Food and Agriculture Organization of the United NationsFood and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Not a person but a porridge, Tom Brown fights malnutrition and boosts incomes in Nigeria

A porridge created from local ingredients provides nutrition and profits to crisis-affected women

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FAO trained internally displaced women in northeast Nigeria to process and promote Tom Brown, a highly nutritious powder used for porridge. The powder is made from locally sourced ingredients such as fish, millet, soybeans and groundnuts. ©FAO


Sometimes, a simple solution can make a world of difference. And sometimes that solution comes in an unexpected form.

Maimuna Mashalele was forced to flee her home in Gambaru Ngala and lost all her possessions in an insurgent attack on her community in 2014. Living as an internally displaced person (IDP) in Zabarmari, she had been struggling to feed her eight children.

Then in 2021, Maimuna was introduced to Tom Brown. Not a person but a porridge, Tom Brown is more precisely a traditional Nigerian food supplement produced from a blend of nutritious, local ingredients. Also known locally as Garin Kunu, the origin of the name Tom Brown is believed to come from the fact that the product is supposed to “turn brown” during preparation.

Maimuna is one of 20 women who was trained by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to process and promote Tom Brown. This included receiving training on the FAO-Thiaroye Processing Technique (FTT), a method developed by FAO to improve the smoking of fish and make it less deleterious to people’s health.

The decision to include fish in the recipe brings the added benefit of animal source protein, omega-3 fatty acids and essential micronutrients which are known to be essential for growth, development and cognition in infants and young children.

Beyond its nutritional merits, the addition of fish introduces a new layer of flavour and textural complexity to the Tom Brown recipe and allows Maimuna and others to take advantage of local freshwater varieties such as catfish and tilapia.

Once smoked, the fish is mixed with locally sourced ingredients such as millet, soybeans and groundnuts. These elements are then roasted to produce a powder with a high nutritional content that is particularly good for nutritionally vulnerable children aged 6 to 59 months, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women.

FAO also built 13 fish-processing centres in various locations across Borno, Adamawa and Yobe and trained the 350 women who currently manage them.

Tom Brown is particularly well-suited for nutritionally vulnerable children aged 6 to 59 months, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women. ©FAO

Garin kunu offers diverse benefits to my family,” Maimuna says. “It’s not only for our consumption, but we also sell it to willing buyers, and the market is big.”

According to the November 2023 Cadre Harmonisé analysis, more than 26.5 million people in Nigeria are projected to experience high acute food insecurity during the June-August 2024 lean season, while at least 1.7 millionchildren and pregnant and breastfeeding women are already acutely malnourished.

Maimuna says she has many requests from the local market for Tom Brown, which is particularly well-suited for children to prevent acute malnutrition, a common problem in northeastern Nigerian states like Borno, where persistent violence and banditry limit access to food.

Mairo Garba, another IDP mother who like Maimuna works at the processing centre in Gongulong, says the women all work together to produce the product.

“There are times in a week when we can make up to 500 kilograms [of Tom Brown], according to the demand we get. But it is a collective effort, in which all the women in the centres are involved,” says Garba.

Before the project started, most IDPs there were without a reliable source of income or access to nutritious food.

“Much progress has been achieved, and a lot of change has happened with the establishment of this centre in our community," says another woman working at the Zabarmari fish processing centre.

On top of learning new skills, “we have been able to pay our children’s school fees from the income we generate from the production of these processed fish and Tom Brown mixtures, we feed our children and even share the extra proceeds with others that are helpless and in need,” says Garba.

Beyond the nutritional value that this product brought to these communities, the project has also helped boost local food production and livelihoods. The income the women generate from the production of these processed fish and Tom Brown mixtures helps cover their children’s schooling. ©FAO

Tom Brown Distribution

With USD 2 million in funding from the United Nations’ Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), the production of Tom Brown is part of a project aimed at addressing acute malnutrition and helping communities produce nutrient-dense food.

The other element of the project focused on distributing this processed Tom Brown porridge to children and pregnant and breastfeeding women. So far, it has resulted in the dispensation of Tom Brown to 17 000 children, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women, in Borno and Yobe states.

The initiative also focused on providing nutrition training to women in particular, as they play a central role in the health and well-being of their families, especially in the early stages of a child's life. Educating and providing resources to women on nutrition, including the preparation of nutritious meals like Tom Brown, empowers them to make informed decisions about their family's health. This empowerment can have positive ripple effects on the community.

Beyond the nutritional dimension, the initiative has also helped boost local food production in the crisis-affected regions, thus opening the door for sustainable distribution networks and improved infrastructure for these communities.

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