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When Supply Chains Save Lives

More than 20 million children worldwide suffer from severe acute malnutrition. The situation is especially critical in the Horn of Africa and UNICEF is effectively responding to that humanitarian challenge by providing specially formulated “therapeutic” foods to those in need.

January 25, 2013

Abdi Tadole was one of the lucky children. Prolonged drought had laid siege to crops and livestock and all those who depended on them in Abdi’s village in Northern Kenya. Abdi’s grandmother, desperately worried about the starving two-year-old, carried him 10 kilometers to a dispensary. And there he was diagnosed and nursed back to health with vitamins, antibiotics, and high-protein therapeutic food.

Amid continuing headlines about world hunger and food insecurity, there are, happily, more and more stories like Abdi’s. A large part of the reason for that is the recent development of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF)—a rich paste made of peanuts mixed with milk powder, oil, sugar, and fortified with vitamins and minerals. The sticky paste, distributed in little foil packets, is specially formulated to revive children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM). It has brought back many from the brink, restoring them to relative health in just a few weeks. Indeed, many observers have credited the food with lowering mortality rates during times of famine.

Individual packaging of the therapeutic food allows easy handling and prevents contamination of the product between feedings. Mothers can take RUTF home and give it to the child there, rather than having the child spend time in a feeding center. In 2007, the use of this innovative “hit” product to address a major cause of elevated child mortality was endorsed by the United Nations, and demand took off.

But the other part of the story is the responsiveness and effectiveness of the nutrition supply chain— specifically, the ability of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to quickly bring and distribute RUTF to where it is most needed. Given the lumpy, “spiky” growing demand for the product, it requires an extraordinarily responsive supply base and supply chain to effectively meet that need. The task is especially tough because UNICEF has set a goal to include sourcing from countries where the product is used—countries in which local manufacturers face unique challenges.

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Abdi Tadole was one of the lucky children. Prolonged drought had laid siege to crops and livestock and all those who depended on them in Abdi’s village in Northern Kenya. Abdi’s grandmother, desperately worried about the starving two-year-old, carried him 10 kilometers to a dispensary. And there he was diagnosed and nursed back to health with vitamins, antibiotics, and high-protein therapeutic food.

Amid continuing headlines about world hunger and food insecurity, there are, happily, more and more stories like Abdi’s. A large part of the reason for that is the recent development of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF)—a rich paste made of peanuts mixed with milk powder, oil, sugar, and fortified with vitamins and minerals. The sticky paste, distributed in little foil packets, is specially formulated to revive children with severe acute malnutrition (SAM). It has brought back many from the brink, restoring them to relative health in just a few weeks. Indeed, many observers have credited the food with lowering mortality rates during times of famine.

Individual packaging of the therapeutic food allows easy handling and prevents contamination of the product between feedings. Mothers can take RUTF home and give it to the child there, rather than having the child spend time in a feeding center. In 2007, the use of this innovative “hit” product to address a major cause of elevated child mortality was endorsed by the United Nations, and demand took off.

But the other part of the story is the responsiveness and effectiveness of the nutrition supply chain— specifically, the ability of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to quickly bring and distribute RUTF to where it is most needed. Given the lumpy, “spiky” growing demand for the product, it requires an extraordinarily responsive supply base and supply chain to effectively meet that need. The task is especially tough because UNICEF has set a goal to include sourcing from countries where the product is used—countries in which local manufacturers face unique challenges.

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