The Algae-Duckweed Innovation Project

So far I have mostly written about my personal experiences in Ethiopia without going into much detail about my work here, primarily because I haven’t formally introduced the project yet. I’d like to take this time to present the motivation behind the Algae-Duckweed Innovation (ADI) Project and outline the hypotheses we are testing.

Motivation

Ethiopia has made significant progress in child nutrition – from 2000 to 2008 the prevalence of stunting in rural areas decreased from 57% to 44% and the prevalence of underweight children reduced from 42% to 29%. Yet, infant morality and child mortality are still among the highest in the world. Given that nearly half of infant and under-5 mortality can be attributed to malnutrition, accelerating improvements in child nutrition is essential to reduce infant and child mortality. Maternal and child nutrition studies have emphasized that “nutrition sensitive” interventions – those that target the underlying determinants of nutrition, such as improved income generation, availability of nutritious foods, and women’s empowerment – are essential if we wish to enhance the coverage and effectiveness of traditional nutrition interventions; e.g., fortification, education, and supplementation.

Towards this end, our long-term goal is to develop and rigorously test innovative and appropriate agricultural technologies to empower and raise the economic and agricultural capacity of the poorest and most vulnerable women in Ethiopia and to see if this increased capacity translates into improved food, nutrition, and health security of women and their infants and young children.

Why duckweed?

Duckweed is a tiny aquatic plant found in nutrient-rich, calm waters (e.g., marshes and wetlands) around the world. It is widely regarded as an invasive weed as its rapid growth is hard to contain, enabling it to clog boat propellers when left untreated. Its presence is indicative of wastewater and fertilizer runoff, which supply duckweed with plenty of nitrogen and phosphorus, commonly the limiting nutrients for growth. In some parts of India and Southeast Asia, duckweed is used to treat latrine wastewater – nitrogen and phosphorus from feces and urine are converted into duckweed biomass which is used for a variety of purposes. Duckweed biomass has a very high nutrient value and protein content, which make it suitable as a livestock feed supplement. Indeed, duckweed is commonly used in Asia as tilapia feed, whereby tilapia can sustain nearly 100% of their diet on duckweed. Duckweed can also support up to 25% and 75% of the diets of chickens and cows, respectively. Livestock raised on a diet that includes duckweed have shown to have higher nutrient value compared to livestock raised on traditional feeds alone: chicken meat and cow milk are enriched in omega-3 fatty acids when the animals are fed duckweed-inclusive diets.

With this in mind, we propose that duckweed grown on livestock manure provides a simple, cost-effective, nutritious, and sustainable livestock feed supplement that will increase the nutritive value of the livestock and reduce the cost of traditional feed for microbusiness farmers in Ethiopia.

The Intervention

1,200 women (who have a young infant, are pregnant, or are likely to become pregnant during this 3-year study) across the western Oromia region of Ethiopia will be enrolled in our program. These 1,200 women will be assigned into a start-up microbusiness (20 women) centered around either poultry, dairy, or tilapia production. Half of the microbusinesses will follow traditional methods of livestock farming while the other half will incorporate duckweed production into their business model as a feed supplement for their livestock. Throughout the program, all women will receive weekly training on entrepreneurship, livestock production, household finances, maternal/child nutrition, water/sanitation/hygiene, and empowerment. Data will be collected via questionnaires from each microbusiness, enrolled woman, and her household regarding health/nutrition (e.g., frequency of sickness, infant weight/height, food security, diet), finances (e.g., income/debt, business revenue, livestock production), and empowerment (e.g., self-esteem, self-efficacy, decision making power). Microbusinesses implementing duckweed production will be compared against those using traditional livestock methods to evaluate the effects (if any) of this approach.

Within this multi-faceted study, we seek to test the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis #1: Empowering women improves nutrition

The consumption of animal source foods, such as milk, eggs, and meat, is critical for meeting the elevated protein and micronutrient needs of pregnancy, lactation, and early child growth. Poverty and women’s low socioeconomic status in the household and community are primary underlying determinants of poor nutrition. While poverty limits the resources needed to support optimal nutrition, cultural norms that dictate preferential allocation of these foods to men further limit access of animal source foods to women and children. When women’s participation in household economic and health decision-making increases, improvements in child diet and child nutritional status and health outcomes follow, as does uptake of essential health services such as family planning, antenatal care and facility-based deliveries.

Empowerment is a process by which people gain mastery over their affairs; that is, they gain the cognitive ability, the belief in their ability, and the social ‘right’ to make decisions guiding their life and the life of their children. Increasing women’s control over production of animal source foods or their control over resources related to animal source foods (such as feed inputs) may enhance their own access and the likelihood that animal source foods would be consumed by women or allocated to the young child. This leads to our first hypothesis:

Hypothesis #1: Management of livestock, especially production of animal source foods such as eggs, poultry meat, milk, and fish, by vulnerable women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or rearing young children (along with appropriate nutrition education) will increase their consumption of these products.

Hypothesis #2: Duckweed as an animal feed supplement improves nutrition

Duckweed has a very high nutrient value and lipid and protein content, and recent studies show that poultry meat and cow milk contains higher levels of these desirable fatty acids when chickens are fed algal and duckweed supplements. Similarly duckweed also contains relatively high concentrations of beta-carotene, the precursor of retinol. Eggs and milk of animals fed algae-based feed have higher carotenoid concentrations and thus duckweed-feeds may be a unique food based strategy to improve vitamin A content of the food supply and vitamin A status of vulnerable populations. Vitamin A deficiency is a substantial public health burden for pregnant and lactating women and young children and increases the risk of blindness and mortality from infectious diseases. This leads to our second hypothesis:

Hypothesis #2: Algae and duckweed production for animal feed provides an innovative strategy to produce animal-source foods with greater nutritional value in a more cost effective way.

Hypothesis #3: Duckweed as an animal feed supplement improves micro-business performance

Like any business, start-up agriculture micro-businesses follow the basic accounting principle: Profit (or loss) equals income minus expenses. A reduction in expenses translates to increased profit. Duckweed production can provide a constant source of high quality and sustainable protein for animal feed that is noncompetitive with existing sources, does not rely on fossil fuels, and is less expensive than the purchase of traditional feed. Duckweed production uses minimal resources and relies primarily on water, nutrients, and sunlight. Thus, duckweed production as animal feed has the potential to significantly reduce the overall operating expenses for start-up farming micro-businesses in Ethiopia. Thus, our third hypothesis is:

Hypothesis #3: Production of algae/duckweed as a feed supplement for start-up farming micro-businesses (i) can be successfully implemented in Ethiopia and will increase business profit by 20% after 1 year compared to those using traditional feed, and (ii) this improved income will correlate with improved food and nutrition security and empowerment of vulnerable women and their families when combined with integrated health & nutrition education and socio-emotional empowerment training.

And there you have it – the ADI Project. While on paper it seems like a fairly straightforward study, in reality executing a project of this magnitude requires logistical prowess, experts in a broad range of fields (i.e., agriculture, nutrition, education, economics), and a huge team of dedicated people on the ground. Similarly, while the ADI project may seem like the silver bullet to Ethiopia’s malnutrition problem, each step along the series of events that must occur for duckweed to result in improved nutrition can easily be derailed for any number of social, cultural, or entirely random reasons. And at the end of the day, that’s exactly what we’re trying to figure out.

Note: As I am not an expert in women’s empowerment, maternal and child nutrition, or business economics, a significant portion of this post was taken from the original proposal submission.

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