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Benefits of food preparation and processing for creating healthy families and sustainable livelihoods

The normal diets of people in village communities throughout most of the world consist of a cereal or root crop staple food, which provides starchy carbohydrates, together with a source of animal or plant protein, such as meat, milk, fish, beans etc. Vitamins and minerals are provided by leafy vegetables, fruits or nuts, which are often made into a strong-tasting relish to accompany the relatively bland starchy staples. To remain healthy, people need to eat an adequate amount of food, but also ensure that the food contains sufficient amounts of specific nutrients (Figure 2).

Because most crops are seasonal, there are times of the year when either gluts can result in high levels of wastage or shortages can arise if adequate measures are not taken to preserve and store the foods. This is particularly important in areas that have a dry season or winter period when crops cannot be grown and animals are slaughtered because of a lack of fodder. In these situations stored dry grains or root crops provide energy; dried, salted or smoked meats, or cheeses provide a source of protein, vitamins and minerals; and processed fruits and vegetables such as pickles, chutneys or dried fruits or leaves provide vitamins and minerals. A few crops, including cassava and some types of beans also contain poisons or anti-nutritional components, which must be removed by processing to make the food safe to eat.

FIGURE 2 The uses of nutrients from foods in the body

Food processing is able to maintain the health of the family throughout the year by increasing its food security.

Where a household processes some of its crops or animals for sale, the additional diversified sources of income provide a greater degree of economic security (Case studies 3 and 4). Other social and economic benefits that can arise from processing include: more efficient use of time and, labour when equipment is used to process crops; and enhanced social standing within the community for groups who run a successful processing operation. Programmes that promote food processing in rural communities can also be used to introduce a wide range of skills that are needed to improve the livelihoods of people in rural communities. Examples include greater confidence and negotiating skills, improved skills in managing income and expenditure, improved understanding of quality requirements of consumers and changes to crop production methods to meet consumer needs. Establishing a processing unit can offer alternative employment opportunities to young people who suffer from lack of access to land. It can also be used to introduce nutrition concepts to mothers' groups, or widen the career horizons of schoolchildren through operating a small food business. As the community is strengthened management skills, machinery repair workshops, market information networks, etc., can each be introduced. The village becomes more financially secure and improvements to schools, medical facilities and other services can follow.

CASE STUDY 3 Rural production of an African condiment

The leguminous tree Parkia biglobosa is found throughout West Africa. Its seeds are made into a fermented condiment (netetou) that is sold in most local markets and it is a main ingredient in cooking, where it strengthens the flavour of sauces eaten with rice and sorghum dishes. The condiment faces competition from bouillon cubes made by large manufacturers, which are sold for US$0.03. Despite the competition, netetou remains the "local cube" that is anchored in traditional food habits and is popular with all classes of people. It can be divided into small pieces and sold for US$0.01, which is affordable by all. The production is mostly done by women, which allows them to diversify their income from cultivation of rice and peanuts, where prices are falling. A woman can expect to earn up to US$25 per production period, which allows her to buy rice and other family essentials. Between December and June groups of up to 30 women meet to rent a building for processing, with some groups processing up to 15 tonnes per season. Amarket survey revealed consumer concerns over hygiene during production and selling of netetou and, as a result, the product is now packaged in plastic bags, which allowed a relaunch of the product and the possibility of higher incomes to the women. A second problem was that the women were dependent on merchants for sales. A separate marketing channel was established to 80 sellers in Dakar, which is also expected to increase the incomes to the producers. (Source: Ferre, 1993).

CASE STUDY 4 Benefiting from underutilized crops in Ecuador

A decline in prices for traditional crops such as coffee, banana and cocoa caused farmers in the Amazonian Sucumbos Region of Ecuador to opt for livestock farming and they started to clear large expanses of forest. The PROFORS/GTZ-INEFAN project was established to promote sustainable use of non-timber forest products to alleviate pressure on the remaining forest areas. Inchi trees are part of the natural forest, and their nuts are used by families, but not traded in markets. Traditionally they are eaten without processing, but the oil can also be extracted and used as high quality cooking oil or in cosmetics. In the project, nuts are collected by farmers and sold at collection points. They are transported to the Andes highlands where the temperature and humidity are more suitable for processing than in the Amazon basin. The nuts are shelled by women employed by a local organization named Movimentop maquita Cushunchic Commercializando como Hermanos. They are dried and used to make oil, roasted and salted, or coated with chocolate, each of which increases their value. Because the inchi nuts were not widely used in the past, processing has created a new source of income for farmers, and harvesting takes place at the time of year when families receive no income from coffee or other crops. The project has stimulated smallholders to launch their own initiatives to commercialize the nut, by planting trees on their farms or by buying grafted inchi trees in local plant nurseries. Profits depend on the number of trees on a farm and their productivity, but an average farm with two trees makes a profit of US$28 to US$56 per season. (Source: Kircher, 2000)

Food processing is a route to creating sustainable livelihoods and economic development for rural communities.

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