Thursday, November 5, 2020

Impact on Nutrition: Volunteer Technical Assistance for Malawi Agro-processors

AOCS, The Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL), and Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA) have partnered in a pilot program to bring volunteer technical expertise from AOCS members to agro-processors in Malawi. The program is funded by USAID through the CNFA-implemented Farmer-to-Farmer program (F2F). To date, most of the F2F assistance has focused on small and medium processors. To improve nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa at scale addressing the needs of larger agro-processors is key. AOCS members are uniquely qualified to make a lasting impact on the nutrition of countries such as Malawi. Volunteers donate their time and experience with a Malawi agro-processor; all other expenses are covered by the program. At present, assignments are conducted virtually due to COVID-19, however in-country volunteer opportunities will continue as soon as circumstances allow. 


Malawi is a small landlocked country located in southeastern Africa, bordered by Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania. This beautiful country, known for the friendliness of its people, is amongst the world’s least-developed countries. The economy is heavily based on smallholder agriculture, with 80% of the population farming, on average, only 0.5 hectares . Malawi’s main staple crop is maize, grown by virtually all smallholder farmers. Tobacco is the number one exported agricultural product from Malawi, the country ranks in the top ten as one of the world’s most prolific producers of raw leaf. Oilseed crops, with the exception of peanuts, are a more recent introduction. Soybean is a promising crop and soybean varieties are now being trialed at scale and enthusiastically taken up by farmers. Soybeans are being encouraged to help farmers improve soils and grow nutritious crops versatile for both the market and food security. 

Enhancing nutrition for Malawians is critical. Thirty-seven percent of Malawi’s children under five years are stunted, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). This is an improvement from 2003 when stunting hovered over 50%. Strides are being made, but more must be done. Assisting Malawi processors to create nutritious, fortified foods for the population builds capacity at scale for nutritious products and creates a viable market for farmers. 

The Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL) works in Malawi to improve nutrition and farmer livelihoods through the use of soybeans. SIL’s managed research area 5 of SIL (MRA5) works with agro-processors, institutions and households to improve nutrition with soybean enhanced diverse diets, either directly consumed, or used in animal feed. 

Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture (CNFA) implements the current phase of the F2F program for Southern Africa (2018-2023), which includes Malawi. The F2F program began in 1985 as a way to share technical assistance to farmers, farm groups, agribusiness, and agriculture sector institutions in developing and transitional countries. The main goal is to generate sustainable, broad-based growth in agriculture through voluntary technical assistance. A secondary goal is to increase the U.S. public’s understanding of international development issues and programs, and an international understanding of the U.S. and U.S. development programs.  

Frequently Asked Questions:

What are the qualifications for a volunteer?  To be eligible to serve as a volunteer, one must be either a U.S. citizen or U.S. permanent resident. Assignments are demand-driven, meaning that an agro-processor needs to request from a volunteer and share the specific needs for desired technical assistance after which  CNFA will pair the agro-processors with volunteers that have the necessary skill set.  

How is volunteering working during the COVID-19 Pandemic? 

F2F currently conducts only virtual assignments. They began in March 2020 and consist of training and technical support via online platforms, such as Zoom and Skype. In most assignments, the volunteer will work with one host organization, providing support focused on the specific needs of the host. A brief Scope of Work orients the volunteer to the host organization and the types of assistance requested. Generally, training sessions last one-to-two hours and are held two or more times per week, over the course of two-to-four weeks.

Tell me about in-country assignments. How do they work? 

The scope of work orients the host and volunteer for their work together before departure. The F2F volunteers usually stay two to four weeks in-country. All travel and lodging expenses, including the volunteer's travel vaccinations and visa fees, are paid for by the program. The volunteer donates time and expertise. Typically, in the course of the volunteer assignment there remains time to explore the local culture. 

Food Processing Background and Request for Technical Assistance

Sunseed Oil, Ltd. is a family-owned agro-processor in Malawi established in 2002. The company currently enjoys about 40% of the edible oil market in the country and purchase approximately 60,000 MT of soy, mainly from local farmers, each year. Sunseed Oil has 400 employees and a 350 MT of daily processing capacity and is certified by the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) and ISO. They export 35,000 MT of soy cake per annum. 

Sunseed Oil currently makes edible oils, margarine fortified with vitamins A & D and fortified maize flour. They are interested in creating soy lecithin, soy flour, soy milk and soy chunks, more commonly known as texturized soy protein. A new twin extrusion plant is in the finishing phases of installment for soy chunks production capacity.  Sunseed’s specific request for assistance surrounds new products in various stages of research and development at their new extrusion (double screw) plant that is will be operational in January 2021.

The new product line is an extruded soybean meat analog, or “soy chunks” made from de-hulled, defatted untoasted soy flakes, ground to soy flour, or grits. 

  • The production process for this product is novel and innovative for Malawi. The new product line will be cooked during the conditioning and extrusion process to maintain nutrition. Traditional and currently available products on the market are, pre-cooked from toasted full-fat soy flour and extruded, thus, reheating an already cooked mixture and producing a less nutritious product.
  • Protein for the analog is anticipated to be (52%), high Nitrogen Solubility Index (NSI) is expected at approximately (60 %), and a high Protein Dispersibility Index (PDI) is anticipated at around 70%.
  • Fat content is anticipated to be low (approximately 1 to 1.2%), which is seen as a competitive advantage as locally made soy “chunks” have an oil content as high as 5 to 6%. The lower fat content is also an advantage with shelf stability, particularly within the tropical climate of the region.
  • Texturization of the analog is expected to be excellent, as a result of the defatted/untoasted soy flour base.  
  • Water absorption is also expected to be very good (approximately. 3), meaning any flavors can easily absorb into the product, making it widely adaptable for Malawi palates. Water absorption properties should also speed cooking times, an important consideration in Malawi where fuel/energy consumption for cooking is a household concern. Faster cooking also means less nutritive loss.

Sunseed requests assistance bringing this new product line from vision to market, with the opening of their twin-screw extrusion plant. Technical guidance is requested in the following areas:

  • Good manufacturing processes
  • Quality control for consistency in production
  • Assessment of product safety and shelf stability
  • Analysis for labeling and nutrition
  • Sensory panels for analog flavors, texture and ease of use
  • Cost-effective packaging
  • Initial price consideration guidance after packaging considerations are understood
  • Logistics and promotion may be needed in later phases

Additionally, Sunseed is keen to explore new products to fill its research and development pipeline. Should this first request not be of interest, technical assistance is requested with the fortification and formulation for complementary foods and adult porridges. Details will be sent on request. 

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