Plumpy'Nut: The lifesaver that costs... well, peanuts

A nut paste used as a home-grown weapon in Africa's struggle against acute child malnutrition goes global

It was dubbed the wonder product that "may just be the most important advance ever" when it comes to battling acute child hunger. Now the life-saving peanut paste, first trialled during a famine in Niger eight years ago, is reaching two million of the world's most severely malnourished children a year.

The beauty of Plumpy'Nut, which was once said to be as important as the discovery of penicillin, is in its simplicity. The high-energy peanut-based paste, invented by a crusading French paediatrician, includes skimmed milk powder, sugar, vegetable fat and vitamins and minerals. It does not need clean water to swallow; it does not need to be cooked or refrigerated, and it stays fresh after opening. It can also be given to any child in the most advanced stage of malnutrition, anywhere, by anyone.

Experts say the paste has "radically" changed the care of severely malnourished children in developing countries. Importantly, it has allowed them to be treated in their homes, rather than in hospitals, and it has "drastically" reduced their mortality rates. Now, with increased supply in the developing world, experts suggest that Plumpy'Nut, alongside generic versions of the product, could become Africa's "home-grown" cure for severe acute malnutrition. It could even, they add, be used to prevent it. This is no small feat: malnutrition is a major killer of children under five, accounting for around one million deaths annually, but affecting an estimated 20 million children worldwide.

Unicef, the world's biggest buyer of high-energy peanut paste, bought enough last year to feed two million children, a 15-fold increase over the past eight years, and the highest amount on record. Nearly half of that came from African suppliers.

For Jan Komrska, a contracts specialist at Unicef's nutrition unit, reaching the two-million-children-a-year mark was a "milestone". He added that the actual figure is likely to be even higher, as Unicef and other NGOs account only for 80 per cent of total sales. "It's the highest number of children we have ever reached and we want to keep it at that level," he told the IoS. He added that Unicef had been working to "motivate manufacturers to open sites in Africa", so that the product can be produced in the countries where it is used.

There was just one supplier producing the paste in 2005; now, there are 19 Unicef-approved producers in countries with some of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world – including Sudan, Haiti, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, India and Niger. Six of the factories in Africa are franchises of the French company Nutriset, producing Plumpy'Nut, while five produce generic versions. Three were approved in 2012 alone.

Things have changed radically since 2005, when the Plumpy'Nut paste was marketed by Nutriset. It was first given to around 60,000 children with severe acute malnutrition during the famine in Niger. Ninety per cent recovered completely. Within two years, the World Health Organisation gave the product its seal of approval.

During the famine in the Horn of Africa two years ago, around 240,000 children were fed Plumpy'Nut. Now, the product is patented in 38 countries across the world. And despite patent battles – two American NGOs unsuccessfully fought for the right to overturn the company's patent in 2010, arguing that it hindered them from making a similar and cheaper paste – the supply is increasing.

Nutriset set up a franchise and now works with producers in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and America. Just over 40 per cent of its product now comes from abroad. And while the company argues that its patent supports local production and "protect[s] them from major competitors", generic pastes have also been made in countries such as India and South Africa.

Ismael Barmou, 32, is the deputy executive director of the only Plumpy'Nut factory in Niger, which opened three years ago. It is estimated that this year, the factory, which employs more than 90 people, will produce enough paste to treat 300,000 cases of severe acute malnutrition. Mr Barmou said that having a locally made product is essential to combating malnutrition.

"If you import peanut paste to Niger, it takes about three months to reach us. We look at the projections of what is needed for children, and we work to that," he said. "This peanut paste is incredible. It can turn the balance from a negative curve to the kid being back almost to normal; that is amazing."

For Meera Shekar, the World Bank's lead health specialist for Africa, the paste could very well be a "home-grown solution" to severe acute malnutrition, so long as local ownership and production increases and the advantages of economies of scale are seized. It currently costs around $50 (£30) to treat a child for up to two months. If the price is lowered, Ms Shekar believes it could be used as a "preventative" as well as a cure.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

Major medical journal Lancet under attack for 'extremist hate propaganda' over its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Lancet accused of 'anti-Israel hate propaganda' over coverage of Gaza conflict

Threat to free speech as publishers of renowned medical journal are accused of inciting hatred and violence
General Election 2015: Tories and Lib Dems throw their star names west to grab votes

All noisy on the Lib Dems' western front

The party has deployed its big guns in Cornwall to save its seats there. Simon Usborne heads to the heart of the battle
How Etsy became a crafty little earner: The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?

How Etsy became a crafty little earner

The online market has been floated for £1.2bn, but can craft and capitalism coexist?
Guy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle King Arthur - one of our most versatile heroes

King Arthur is inspiring Guy Ritchie

Raluca Radulescu explains why his many permutations - from folk hero to chick-lit hunk - never cease to fascinate
Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations for the man or woman on the street?

Apple Watch: Will it live up to expectations?

The Apple Watch has apparently sold millions even before its launch tomorrow
Don't fear the artichoke: it's a good cook's staple, with more choice than you'd think

Don't fear the artichoke

Artichokes are scary - they've got spikes and hairy bits, and British cooks tend to give them a wide berth. But they're an essential and delicious part of Italian cuisine
11 best men's socks

11 best men's socks

Make a statement with your accessories, starting from the bottom up
Paul Scholes column: Eden Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo

Paul Scholes column

Hazard would be my Player of the Year – but I wonder if he has that appetite for goals of Messi or Ronaldo
Frank Warren: Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal

Frank Warren's Ringside

Tyson Fury will be closely watching Wladimir Klitschko... when he wins it'll be time to do a deal
London Marathon 2015: Kenya's brothers in arms Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto ready to take on world

Kenya's brothers in arms take on world

Last year Wilson Kipsang had his marathon record taken off him by training partner and friend Dennis Kimetto. They talk about facing off in the London Marathon
Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad but it's not because I refuse to fly

Natalie Bennett interview: I've lost track of the last time I saw my Dad

Green leader prefers to stay clear of her 'painful' family memories but is more open about 'utterly unreasonable' personal attacks
Syria conflict: Khorasan return with a fresh influx of fighters awaiting the order to start 'shooting the birds'

Khorasan is back in Syria

America said these al-Qaeda militants were bombed out of the country last year - but Kim Sengupta hears a different story
General Election 2015: Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North for Ukip?

On the campaign trail with Ukip

Is William Cash the man to woo Warwickshire North?
Four rival Robin Hood movies get Hollywood go-head - and Friar Tuck will become a superhero

Expect a rush on men's tights

Studios line up four Robin Hoods productions
Peter Kay's Car Share: BBC show is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade

In the driving seat: Peter Kay

Car Share is the comedian's first TV sitcom in a decade. The programme's co-creator Paul Coleman reveals the challenges of getting the show on the road