This social enterprise is tackling malnutrition, one bead at a time

- Tsering Ngodup Lama, Kathmandu

Jun 23, 2019-

In a video posted two years ago on a Facebook page called Youth for Nutrition, Arbun Khatun, mother of an eight-month-old child, is shown wearing a colourful Nutribeads bracelet. The bracelet informs young mothers like Khatun how to provide nutritionally balanced diets to infants, beginning from birth through the second year of their lives. Each bracelet has five cylindrical beads marked with the numbers 0, 6, 9, 12, and 24, signifying months, and there are five other coloured beads—white, brown, yellow, green and blue with white symbolising milk, brown carbohydrates, yellow proteins, green vitamins, and blue proteins, vitamins and fat.

In the video, Khatun explains that the lone white bead between the beads marked 0 and 6 signifies that children below 6 months should only be fed breast milk, and that the bracelet has helped remind her of what a proper balanced diet for her child should include.

Khatun is one of hundreds of mothers who have undergone an education and awareness programme on nutrition conducted by the social enterprise Social Changemakers and Innovators (SOCHAI). At the end of each programme, participating mothers are provided with the Nutribeads bracelet, which SOCHAI produces.

From 2017 to early 2019, more than 900 mothers have attended SOCHAI’s community-based learning programmes, designed to create nutritional awareness.

“The programmes highlight the importance of breastfeeding, informs what complementary feeding is and when to start it, what constitutes a balanced diet, and food diversity,” says Bonita Sharma, CEO and co-founder of SOCHAI.

Started in 2017 by Sharma, Neha Malla, Manjita Sharma Rajopadhyay, and Aasutosh Dhoj Karki, SOCHAI believes in self-sustenance and hence, shies away from donations.  

“We were very clear that we didn’t want to be a donation-driven organisation. But to stay afloat, we needed a steady revenue source, and that’s how we came up with the idea of selling bracelets,” says Malla.

SOCHAI sells two models of bracelets—the Nutribeads bracelet and a Redcycle bracelet. While the former focuses on nutrition, the latter helps young girls understand the various aspects of their monthly menstrual cycle. The bracelets are priced between Rs 200 and 500 and are available for purchase at Kolpa Store, Jhamsikhel; Keta Keti Store, Bhaktapur; and through SOCHAI’s social media pages. Their Redcycle bracelets are most popular among urban girls, says Malla.  

At SOCHAI’s heart is a desire to promote social change without relying on the traditional donation-drive model of non-governmental organisations. It was in 2016, when the founders were going through the Nepal Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS), conducted by the Ministry of Health, that they hit upon the idea of doing something with the survey’s alarming findings.

According to the survey, 36 percent of children under 5 are stunted (too short for their age), 27 percent are underweight, and 10 percent are wasted (weigh too little for their height). The report also states that 53 percent of children between the ages of 6-59 months and 41 percent of the women aged 15-49 are anemic.

“The findings made us realise the severity of malnutrition in the country, and we knew that that’s an area we could work on to spread awareness and knowledge,” says Sharma, a graduate in public health.

After consulting with senior public health officials, the team headed to Lubhu, a suburb in Lalitpur, to do their initial ground research work.

“In Lubhu, we came across a woman who told us that her neighbour had fed her two-month-old child cashewnut paste. The paste got stuck in the baby’s throat and he died. The woman was accused of murdering her own child by her in-laws and ostracised. As a public health official, when I heard that story, I felt like I had failed both the mother and the child. The story proved to be a turning point for all of us,” says Sharma.

The team decided to focus on the importance of a balanced diet, starting from the moment a woman becomes pregnant to the child’s second birthday. “The nutrition that a child receives during this period can play a very important role in reducing the risk of malnutrition and aid in the child’s overall physical and cognitive development,” says Malla. “We designed several learning programmes, developed the Nutribeads bracelet, and also started training youth volunteers to implement our programmes at the local level.”

So far, SOCHAI has conducted workshops, trainings, and awareness programmes on nutrition in seven districts and has partnered with health workers, pregnant and lactating women, and adolescent girls. Between 2017 and 2018, the social enterprise generated around Rs 200,000 in revenue through the sale of their bracelets.

However, their initial idea of not being donation-oriented hasn’t come to pass as expected.

“The amount we generate from sales isn’t enough to fund our programmes, so we collaborate with government-run schools and health organisations, and non-government organisations in different districts. Had financial resources not been an issue, we would have conducted a lot more programmes.To fund our activities, we’ve also applied for several grants,” says Malla.

On May 22, SOCHAI, represented by Sharma, was announced the winner of Lead 2030 Challenge for Sustainable Development Goal’s Zero Hunger category. As the winner, Sharma was awarded $50,000 and a year-long mentorship support from Reckitt Benckiser (RB), a British multinational company. “This award came with a much-needed cash injection for our organisation to conduct more programmes in different areas, and valuable mentorship from RB,” says Sharma.

Half of the award money, says the SOCHAI team, will be used to fund their programmes. “Most of our work has been in districts that are close to Kathmandu, but with the award money, we can now afford to look beyond neighbouring areas,” says Malla. “The team is already working on identifying one location each from the mountain, hill and terai regions to start long-term programmes.”

The other half of the award money, says the team, will be spent on R&D on new products to diversify the organisation’s product portfolio. Profit generated from the sale of these products will be injected into funding programmes.

Last month, Eva Gyawali, a business graduate, joined SOCHAI’s team as business manager. Gyawali’s role, says Malla, is to come up with new product ideas that align with their organisation’s core values, and also look after the branding and marketing.

“She has already presented us with several interesting business ideas, all relating to food and nutrition. But whatever we decide to go with, social entrepreneurship will be an integral aspect of our business wing,” says Malla.

SOCHAI is already in talks with several Aama Samuhas (mothers’ groups) to outsource manufacturing of their Nutribeads and Redcycle bracelets. “None of our four core team members come from a business background nor do we have business experience. We will, of course, give our input to Eva, but she will be at the forefront of our business wing,” says Sharma.

SOCHAI’s team members are aware that there are pockets in remote regions of the country, like Karnali, where malnutrition is severe. “According to the NDHS survey, more than 50 percent of children under the age of 5 are stunted in Karnali. If resources weren’t an issue, we would have conducted programmes in such pockets in the country,” says Sharma. “This is why it’s so important for us to have a strong and well-performing business to give us financial strength to take our work to areas that need it the most.”

According to Malla, the organisation will also start working with agriculture experts to identify locally grown superfoods in regions of the country where the organisation plans to work. “We will focus on promoting these foods and then work on promoting them,” says Malla.

The organisation hopes that by the time the next demographic and health survey is conducted, they will have made an impact in reducing those findings that made them get into this business in the first place. “When the government releases its next survey, in 2021, there will be some reduction in stunting, wasting, anemia, and other malnutrition-induced ailments and physical conditions,” says Sharma. “By 2036, we want to have made a significant impact on malnutrition in the country.”

Published: 24-06-2019 07:00

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