Can NEI Solve the Problem of Malnutrition in Afghanistan?

mantoo foodAccording to research from the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), malnutrition is a major problem in Afghanistan. Approximately one-third of the country’s population isn’t getting enough calories on a daily basis, and about 20% of Afghans aren’t getting enough protein. The figures for malnutrition in children are even more troubling: more than 40% of Afghan children under five years old are stunted (or smaller than the average for their age), which is one of the world’s highest rates of childhood stunting. In addition, 10% of Afghan children are acutely malnourished, and thousands of children die every year because they don’t have access to adequate food and nutrition.

Childhood malnutrition naturally has serious consequences for physical development, but it can also lead to problems with cognitive development and educational achievement. Without the nutrients needed for healthy brain development and functioning, many malnourished children struggle with learning issues throughout their lives, even into adulthood. This is a particular challenge for a country like Afghanistan, which is working hard to increase literacy rates and education levels as part of its post-conflict rebuilding process.

With child health experts calling for greater nutritional investment in Afghanistan, a number of NGOs are stepping in to help tackle malnutrition and the underlying causes of Afghanistan’s food insecurity. Nutrition & Education International (NEI) is one such example: a non-profit organization that is working to promote soybean cultivation and nourishment in Afghanistan in association with local government agencies, universities, and the WFP. Read on to learn more about NEI’s work and its history in Afghanistan.

What is NEI?

NEI logoNEI is a non-profit organization on a mission to eradicate malnutrition in Afghanistan with a surprising weapon: soybeans.

Containing nine essential amino acids, soybeans are a rich source of protein and other nutrients, making them excellent fighters against malnutrition, which is essentially synonymous with protein deficiency. In addition, soybeans are a cost-effective crop to grow, and so are relatively easy to incorporate into Afghanistan’s agricultural practices.

NEI’s primary objective is to help Afghanistan establish a self-sustaining soybean industry by developing a full soybean value chain. The idea is that by introducing seed multiplication, soybean cultivation and processing, and soy market development, NEI can help poor families improve both their nutrition and their economic circumstances. According to NEI’s president, Steven Kwon, a functioning soy economy is one of the most practical remedies to address Afghanistan’s ongoing struggle with chronic malnutrition.

A history of NEI in Afghanistan

2003—Steven Kwon makes his first visit to Afghanistan. Soon after, he develops the soy nutrition initiative and establishes Nutrition & Education International as a non-profit NGO.

2004—Six varieties of non-GMO soybeans are successfully cultivated and tested in Afghanistan’s Balkh province.

2005—Following the successful testing of NEI’s soy program in 12 different Afghan provinces, the government of Afghanistan adopts the program as a national project.

2006—For the first time in Afghanistan’s history, 1,000 tons of soybeans are produced through the efforts of more than 2,000 Afghan farmers across nine provinces. In addition, two soy milk processing facilities are established, and NEI begins its humanitarian soy milk distribution program, which delivers nutrition-rich soy milk to 3,000 high-risk families.

2007—Soybean production expands; more than 3,000 farmers across 15 provinces are now cultivating soybeans.

2008—Three more soy milk processing facilities are established, as is a containerized soy flour factory.

2009—Soybean production expands beyond agricultural operations to include home and community gardens, thus helping individual families and small communities supplement their protein intake independently. NEI’s soy milk distribution program is now reaching 5,000 families, and a newly initiated winter soy nutrition campaign provides 100 tons of soybeans and soy flour to 2,500 high-risk families in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces.

2010—NEI purchases and distributes 100 metric tons of soybean seeds to farmers in 21 provinces; by this time, Afghan farmers are producing enough soybeans to sustain their own families. Afghanistan’s first-ever soy flour factory is built in Kabul with a capacity of 300 metric tons. NEI also increases its efforts to create a soy market in the country by launching its business arm, Soybean Nutrition Services Afghanistan (SNSA), and concentrates on providing seed resources, training farmers, and further developing the market for soy. A grant from the government of Japan enables NEI to pursue these aims.

2011—Three more soy flour factories are built, and NEI receives a second grant for its soybean production project from the Japanese government.

2012—NEI enters into a partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme to promote soybean cultivation in 100 districts across 20 provinces. More than 6,000 new farmers are trained in soybean cultivation, and 2,000 metric tons of soybeans are produced.

2013—NEI celebrates a decade of work in Afghanistan, and commits to a further 10 years of developing Afghanistan’s soybean industry in order to eradicate malnutrition.

2014—Two more soy processing facilities are established. NEI receives a grant for its work from the Republic of Korea.

2015—NEI’s founder meets formally with the President of Afghanistan to discuss the future of Afghanistan’s soybean industry.

2016—Construction on a sterilized soy milk factory is completed. 17,000 new soybean farmers are trained in 31 provinces, and soybean production reaches a record high of 6,000 metric tons.

Spotlight on the Asia Society: Introducing the World to Afghanistan

The Asia Society is the world’s leading educational organization dedicated to fostering mutual understanding, respect, and partnership between Western and Asian countries, including Afghanistan and other countries of the Greater Middle East. Read on to learn more about the Asia Society, and how it’s helping the world get to know Afghanistan.

What is the Asia Society?

Asia Society logoThe Asia Society is a non-profit, non-partisan institution with a broad mission to prepare Asians and Americans for a shared future in a global context. Founded in 1956 by John D. Rockefeller III, the Asia Society has grown over the years to become an international, cross-disciplinary organization, working across the fields of arts, culture, education, business, and policy to generate ideas and insight, address present challenges, and prepare for a collaborative future. Today, the Asia Society’s focus covers more than 50 countries and territories—the Society has major centers and offices in cities ranging from Houston and Los Angeles to Manila and Mumbai—making it one of the most important contributors to the ongoing conversation about Asian-American relations.

What does the Asia Society do?

The Asia Society’s scope of activity is extremely broad. A sampling of the Society’s work and initiatives includes: the Center for Global Education, which brings world leaders and institutions together to tackle the urgent question of how to educate today’s students for employability in a global era; the Asia Society Policy Institute, a think tank that addresses major policy challenges for the Asia-Pacific region by working with top experts and policymakers; the Asia Arts Awards, a signature event that honors transformative figures in Asia’s contemporary art world; and the Pacific Cities Sustainability Initiative, an ongoing collaborative dialogue aiming to foster the development and sharing of urban sustainability strategies among Asia-Pacific communities.

How is the Asia Society helping the world get to know Afghanistan?

As one of the Asia Society’s focus countries, Afghanistan is an important presence in much of the Society’s work. Some specific ways that the Asia Society is bringing Afghanistan to the world’s attention and building awareness about how Afghanistan is developing include:

Creative Voices of Islam in AsiaCreative Voices of Muslim Asia—The Asia Society’s Creative Voices of Muslim Asia is an innovative multidisciplinary program that works to build understanding of the diversity of Islam through the arts. The initiative incorporates Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas, a collaborative festival and the first festival of Muslim arts to be held in New York City. There’s also a youth media exchange program that helps connect young people with digital storytelling opportunities that allow them to participate in critical dialogue around important issues like globalization and immigration. Creative Voices of Muslim Asia also sponsors a regular series of online publications and features that showcase important artistic voices and perspectives from Afghanistan and other Muslim countries and regions.

The Arts & Museum Summit—First launched in 2015, this summit is a valuable opportunity for museum and arts leaders from across Asia and the Middle East, the US, and Europe to connect, explore challenges, and share knowledge. At the inaugural summit in 2015, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast, the founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, was a key panel member in a discussion on threats and risks to the arts in contemporary Asia.

The Asia Game Changer Awards—Launched by the Asia Society in 2014, the Asia Game Changer Awards aim to fill a critical gap by identifying and celebrating leaders in all fields who are making profound and positive contributions to the future of Asia. In 2016, Afghanistan’s Dr. Ahmad Sarmast was honored for his commitment to bringing music back to Afghanistan in the face of extreme violence and threats. Read more about Dr. Sarmast’s remarkable work and legacy here.

Does the Asia Society organize initiatives within Afghanistan?

While much of the Asia Society’s work involving Afghanistan is intended to help the rest of the world learn about the country, the Society does support some initiatives taking place in Afghanistan. Chief among these is the Afghanistan Young Leaders Initiative (AYLI), a program designed to build and nurture the next generation of Afghan leaders. Operating under the broader umbrella of the Asia 21 Young Leaders Initiative, AYLI annually selects a number of promising Afghan citizens under the age of 40 to become a “young Afghan leader” for a one-year term.

As part of their term, AYLI members participate in monthly meetings to discuss Afghanistan’s main challenges and how the next generation of leaders can help solve them; develop a next-generation curriculum for leadership development workshops that can be delivered to Afghan university students; and work with a media consultant to develop a media outreach strategy highlighting the work of young Afghan leaders. In addition, participants attend the Afghan Young Leaders in Action Youth Summit, an annual forum that helps AYLI members make key connections and assess their progress as a group.

Hand in Hand International – An Important New Way to Fight Poverty

For over a decade, the non-governmental organization Hand in Hand International has been inviting the world to look at poverty differently. The group believes that job creation, not just aid, is the most important weapon in the fight against poverty. Powered by this philosophy, Hand in Hand focuses on helping the world’s poor improve their lives by providing them with the training and support they need to turn their skills and potential into opportunities for grassroots entrepreneurship. Read on to learn more about how Hand in Hand is helping people in Afghanistan and around the world.

Hand in Hand’s history

hand in hand international logo2003—Percy Barnevik, one of the original Hand in Hand co-founders, joins forces with Dr. Kalpana Sankar, a local development specialist, to help expand a small charity in India. This is the first test of what will later become the Hand in Hand job creation model.

2007—At the request of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Hand in Hand Afghanistan is launched. Reflecting Hand in Hand’s commitment to South-to-South knowledge transfer, the Afghanistan operations are established by Hand in Hand staff from India.

2008-2013—Hand in Hand continues to expand around the globe, with operations established in South Africa (and eventually in neighboring Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland), Kenya, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Myanmar. During this period of expansion, Hand in Hand forms partnerships with some of the world’s most influential NGOs and development specialists, including CARE International (in support of the Rwanda effort), and Kenyan microfinance expert Pauline Ngari, who signs on as CEO of Hand in Hand Eastern Africa.

2014—The new fundraising office Friends of Hand in Hand International launches in Boston, giving US citizens their first opportunity to make tax-deductible donations to the organization. Board members of the new office include Hand in Hand International Chair Bruce Grant, former Harvard Business School Dean John McArthur, and former World Bank Managing Director Sven Sandstrom.

Hand in Hand’s work in Afghanistan

Given the severe conflict that has beset the country in recent years, it’s not surprising that Hand in Hand ranks Afghanistan as the organization’s most challenging operational location. Decades of war have sent Afghanistan into a spiral of high unemployment and financial and physical insecurity that has resulted in mass emigration; according to Hand in Hand, Syria is currently the only country sending more refugees into Europe than Afghanistan.

afghanistan localsBut it’s precisely because of these challenges that Hand in Hand’s work in Afghanistan has such transformative potential, particularly for those between the ages of 15 and 24 (nearly 40% of the population). By tackling unemployment—an issue that 4 out of 10 Afghans face—as one of the leading root causes of political instability, Hand in Hand aims to raise the standard of living and help inspire and enable Afghans to improve their own lives, their communities and, consequently, their country.

So far, the numbers hold promise. To date, Hand in Hand Afghanistan has trained more than 37,000 members through its self-help groups, which are collections of new entrepreneurs who learn together, save together, and support each others’ efforts. These entrepreneurs have started more than 27,000 businesses, from carpet weaving to food preparation, and have created more than 32,000 jobs, thus helping to break the cycle of dependency. Hand in Hand further estimates that these efforts have helped improve the lives of more than 200,000 people across the country (based on the calculation that every new business created in Afghanistan benefits an average of seven family members).

The work of Hand in Hand Afghanistan is led by Country Director Abdul Rahim Nasry, who has firsthand experience with the struggles and challenges faced by the Hand in Hand members he works with. In 1982, the Soviet war in Afghanistan forced 16-year old Nasry and his family to flee their native Parwan province with little hope of ever returning. 22 years later, however, Nasry returned to Afghanistan with his wife and children with the goal of helping rebuild the country. Prior to joining Hand in Hand Afghanistan, he led the Afghan government’s National Skills Development Program and served as a strategic advisor to the Deputy Minister of Labour Affairs.

Hand in Hand success stories from Afghanistan

Business training and access to credit are fundamental tools that can completely transform the lives of unemployed or underemployed Afghans like Chanar Gul, a commercial farmer and married father of two from northern Afghanistan. Chanar had an idea for a calf-rearing business, but a lack of business training and skills kept him confined to a working situation that only brought in a subsistence wage of 2,000 AFN (or $36 US) per month, not nearly enough for a growing family. But after joining a Hand in Hand self-help group in which he received training in business operations and peer-to-peer lending, Chanar went into business with eight of his fellow group members. Thanks to their mutual trust and support, as well as a small loan and vocational mentorship supplied by Hand in Hand, the partners took only two months to establish a self-sufficient business. Today, they are well on the road to paying back their loan, and Chanar’s monthly income has tripled.