are recurring infections and chronic diseases, in addition to inadequate nutrition.

Rebecca is one of many children who are suffering from malnutrition in Rukira, a rural town about 29 miles (or 47 kilometers) east of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. An estimated 3,500 families here live in extreme poverty—or on less than $1.90 a day. These are precisely the families that AIF’s program is targeting in its efforts to nourish Rwanda’s poorest children.

Most of the 90,000 Rwandans currently receiving AIF’s nutritious porridge (branded as Shisha Kibondo) live below the poverty line. This porridge has become a household name across the country’s rural clinics and health centers, where it is distributed at no cost by Rwanda’s Ministry of Health. The United Nations World Food Programme also distributes AIF’s porridge to refugees across East Africa, including in Kenya, South Sudan, and Tanzania.

Solange Uwingeneye begins her four-mile walk to the Rukira Health Center at 7 a.m. with her 18-month-old daughter, Pascaline Ineza, strapped to her back. In line at the center, she chats with other mothers and their children as they wait for the yellow and green sealed pouches of Shisha Kibondo. Each child is weighed by a health clinician before receiving their portion. Bursts of laughter echo across the halls as children try to wriggle themselves free from the nurse. “We provide the products at cost, without profit,” says Prosper Ndayiragije, AIF’s country manager. “The government freely distributes the product to the lowest-income people across the country.”

When it’s finally Uwingeneye’s turn, after a couple of hours, she is all smiles. She will go home with 10 pouches of Shisha Kibondo, which she supplements with meals of beans, sweet potatoes, and bananas for her children to share.

Pregnant women are also entitled to receive free porridge each month, and theirs contains nutrients designed for expectant mothers.

Back home, Uwingeneye quickly lights a fire outside to prepare the porridge. As she cools the mixture—pouring it back and forth between two plastic cups—she says raising Pascaline and her brother has been easier thanks to food provided by AIF’s program.

Uwingeneye tends to her family’s small garden, and her husband works at a rice field in a neighboring village. Their income is meager, and she struggled to feed her older children before Shisha Kibondo became available. “When I gave birth to the older children, it was much more difficult to feed them,” says Uwingeneye, while feeding the porridge to her seven-year-old daughter.

“How can I refuse to give it to her?” she says, smiling. “She likes it too.”

In addition to combatting malnutrition, AIF’s long-term strategy includes supporting economic growth and smallholder farmers in Rwanda. According to a study by the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, AIF’s interventions are expected to add nearly $758 million to the Rwandan economy between 2016 and 2031.

“When I first looked at this project in 2013,” says Anup Jagwani, the IFC’s investment officer overseeing the project, “it touched on the core reason of why I work at IFC in the first place. This project directly addressed one of the most challenging issues we face—that of malnutrition.”

The benefits of AIF’s nutrition program have rippled across Rwanda’s economy. The company sources the maize, soy, and sorghum used in its porridge from more than 24,000 smallholder farmers and members of cooperatives across the country. AIF also provides training to many of these farmers on food-safety standards and best practices for harvesting and drying raw materials.

AIF collects the grains directly from the farmers and transports them to its milling plant, which relieves the farmers of the burden of transporting the supplies.

“When the maize is collected by the Africa Improved Foods, we get paid within three working days,” says Ereutchi Bagaragaza, a maize farmer and father of four. Thanks to the steady stream of income from AIF, Bagaragaza has enough money to save, send his children to school, and pay for medical insurance. “I’ve even renovated my home,” says Bagaragaza.

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Published in June 2019