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Pakistan: A win-win thanks to flatbread

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WFP supports fortification of flour with vitamins and minerals in local mills

By Henriette Bjorge

In a basement on the outskirts of Islamabad, Tahir Iqbal smiles behind his face mask. He is the owner of Watan Ata Chakki, a small mill that produces flour for the local community. His sales have gone up significantly – after he started selling flour fortified with added vitamins and minerals.

Tahir talks proudly about how the fortified flour has boosted his business, while at the same time providing more nutritious food to his customers.

“I was not aware of the great value of adding vitamins and minerals to the flour until I joined the World Food Programme (WFP)’s Chakki [local language for small-scale mill] project earlier this year,” Tahir explains. This project was implemented in coordination with the National Fortification Alliance and the Food Department. WFP provided a microfeeder which adds micro-nutrients during the milling process, as well as training to shift the production to fortified flour.

“Now several of my customers say that the chapatis [Pakistani flatbread] they make from this flour give them more energy, and they feel full for a longer period. Some parents have also mentioned that their children sleep better,” Tahir says.

More than half of the women and children in Pakistan lack adequate levels of essential micronutrients such as iron, zinc, folic acid, vitamin A and vitamin D. Poor nutrition and micronutrient deficiencies in childhood have profound effects on immunity, growth and cognitive development.

WFP’s Chakki project aims to combat malnutrition and stunting (lower height for age), by targeting the small-scale local mills where most people buy their flour. People like Tahir have learnt how to add micro-nutrients (iron, zinc, folic acid, vitamin B12) that are essential to good nutrition, especially in pregnant and breastfeeding women, children and adolescents.

Talking about his customers, Tahir says: “Many are highly educated people, so they quickly understand that the small price increase of 6 PKR (equivalent to US$0.04) per 20 kg is worth it. I spend a little longer convincing sceptics who are not familiar with the positive impact fortified flour will have on their diet. However, they usually decide to give it a try when they learn about the benefits, and they end up coming back to purchase more.”

Just a few steps away from Tahir’s mill lies local meeting spot Quetta Akbar Café and Hotel. After hearing from Tahir about the value of using fortified flour, owner Anwar Khan shifted to using fortified flour too. The price of one chapati increased from 12 to 15 PKR, equivalent to a US$ 0.02 increase, but customer feedback on taste and texture is very positive. Some also mention that the bread stays softer for longer. Since May this year, posters placed on the café's walls educate customers about the added value of using fortified flour. And both Tahir and Anwar enjoy talking to people about fortification and getting feedback.

According to recent estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 37.5 million people in Pakistan are not receiving proper nourishment. The country loses 3 percent of its GDP (around US$7.6 billion) every year due to a high burden of malnutrition – including through lost labourers, healthcare expenses and lower productivity – a figure that has remained relatively unchanged over the past four decades.

Tahir and Anwar can be part of the solution as they convince their customers to shift to using fortified flour in their baking. Anwar often allows café customers to taste the difference before they buy their chapatis.

With initial support from the Government of Australia, WFP, in collaboration with the National Fortification Alliance, Food Authority and Chakki millers, is implementing this small-scale fortification programme in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. With full support from WFP’s Innovation Accelerator, the plan is to use 50 mills over a period of 11 months to reach 1 million consumers. The programme has the potential to sustain itself once a balance between supply and demand is reached.

Tahir and Anwar have shown how two small businesses a stone’s throw away from one other can make a difference. They both consider their collaboration a win-win situation, as they attract customers while playing an important part in improving the health of their local community.