Will Nepalis Make Their Own Baby Food?
Much talk of economic independence has been spawned by the trade and transit crisis with India. There are exhortations of using of native wicker-work wastebaskets and dreams of running cars on electricity. Meanwhile, amid the pedestrian and the grandiose, comes a practical aspiration – an effort to make baby food.
Nepal imports the weaning formula Cerelac and Farex from India but markets no formulas of its own. The imports dominate, yet they hardly satisfy the need for such foods. In a typical year, Nepal imports roughly 150 tons of cereal formula, only enough to feed one in 165 newborns. The formulas are expensive, unaffordable for the majority of Nepali mothers, and now more so because of the trade crisis. Cerelac, the instant milk cereal from India, had a pre-crisis cost of about NRs33 per tin; it now costs NRs40.
Nepal´s food scientists believe the country could produce weaning foods for one-third the cost of the Indian variety. The Joint Nutrition Support Programme, a four-year-old undertaking of the Ministry of Agriculture, develops weaning foods from locally available crops. Its process calls for little more than malting, hulling and grinding of local grains, and the teaching of these methods. It is all appropriately low key. What´s new of course is the replacement of traditional rice – too bulky and lacking in protein – with a variety of well-balanced cereals and pulses. The mothers find that they are able to feed their babies less often, yet more nutritiously.
Now, for the coming year, the programme proposes to its sponsors, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, an ambitious step. It would like to extend its sphere of assistance to the commercial sector. If the plans go forward, businessmen, or women´s groups, should be able to seek technical and financial assistance to establish small commercial productions of weaning foods.
At UNICEF, Raymond Jannesen, programme coordinator, welcomes the proposal and calls it long overdue, In the past, similar commercial ventures were dogged by difficulties of distribution, and Jannesen concedes that such difficulties are well entrenched. On the other hand, urban centers in Nepal are growing at a remarkable rate – 8 to 10 percent a year, with the pace expected to increase even further. More concentrated markets should result, together with greater demand for store-bought formula. Whether Nepal meets the new demand with a domestic product, or more imports, is something today´s crisis maybe deciding.
James Emmons is a United States-based freelance writer.