Nutrition is a fundamental human need. But, this fundamental need often goes unsolicited, sadly leaving the fate of millions hanging in the perilous balance of life and death. According to a 2015 report by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, India accounts for 23.8% of the global burden of malnourishment and has the second-highest estimated number of undernourished people in the world after China.
Governments and organizations often try to find a solution in large scale agricultural interventions and aid programs. But, more often than not, there are numerous solutions located in the vicinity of the problem that can be both affordable and accessible. 25-year-old Shalmali Ghaisas, an alumnus of St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, found a locally accessible solution in a small village in Madhya Pradesh.
As part of her SBI Youth for India Fellowship, Shalmali worked in the tribal region of the Barwani district of Madhya Pradesh, alongside the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, India (AKRSP – I). One of the prevalent problems she discovered was the absence of nutritious foods in the diet of villagers, especially infants. “The one thing that was very visible to my eye was that there was a considerable level of malnourishment in the entire village. One wouldn’t even need a BMI (Body Mass Index) indicator to know that the infant is malnourished; it was that visible,” she recalls. Another challenge was the lack of awareness around family planning in the village. Each household had a minimum 7-8 children, so the food definitely stretched. The villagers did not understand what malnourishment was or what comprised of a proper diet for their child. Upon further house visits Shalmali found out that the components like milk and vegetables – that can be a great source of protein – were missing from their diet. Thus, her next course of action was to find a sustainable solution to tackle this issue. A solution that can be easily found in the region itself.
One of the key findings of her research showed that an important success factor for being able to have an intervention in the diet is that Soya bean was harvested in abundance in the region which along with its byproducts can be a significant and cheap source of Protein. “My observation over the initial months were that every single house harvested soya bean but didn’t consume it. They consumed every other kind of pulse or cereal such as bajra, toor, corn, etc but they weren’t aware that firstly, soya, can and should be consumed and secondly, it is a low-cost source of protein.”
She initially started her work at the Rojanimal village located near Barwani. Shalmali started advocating the incorporation of products like soya milk, okara, and whey in the villagers’ everyday diet. She learned how to make soya milk and would carry 4-5 litres per day to distribute it among villagers which fondly earned her the name “doodh waali madam”. She also conducted workshops in the village to educate them about the benefits of a complete diet, consumption of proper nutrients, and also feeding routine for infants. Through this campaign, Shalmali not only gave villagers a wider image of malnutrition but also generated interest among the villagers to learn how to make these products.
Along with field experts, Shalmali started teaching the locals how to make these products. They conducted various training sessions to ensure sustainability. The beneficiaries were taught various recipes involving soya milk, okara, whey, and tofu. Pamphlets were also distributed with pictorial references for better understanding. Electric mixers and hand mixers were distributed in different households to empower them to make the products themselves. Shalmali herself carried out surprise visits to ensure the project’s sustainability and record the progress. Such measures brought immense changes in the villages.
The villagers were more sensitized to the idea of soya not just being a cash crop, but a vital substitute that can be inculcated in the diet of children, as well as adults, can save lives.
Through CTARA (IIT-B), she was introduced to Dr. Alka Kulkarni and Dr. Malavika Kulkarni at Shahada, Nandurbar district of Maharashtra. Along with a local NGO Shabri Seva Samiti, their volunteers scout the neighboring tribal villages for malnourished children, after which they are admitted at Kulkarni hospital completely free of charge and given fortified foods.
The award funds were utilized to train women and set up a system to prepare soy milk at this hospital so that the children in the hospital are benefitted.
The next step is indeed finding market linkages so as to get a better price for the harvest through value addition and we are yet in talks with certain suppliers in Mumbai about the interest in procuring village made soy flour.