Saving lives with pink bags

26 MAY 2019

Sanku received the Zayed Sustainability Prize at ADSW 2019 in the Food category

Globally, an estimated 155 million children aged under five are suffering from the effects of poor nutrition, The impact of this ‘hidden hunger’ in developing countries is often stunted physical and mental development. That in turn holds back the potential of those individuals and the social and economic development of whole countries. 

Felix Brooks-church, cofounder and CEO of Sanku, is on the path to end malnutrition using a creative flour bag business model, already reaching close to two million people across Africa.
Felix first saw the negative impact of hidden hunger more than a decade ago whilst volunteering in Cambodia, running an education and health center for at-risk street children. Though able to help those children suffering from malnutrition, he grew frustrated that this was just a band-aid to the underlying problem. 

Felix wanted to find a way to prevent children from being born into communities where their life chances are limited simply due to a low nutrient diet. “16,000 children die everyday from preventable sicknesses. This must stop!” said Felix. He has dedicated his life since to that goal.  

This led him to look at building a basic machine to automate the process of adding a cocktail of key vitamin and minerals to the cereal grains as they are being milled into flour at the village level. Felix took over the engineering in 2010, and started designing what is now called the ‘dosifier’ for small-scale fortification. 

By 2011 this dosifier machine was ready for field stress testing, and so Felix found himself bumping along a poorly maintained dirt road, up and down mountains for six hours to get to the tiny secluded village of Sankhu in Nepal. He had tears in his eyes when the initial machine was installed in the local mill, switched on and fully worked for the first time. It was a eureka moment, and the village celebrated.   

The success in Nepal attracted international attention - and offers of funding - encouraging the team to move to East Africa in 2013. Felix set up a new operation in Tanzania, where over one-third of child deaths are due to undernutrition.

The initial response to the dosifier was extremely positive and that attracted the attention of then Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete, who came to see it in 2014. Felix explained what he was trying to achieve to President Kikwete whilst he inspected the dosifier. After a nervous pause, the President said, “can you build one of these for every mill in the country?”

It was a great result but created a daunting challenge for Felix and his team to scale their venture to the over 3000 small mills spread across Tanzania, a country four times the size of the United Kingdom. 

Felix knew he had to professionalise the operation in Tanzania to have any chance of grasping the opportunity and thus cofounded – Sanku – a non-profit organization named in honour of the tiny Nepali village of Sankhu where the adventure had begun.

Over the next three years he installed 150 dosifiers, reaching half a million people, and worked hard to improve the economics. 

Firstly, Felix had to find a supplier for the key vitamins and nutrients to add to the flour, and so he partnered up with Mühlenchemie, one of the leading suppliers of micronutrient premixes in Africa.

Felix also partnered with Vodafone to add a cellular module to each dosifier machine so that one Sanku manager could now monitor up to 100 rural mills remotely using an app on their smartphone, significantly reducing Sanku’s operating costs, enabling them to reach millions.   

But the biggest breakthrough was the launching of Sanku’s Pink Bag Model. Recognizing that small millers could not afford the extra cost of fortification, Felix developed a business model where Sanku could provide bulk purchased empty flour bags – branded in bright pink for ease of monitoring – plus the nutrients for the same overall price that Tanzanian millers had previously paid for just their empty flour bags alone, affectively neutralizing the extra cost of fortification. Miller compliance skyrocketed, and now almost 400 millers have since joined the pink bag program. 

The pink bag idea has been transformative to the Sanku model and has enabled the charitable business – still only 20 people – to expand its operations to cover five East African countries, and a clear path to expand reach to 100 million people by 2025. 

What started with a single mill and a few hundred villagers in the hills outside Kathmandu, Felix now has ambitious, but increasingly realistic plans to change the lives of a few hundred million people globally. “I will never forget where we came from, and that memorable afternoon in Sankhu village seven years ago,” said Felix. “It keeps my vision firmly fixed on the future, a future bright pink and without hidden hunger.”

To learn more and find out how you can support this work, please visit  

By Felix Brooks-church / Cofounding President & CEO, Sanku


26 JUN 2019

Food security depends on water security – and we need to act now

The world is running out of clean, fresh water to feed - and nourish - a growing global population, ensure sustainable development, and maintain the health of our planet. There is not enough water - as currently managed - to adequately sustain the world’s population and end hunger and malnutrition. Therefore, better water management is crucial to global food and nutrition security.

Obviously, irrigation is key to increasing food production and farm income and improves resilience against weather variability. But water also affects food security and nutrition through other pathways. More precise irrigation management increases not just the volume but also the diversity of food that can be produced, including dry season crops and micronutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables. Improvements in the proximity and cleanliness of water sources and technologies for water extraction supports women’s empowerment and well-being, saving time and improving health. Effective management of multiple uses of water and wastewater reduces exposure to fecal contamination and the risk of infectious diseases. 

To contribute decisively to ending hunger, water management, policies and investments must overcome daunting challenges. Rising global population, incomes, and urbanization are driving strong and diversified growth in food and water demand—and intensified competition for water within agriculture and across agricultural, domestic, and industrial uses. The global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, with by far the largest growth occurring in Africa and South Asia, where food security problems are the most severe. Meanwhile, rising incomes and urbanization will increase demand for meat and more nutritious diets- and therefore more water for livestock feed, and the need for more precise water management for fruits and vegetables.

Rapid urbanization also boosts water demand for household and industry, creating competition with irrigation in important water-scarce agricultural regions. That competition can turn into outright conflict, disrupting local livelihoods and triggering migration and transborder disputes.

Developing new sources of water to alleviate competition is difficult: the cost of developing water for irrigation and other uses is increasing, as the more accessible sources have already been utilized.
Even projected increases in global production of cereals of 37% between 2010 and 2050, meat by 66%, and fruits and vegetables by 85%, progress on hunger and nutrition will be too slow, Water scarcity could compound this problem, further jeopardizing production growth and continued progress on hunger and nutrition.

Climate change presents another serious challenge. Climate impacts across the entire water cycle could substantially slow progress on water management, agricultural production, and food and nutrition. Increased variability in rainfall and streamflow, reduced rainfall in many dry regions, and thirstier crops due to higher temperatures will all require new policies and management to create more predictable and precise supplies of water. Sea level rise will lead to inundation and salt water intrusion in existing irrigated and rainfed areas, putting further pressure on the land base.

Intensive groundwater pumping for irrigation has depleted aquifers in many arid and semiarid agricultural regions, leading to saltwater intrusion and declining water tables. India’s Green Revolution, for example, relied on irrigation to greatly improve productivity, but it also massively reduced groundwater reserves.

Finally, water pollution in both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors damages health and nutrition and reduces food production, constraining agricultural and economic development, especially in densely populated regions where water is already scarce and wastewater treatment is poor.

These global water security challenges are immense—as are the risks of inaction. But they can be overcome. If this vital resource is properly managed, it will be possible to meet both the food and water needs of current generations and begin building a sustainable, nourishing food system for the future.

The broad strategies outlined below can guide the design of regional and local priorities and begin to move the world toward greater food and nutrition security.

  • Water rights. The establishment of secure water rights is fundamental to improving water management. This means ensuring recognition of existing formal and informal rights and gender equity, to empower farmers and provide a framework for water management that is more effective and equitable. When small farmers have secure water rights, they know that they can retain access while investing in farm improvement, new crop varieties, and improved irrigation technology and crop management – all of which can change water use patterns. Physical controls on water usage, including rationing or quotas through enforcement of water rights, can maintain or reduce basin-wide water use after new technologies are introduced.
  • Incentives encouraging efficient water use. These include water brokering to water user associations (WUAs); paying farmers for reduced water use; and payment for environmental services to integrated soil and water management or upper watershed management that improves downstream water quality.
  • Reducing high subsidies for water, energy, and fertilizer use. These general support programs have caused overuse of these resources and environmental degradation. Cutting them can encourage the adoption of conservation incentives and practices, as well as the uptake of new technologies. The money governments save should be invested in increased agricultural and water research and development to boost productivity growth; in compensatory income support to small farmers; and in carefully targeted smart subsidies to achieve specific water management goals such as initial adoption of efficient technologies. Thanks to rapidly increasing access to information and communication technologies, smart cards or phones can be used for the efficient transfer of compensatory funds to small farmers.
  • Reform education and extension systems. These should be overhauled to increase gender-sensitive farmer knowledge, disseminate information, and improve adoption of appropriate existing and new water technologies. Radio, TV, social media, mobile phones, and other advanced information and communication technologies can be used to reach farmers quickly and directly. Decentralized, demand-driven, and participatory extension services with increased participation by the private sector, NGOs, WUAs and producer organizations can engage farmers in programs whose goals coincide with their own.
  • Better data collection and mapping. Public-private partnerships are needed to develop satellite-based remote sensing and ground sensors to map groundwater and measure water availability and use; integrated information processing and dissemination of this information can inform real-time water and crop management decisions. In addition, increased public and private investments in infrastructure – including rural roads, cold chains, and water recycling and re-use – would reduce postharvest losses of food and water and increase farmer incomes.
  • Expand small-scale irrigation. Although some potential still exists for large-scale irrigation, the emphasis should be on selective investment in farmer-led small-scale irrigation, particularly in Africa south of the Sahara. This will require targeted access to credit, weather insurance, and smart subsidies during the initial adoption stage.
  • Reduce international trade and macroeconomic distortions. Addressing this problem will become more urgent as climate change increases the reliance of many developing countries on food imports. As water scarcity worsens and climate variability increases, imports of food (and the virtual water embodied in that food) will be crucial in water-scarce areas to ensure food security and to facilitate short-term term imports to address food shortages caused by weather-induced production shortfalls.
  • Promote balanced diets for health and sustainability. This should include encouraging more responsible water use through collective action across government and business. Schools can be a platform for early nutrition education, fostering healthy eating behaviors in school meals; corporations can convey positive health messages and promote healthier sourcing and products; and health and nutrition campaigns can improve diets and nutrition by carefully targeting populations, communication activities and channels, message content and presentation.

These policy reforms and investments will be difficult to implement and take time, political commitment, and money. Prevailing policies have strong constituencies that can be resistant to change. But overcoming these challenges will only get harder the longer they go unaddressed. The time to act on fundamental reform of water policies for food and nutrition security is now.
Mark Rosegrant is Research Fellow Emeritus with IFPRI's Director General's Office

By Mark Rosgrant / International Food Policy Research Institute


26 JUN 2019

The green shoots of sustainable farming

Famous around the world for the dynamic, high-tech cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and vast deserts like the Rub’al Khali, sustainable agriculture is not a subject one readily associates with the UAE.

But in true forward-thinking fashion, the country is turning a long-standing problem on its head. Spurred by a rising population, growing consumption, an arid climate, a lack of water and arable land, and an annual food import bill estimated to hit USD8.4 billion by 2020 (around 85% of food is currently imported), the Emirates are now rethinking traditional farming methods.

Thanks to government initiatives like the Protected Agriculture Project, the world-renowned International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture at Dubai’s Zayed University, and a wealth of determined entrepreneurs, sustainable agriculture is taking root. Farmers are switching from desalinated to wastewater irrigation, and experimenting with salt-resistant crops like quinoa. Health-conscious consumers can now grow microgreens in their kitchens. Dubai will host the world’s largest ‘vertical farm’, using hydroponics to supply 2,700kg of greens daily to Emirates Airlines passengers at 35,000 feet.

Hydroponics is an exciting technology in a country with one of the world’s highest per capita water consumption rates, where agriculture uses the lion’s share. Vertical farms grows crops in controlled conditions indoors, using artificial light and nutrient solutions in place of soil. Such farms use up to 90% less water than traditional farming, with yields many times higher. Growing food locally cuts transport costs and related carbon emissions. Pilot vertical and home farming projects in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi are testing the latest technologies in the field, helping define guidelines for implementation across the country.

Having lived in the Emirates on and off for over 20 years, I have seen first-hand how enthusiastically the country is now embracing the sustainability agenda, including the latest agricultural innovations. It is part of what makes me proud to work here. The culture and values of Abu Dhabi – a combination of international influences, and a strong commitment to local heritage and sustainability – influenced Lombard Odier’s decision to open a branch in the capital earlier this year, our second location in the UAE. And like the dynamic UAE capital, with its world-renowned Sustainability Week, Lombard Odier is also leading the pack in sustainability. In March, we became the first global wealth and asset manager to achieve B Corp certification, one of the world’s most advanced corporate sustainability ratings.

Our investments in sustainable agriculture have spanned water management projects in 15 countries, and agricultural water efficiency projects in China’s Qinghai province. At this year’s Venice Biennale, our ‘LO Generations Summit’ brought together the next generation of thought leaders and entrepreneurs, to discuss how to build a more sustainable future. One of them was David Rosenberg, a World Economic Forum ‘Young Global Leader,’ serial entrepreneur, and the chief executive of Aerofarms, a US vertical farming specialist named one of Fast Company’s ‘2019’s Most Innovative Companies’.

For us, sustainability is a philosophy, which we are embedding into all our investment decisions, and all our clients’ portfolios. To do this we use a ‘three-pillar’ approach to analyse investments – one that assesses the sustainability of financial models, business practices and business models (those engaging with structural ‘megatrends’ like natural resources, climate change, demographics and inequality). Sustainable agriculture is a good example of engagement with these trends, and with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal No 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities.

Of course, the Islamic world has long recognised the importance of responsible investing, and Shariah principles dovetail well with a holistic, sustainable investment approach. Our own Shariah discretionary mandate was certified as “Shariah compliant” by the Shariah Supervisory Board of Amanie Advisors in 2018. In recent years, Islamic finance has been an important driver of sustainable agriculture projects across the Middle East and beyond. This looks set to continue amid powerful green ambitions from national governments, and rising interest from private sources of capital.

By 2030, the UAE could be generating a quarter of its energy from ‘clean’ sources such as solar power; a quarter of Dubai’s transport could be autonomous . Perhaps by this time, smart vertical farms will be growing the bulk of fresh produce consumed across the region, using robotics, automation and intelligent light control systems. At Lombard Odier, we are proud to see sustainable agriculture flourishing in the desert, and proud to be strengthening our own roots in this dynamic economy.

By Christophe Lalandre / Senior Executive Officer, Lombard Odier, ADGM Branch


26 JUN 2019

Shaping water production in the region

ENGIE is one of the leading Independent Water and Power Project (IWPP) developers and producers in the world, with a strong regional footprint in the GCC dating back 30 years.

Discussions at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week earlier this year centred around ENGIE’s proven world class capabilities and experience in water production, with a view to understanding the main themes and technological trends that will impact and shape water production in the region in the coming years.

With a total gross portfolio of generating more than 30 GW of power and over 5.7 million cubic meters of desalinated water production in operation per day, in line with their commitment to enhancing their investments in the region, ENGIE are aiming to increase their asset portfolio, with a strong focus on the more energy efficient process of Seawater Reverse Osmosis (SWRO).

Historically thermal desalination has been a fundamental part of many power and water projects in the region. More recently however, SWRO has been added to either enhance thermal desalination or replace it entirely, providing the ability to “decouple” the production of water from power generation assets and thereby carefully synchronising with each very specific demand cycle.

This has the benefit of reducing the challenges of having ‘must run’ cogeneration to produce water during the lowest periods of electricity demand. In addition, the use of reverse osmosis (RO) has been proven to be more energy efficient thereby reducing costs and the impact on the environment.

Consequently, the region is witnessing a great deal of interest in medium sized and large SWRO desalination projects. The UAE is at the forefront of this transition and has already launched large scaleRO projects, such as Mirfa IWPP, which includes a 30 MIGD SWRO desalination component as well as Fujairah F2 where 30 MIGD of the 130 MIGD total desalination capacity is based on reverse osmosis, both of which have been successfully developed by ENGIE, as global leader in the technology in partnership with the local authorities and are currently in operation.

World standard expertise and experience in developing and operating large scale RO projects, are key to being able to contribute and assist the relevant authorities in the region to transition towards a more efficient water production future. ENGIE is at the forefront of working with and developing the latest water production technology and benefits from extensive in-house operating experience, including partnerships with first class contractors and can negotiate with financing institutions to secure the best available procurement and financing terms. As demonstrated by a proven track record in Abu Dhabi, in delivering the most cost-effective yet efficient and reliable power and water production in the Emirate.

Leading in-house operations, engineering excellence and maintenance expertise is absolutely vital to operate both reverse osmosis and thermal desalination plants in parallel, which must be backed up with very high efficiency in order to lower the carbon footprint.

Above all, key providers in the water generation and power industry must be fundamentally committed to delivering best-in-class solutions that minimise the impact on the environment, by implementing action plans to avoid, reduce and if necessary, compensate them while optimally managing the resources at its disposal. ENGIE for example is most focussed on providing technical solutions to mitigate the environmental impact in the following areas:

  • Climate change, leading to the global warming of the atmosphere and oceans, but also the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events caused by the increase in emissions of greenhouse gases due to the consumption of fossil fuels.
  • The management of water resources whether it is fresh, drinkable or wastewater treatment.
  • Biodiversity management in different environments or territories potentially impacted by human activities.
  • The management of air quality and the issue of green mobility.
  • The more general challenge of intelligent management of all resources consumed and the waste produced to propagate a circular and sustainable economy.

By Sébastien Arbola / Chief Executive Officer of ENGIE Middle East, South & Central Asia and Turkey Business Unit