Saving lives with pink bags

By Felix Brooks-church / Cofounding President & CEO, Sanku 26/05/2019

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 www.sanku.com  


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