The Blog

The Road From Hollywood to Uganda Is Paved With Chia

As we mark World Food Day, it would seem that not many things express the gap between how the world's rich and poor view food quite as well as Chia seeds.

Hollywood's vegetarian celebrities substitute them for cereal. In the refugee camps of Uganda, a pregnant mother feeds them to her five children as their main meal of the day. One is a statement of wealth and status: the other an act of smart survival. As we mark World Food Day, it would seem that not many things express the gap between how the world's rich and poor view food quite as well as Chia seeds.

Not yet as hyped as Goji berries or wheatgrass, Chia seeds are the latest superfood to become the celebrity sprinkle of choice. But with the capacity to provide 40 essential nutrients that a child needs to grow and be healthy, they may also be the best and only source of nutrition in communities where milk, meat and fish are expensive or inaccessible.

Research has shown that malnutrition is prevalent in communities that do not produce or have the resources to buy these kinds of essential foods. Many of these communities are found in Sub Saharan Africa, with Uganda being one of the continent's malnutrition hot spots. A recent report from the World Food Program and the African Union showed that that the effects of inadequate early years' feeding had resulted in a generation of 'stunted' Ugandan children, which is not only morally unacceptable but also costing the country as much as 5.6% in lost GDP.

Chia seeds are not native to Uganda or the African continent as a whole. In fact, they come from Latin America and some theories hold that the name 'Chia' - which means 'strength' in Mayan, were known as 'Indian Running Food' because of their energizing properties.

Charles Mugasa is a farmer who is pioneering a programme for developing the seeds and getting them into the hands - and fields - of Uganda's refugee farmers (many of whom have fled from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritreia and Ethiopia). His company ChiaBiz is working with United Nations Refugee Agency to distribute the seeds early next year. The aim is to provide a complete source of nutrition for all, but with a specific focus on pregnant women, mothers, young children and the elderly. This would help to broaden the diet of these vulnerable groups beyond the Ugandan staples of matoke (made from plantains) and posho (made from maize flour) which are low in vitamins.

This kind of approach has many advantages because it will not only provide refugees with a route to feeding themselves more sustainably but it may also help to ease any tensions that may arise within the wider Ugandan community about the burden of having extra mouths to feed. Furthermore, the business is homegrown, meaning it is keeping money in Uganda as well as taking advantage of local knowledge. Charles, along with other African businesses will be featuring in the AidEx Developing World Supplier Zone, which we set up to showcase how local businesses are making a difference in some of the world's most troubled places.

If aid agencies are realistic about achieving their goals they must target organisations and companies that work directly with people on the ground. This is because their interests may be more closely aligned than with those of governments - and they have an essential understanding of the needs of local people. Just ask Charles Mugasa.

Nicholas Rutherford is Event Director of AidEx. ChiaBiz will be exhibiting there in between 13-14 November 2013.