Taking on Hunger
Michel Lescanne and Andre Briend are the worldchangers behind Nutriset, a small French firm founded amid the great hunger crises of the 1980s. For nearly a generation, they’ve been fixated on solving the intractable problem of starvation in famine-ridden regions of Africa. Their goal? A universal nutritional antidote to malnutrition among children in the danger zones of Sudan, Congo, and Ethiopia.
Dissatisfied with the conventional solutions of powdered-milk based liquid mixes, the pair reframed the problem. Existing methods relied on emergency feeding centers and medical professionals trained to mix powdered supplements with clean water, a rare commodity. Crowded clinical settings fostered disease and required mothers to be present, which meant leaving their other hungry children behind in the village while they traveled. Emergency centers and milk mixes didn’t address the real need: widespread routine managed care among the communities where hungry children live.
Their idea: Plumpy'nut, a peanut goo combining taste and texture of European favorite Nutella spread, advanced nutrition, and the foil packet pouches now standard practice among athletes. The solution is elegant. Plumpy’nut is self-contained, versatile and inexpensive (35¢/packet), peanuts are a staple in Africa, no allergies exist, children love the taste, and travel to centers is eliminated as is the need for expert mixing with water. And three packets a day for a few weeks solves starvation—recovery rates in hunger hotspots have soared from 25% to 95%.
Taking on Poverty
It doesn’t take much launch a startup in rural east Africa. In fact, $100 will do it.
For nearly two decades, Silicon Valley non-profit venture firm Village Enterprise Fund has launched an average of 500 microbusinesses a year in remote regions the likes of Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. In 1987, founder Brian Lehnen set out to solve the wicked problem of poverty in Africa. As he saw it, the issue wasn’t one of charitable contribution. It was one of dignity. To achieve the greatest long-term impact on the lives of the poor, you have to tap the human potential and enable people to become self-sufficient, productive. Basically, to enable them to change their own lives.
His idea was to create and fund microentrepreneurs thru microgrants. Start with just $50 of seed capital to launch a business. If business goals are met within six months, another $50 grant is awarded. $50 has been all that’s needed to start vegetable stands, dairy farms, bakeries, chicken farms, and bicycle-parts stands.
The results have been astounding. 90% of the funded businesses are still operating after one year and 75% continue beyond four years. About a third of the micro-entrepreneurs expand and start second and third businesses. All participants gain tangible skills that they can pass on to future generations. Valley Enterprise Fund figures every $100 helps to improve the lives of twenty-five people.
The lesson from Nutriset and Village Enterprise Fund: if you want to change the world, you don’t need a mountain of cash. In fact, you can do it for peanuts.
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.