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.

What You Need to Prepare Afghan Food at Home

While Afghanistan’s rich and flavorful cuisine is gradually becoming better known outside the country’s borders, it may still be some time before everyone is fortunate enough to have a delicious Afghan restaurant right around the corner from their home. However, if you’re a gourmand who doesn’t want to wait, don’t worry: many of Afghanistan’s tastiest dishes can be made at home with just a few extra additions to your regular shopping list. Read on for an overview of everything you’ll need to try your hand at making Afghan food at home.

  1. Herbs, spices, and flavorings

mintThe complex flavors of Afghan cuisine come from the liberal use of herbs, spices, and flavorings. These seasonings are often used in dishes that need to be cooked for long periods of time, allowing the flavors to blend and deepen. Some of the most important seasonings to have in your pantry include:

  • Cardamom—A relative of the ginger family, cardamom is available in green, brown, or black pods. Cardamom adds a distinctive flavor to rice and curries. If you don’t have a way to grind spices yourself at home, you can also find ground cardamom in the spice section of your grocery store.
  • Turmeric—Another member of the ginger family, turmeric is characterized by its deep, rich yellow color. Turmeric brings an earthy, peppery flavor to curry-style dishes.
  • Mint—One of the most popular herbs in Afghan cooking, dried mint is often added during cooking or sprinkled over the top of finished dishes as a garnish.
  • Rosewater—Distilled from rose petals, rosewater is commonly used to flavor many Middle Eastern dishes, especially desserts.

Other important herbs and spices that you probably already have on hand include cumin, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and chilies.

  1. Pantry staples

  • Rice—The centerpiece of almost every Afghan meal is rice. Afghan cooks are very particular about the type of rice that should be used depending on the dish being prepared. Fragrant and delicately flavored basmati rice, which is probably the least processed variety you can find, is an absolute must-have for your pantry. If you have the space, you’ll also want an additional long-grain variety, as well as a short-grain type.
  • Legumes—Dried legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and split peas are a very popular and versatile ingredient in Afghan cooking. They are often used to “fill out” meat dishes, as they are less expensive than fresh meat. In addition, they can be served fried and salted, as well as coated with sugar as a sweet accompaniment for tea.
  • Ghee—One of the most commonly used cooking fats in Afghan cuisine is ghee, or clarified butter. You can buy commercial ghee or you can make it yourself by simply melting a pound of unsalted butter over low heat in a saucepan and skimming away the milk solids as they separate. To ensure the ghee is as clear as possible, strain it through a cheesecloth before storing in a clean jar.
  • Besan—Also known as “gram flour,” it is made from ground chana dal, a type of small chickpea. It is often used to make traditional Afghan bread.
  1. Fresh ingredients

  • onionOnions—Some form of onion can be found in just about every savory Afghan dish. Most dishes rely on a cooked onion mixture known as piaz e surkh kada, in which onions are finely minced and then cooked in plenty of oil until they are a deep golden brown color. Some Afghan cooks make up big batches of piaz e surkh kada in advance so it’s ready to use whenever the cook needs it. Many recipes also call for leeks, scallions, or a type of onion called “gandana” that looks similar to a leek and can be found in specialty markets.
  • Yogurt—Afghan cuisine makes extensive use of thick, natural-style yogurt as a thickener for curries and stews, as a base for sauces and dips, and even as a drink. Plain-flavored Greek-style yogurt is a handy option to keep in your fridge.
  • Cilantro—Fresh cilantro—or coriander, as it’s also known—is used extensively in Afghan cooking, not only in cooked dishes, but also as a garnish or as a kind of chutney. It’s often referred to as “Afghan parsley”.
  1. Equipment

  • Sutak—Since rice is such an essential part of Afghan cuisine, it’s important to ensure that it’s properly cooked. A sutak is a thick cotton cover that’s placed either over a pot of just-cooked rice or between the pot and the lid during cooking. This helps to absorb excess steam and prevents the rice from sticking together or becoming gluey. One thick folded tea towel will work well as a substitute.
  • Seekh—Kebabs, a beloved Afghan dish often made with chunks of lamb, are cooked over a charcoal grill using seekhs—long flat skewers made of stainless steel.

 

How IFAD Is Helping Boost Agriculture in Afghanistan

In the 1970s, a series of food crises focused global attention and concern on the rapidly growing problems of food insecurity and famine. In response to these challenges, the first World Food Conference was held in 1974. One of the major outcomes of the conference was the establishment of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized United Nations agency, in 1977. Since that time, IFAD has been deeply involved in financing agricultural and food production development projects worldwide, with the goal of ultimately eradicating rural poverty in developing countries.

Although Afghanistan was one of the first countries to join IFAD, development programs that were originally approved for the country in 1979 were not able to be implemented for many years due to conflict and instability in the region. Recently, however, IFAD has been able to support a number of both small- and large-scale efforts to reduce poverty and boost agricultural development in Afghanistan.

Community Livestock and Agriculture Project

Launched in selected districts of three Afghan provinces—Kabul, Parwan, and Logar—the goal of this project was to help close to 170,000 rural households increase their agricultural and livestock productivity, and consequently improve their food security. Targeting small-scale farmers and livestock-keepers, the project aimed to provide support to some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations, including landless households and resettled and nomadic Kuchi people.

Three mutually reinforcing components formed the basis of this project. The first element was community development, focusing on improving infrastructure and helping local organizations and institutions build internal capacity. The second element was livestock and agriculture development, with a strong emphasis on providing marginalized communities and families with critical skills and knowledge to make the most of their assets. This element also aimed to strengthen weak areas of the value chain and reinforce smallholders’ market connections. Finally, project management and policy support made up the third project element, notably in the form of a young professionals program designed to attract and motivate qualified young staff to support the project.

Rural Microfinance and Livestock Support Program

Launched in Afghanistan’s relatively secure and stable northern region in 2009, the Rural Microfinance and Livestock Support program aimed to improve the livelihoods of smallholders and livestock owners living in poverty. Working in partnership with the government of Afghanistan and the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan (MISFA), IFAD initiated this program to address the dual objectives of meeting demand for rural finance and improving the livestock sector.

shepherd

On the finance side, the program aimed to help consolidate recent gains made by the microfinance sector and to connect hundreds of thousands of Afghans with their first opportunity to access credit. Through specific measures like the development of a broader range of financial products and services designed to meet the unique needs of smallholders, or the reduction of lending costs in order to combat high interest rates, the program worked to ensure that even the poorest rural people could have access to microfinance services. Some of the program’s particular innovations included creating public-private partnership models for the delivery of livestock extension and veterinary services, and implementing measures to ensure that even landless people, such as the nomadic Kuchis, could access dairy development initiatives.

The livestock improvement side of the program sought to address the sharp decrease in the number of livestock that had resulted from drought and disrupted grazing routes. With small poultry flocks on the brink of disappearance, poor families having lost their few cattle, and conflicts arising over users’ rights and overgrazed rangeland, the agro-livestock owners and nomadic and semi-nomadic people that relied on the livestock sector as their major source of cash income were at risk of losing their livelihoods altogether. The IFAD program aimed to boost the livestock sector and generate greater income for poor rural households by supporting a number of initiatives, including small-scale dairy activities like milk and fodder production; better livestock nutrition and health services in northern Afghanistan; and activities focused on backyard poultry raising and dairy goat raising.

Other Partnerships and Opportunities

As a relative newcomer to Afghanistan’s development landscape, IFAD is working to establish critical dialogue and alliances with many other organizations on the ground, including government agencies, international donors, research institutions, and NGOs.

In particular, IFAD is aiming to enhance its presence and the scope of its activities in Afghanistan by forming country-level collaborations with the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Food Programme. IFAD also liaises with the Asian Development Bank to examine opportunities for co-financing and parallel financing arrangements, and connects with bilateral donors to learn from and build on their experiences of working in Afghanistan. Other organizations that have been instrumental in helping IFAD launch its projects include the Aga Khan Foundation, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, and Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC).