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A Tanzanian project to boost kids’ health has roots in Waterloo

PeaceWorks is proud to work with our clients on innovative software projects like the electronic voucher program that MEDA is using in Tanzania to deliver Vitamin A supplements to young children. Read more about the project here.

Waterloo Region Record
by Charlotte Drewett

WATERLOO — A research project aimed at reducing mortality rates in young children in Tanzania by fortifying sunflower oil with vitamin A has local connections.

Mennonite Economic Development Association, whose head office is in Waterloo, has teamed up with the University of Waterloo and Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania on a research project that focuses on decreasing vitamin A deficiencies in various Tanzanian regions.

According to a 2010 Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey, one third of children under five years old have a vitamin A deficiency, which has negative affects on their immune systems leading to complications that could result in death.

Young children whose immune systems are damaged by vitamin A deficiencies cannot fight off common diseases and "they're more susceptible to pneumonia and diarrhea" said Susan Horton, from the department of economics at the University of Waterloo and chair of global health economics with the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

"The younger the kids are the higher the death rate is," Horton said, adding that in Tanzania, many children die in the first month of life.

The project will focus on providing small manufacturers in rural communities with the knowledge and technology to fortify unrefined sunflower oil with vitamin A.

"The smaller, local manufacturers are the ones that distribute to the most vulnerable people in the rural areas of Tanzania," said David Eagle, the senior project manager with Mennonite Economic Development Association.

"Large manufacturers tend to focus on larger markets, like the main cities. So any oil that gets fortified in the cities doesn't tend to get out to the rural areas that need it."

Over the next two and a half years the vitamin A-enriched sunflower oil will be distributed to residents in Manyara and Shinyanga, two of the regions in Tanzania with higher rates of vitamin A deficiencies.

The University of Waterloo will provide part of research for the project by analyzing data that comes from subsidized electronic vouchers that are going to be distributed throughout the regions via cellphones.

"The aim of course is to ultimately encourage wider distribution," Horton said.

"The great thing about this is it's a self sustaining thing because, although you initially give people a small subsidy to encourage them to try something new, in the long run you want to educate them that this is really healthy for their kids."

The electronic vouchers are multipurpose because they provide the Tanzanian population with a discounted incentive to purchase the vitamin A-enriched sunflower oils and the data can be used to track who is purchasing the oil.

"We can deliver an electronic voucher to somebody at a store in a rural area of Tanzania quite easily and it's also more secure and a traceable process, which is important for development projects as well," Eagle said.

The project is supported under the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund with funding from Canada's International Development Research Centre and Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada.


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