Photo courtesy of WFP/Martin Karimi.
The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) Transformers project, piloted in Nairobi from January to April, 2017, sought to address both school feeding shortcomings and large-scale food waste. The project redirected more than five tons of fresh vegetables into school lunches by sourcing ugly vegetables, or vegetables safe for consumption but rejected for export to overseas markets, to feed a reported 2,200 children at three Nairobi schools for 75 school days.
Through collaborative partnerships, the project capitalized on Kenya’s immense fruit and vegetable export business, which supplies almost 10 percent of European Union horticultural products. The Kenyan horticultural industry directly employs 4.5 million people, and its exports account for 23 percent of Kenya’s GDP.
According to WFP, nearly 25 percent of the 115,000 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables supplied for export from Kenya each year are rejected for aesthetic reasons. Much of the produce sits unused at pack houses on Nairobi’s outskirts and eventually is sent to landfills. WFP Kenya nutritionist Dina Aburmishan says, “these are vegetables that are either oddly shaped, too long or shorter than the desired size for packaging, or simply blemished, but perfectly nutritious and fit for consumption.”
According to WFP, logistical difficulties and insufficient ability for one local market to absorb the unused product make re-purposing the produce challenging.
The Transformers pilot project was a partnership between the WFP Innovation Accelerator and the Dutch company Enviu, a social start-up developer dedicated to collaborative and impact-driven entrepreneurship, with support from the Australian government. The Transformers project is one of 22 projects developed to date with the support of the WFP Innovation Accelerator, which funds and supports start-ups and WFP Intrapreneurs (WFP staff working on entrepreneurial projects) to identify, test, and scale solutions to global hunger.
Enviu connected Transformers with Kenyan export companies serving mainly European markets. One of the involved companies—an exporter called Vert—rejects about eight tons of ugly vegetables each month, according to WFP. Working with Vert and another produce export company, Transformers saved more than five tons of broccoli, snap peas, snow peas, and green beans for this twist on school feeding.
After Transformers saved the vegetables, Nairobi catering company The Good Food Company prepared the school lunches in off-site kitchens and delivered them to the three schools involved in the pilot. The vegetables were well-received by teachers and students in the Nairobi schools, according to WFP, especially because meals both at home and at school traditionally lack fresh vegetables for vulnerable Kenyan populations.
With significant industrial food waste, high food insecurity, and high rates of child undernutrition, Nairobi is an apt choice for the Transformers pilot. In Kenya, between 2 and 4 million people need external food aid each year, and undernutrition is a contributor to 33 percent of under-five mortality, according to a 2014 U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) report. The report also cites high micronutrient deficiencies, like iron-deficiency anemia and vitamin-A deficiency.
According to environmental group Feedback Global, “cosmetic specifications imposed on exporters and farmers in Kenya, predominantly by European retailers, have led to systematic waste within the [agricultural] sector.”
Furthermore, in Kenya, “produce that has been grown for the export market attracts a very low price on the local market, sometimes 7 to 15 percent of the expected value.” With local demand so low, produce not cosmetically fit for export can go unused. This also means that the vast majority of farmers—every one of those included in the Feedback Global study—reports a financial loss because of the cosmetic produce rejections. By repurposing this future food waste, the Transformers project may support these local farmers.
Aside from the Transformers project, WFP and the Kenyan government provide as many as 1.5 million hot meals to Kenya’s most vulnerable school children each day. Giving nutritious meals that include fresh fruits and vegetables, however, can be prohibitively expensive—US$0.11 per meal in 2016—and therefore unsustainable for schools.
The cost of each Transformers project meal was US$0.094, and Enviu hopes to turn this project into a durable business by solving the logistics challenges, like transporting the vegetables. Enviu says the expansion of Transformers could improve healthy food access for as many as 78,000 Nairobi schoolchildren while reducing waste by as much as 1,000 tons (2,200 pounds) each year.
WFP’s School Meals programs are one way the organization invests in future generations, operating under the evidence that daily school meals positively affect students’ nutritional status and overall health, while also increasing children’s access to school and student educational achievement. With Transformers, WFP demonstrated its commitment to the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) to end hunger and ensure access to nutritious and sufficient food for all, in addition to SDG 12, to halve global food waste by 2030.
As WFP explores ways to improve and scale the project, it will aim to build school ownership, in part by moving to a school-based, on-site food preparation process. The program developers hope that after building relationships between export companies and schools and establishing transport pathways, the schools will be equipped to independently sustain the program. This sustainability will depend on school community buy-in and other factors.
During the scaled-up phase, the WFP Innovation Hub hopes to “validate the business model at scale in order to replicate in other WFP school meal countries that have high horticultural export volumes.”