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Scaling up small-scale food processing: Complementary food for children in Vietnam


Despite remarkable socioeconomic growth and improvements in health over the past two decades, Vietnam continues to face significant food insecurity and chronic malnutrition challenges among women and children. Small-scale farmers and ethnic minorities in northern rural areas are particularly hard hit: 46% of local children under two are anemic and 18% have stunted growth, which causes irreversible deficiencies in learning, memory, and a decreased IQ.

Combating child malnutrition has become a policy priority for national and provincial governments and two models have shown great promise. One model developed and produced ready-to-use fortified complementary foods for children using small-scale food processing facilities. The other model relied on a social franchising model to develop the “Little SUN” health counselling program for infant and young children feeding practices. However, more work was needed to scale up these proven models and make them sustainable, including overcoming the barriers women farmers face in connecting with produce buyers, and the lack of local food processing capacity and local distribution systems for fortified complementary food products.

Staying local  

Grow locally, process locally, and distribute locally. This three-pronged approach is reducing food insecurity and chronic malnutrition among women and children in three provinces in the remote mountainous regions of northern Vietnam (Lao Cai, Lai Chau, and Ha Giang). The project established and scaled up a sustainable value chain for fortified foods using locally grown crops, local manufacturing facilities, and local distribution channels. This market-driven model is reducing reliance on imported fortified foods, creating a higher and more stable source of income for smallholder women farmers, and providing sustainable food security for 20,000 women living in rural Vietnam.

Su Thi Lieu and Lieng Thi Dung ((L to R) tend to the greens growing on the farm.

Under the model, farmers sell their produce to a small-scale food processing plant that processes and fortifies the food and then distributes it through Little SUN centres, local family-owned convenience stores, and preschools. Rural families learn about the value of fortified foods for young children, particularly before the age of three years, from Little SUN nutrition counselling centres. Family nutrition counselling sessions have benefited 14,438 children under the age of two and participating families have reported worrying less about food.

Fortifying foods

In addition, Vietnam’s National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) and its business subsidiary, NINFOOD, developed an instant porridge fortified with iron and zinc as part of a product line of fortified complementary foods called ECOSUN. A small-scale food processing facility was established under a cost-sharing agreement between NINFOOD and a local woman entrepreneur named Thuy Dung. The franchising model, which provides small-scale farmers with a stable purchaser, includes product manufacturing rights, technology transfer, food safety training, and administrative support, as well as a commitment to purchase produce from the 17 smallholder farming families in the Song Kim Collective (mushrooms, carrots, squash, and sweet leaf). The food processing facility has the capacity to produce 100 tons of fortified instant rice porridge and 2 million packets of vegetable powder annually. The small-scale food processing plant in Lao Cai is producing enough products to supply markets in all three provinces, including 21 pre-schools in Lao Cai. In addition, NINFOOD was able to design and build customized equipment for the safe fortification of the complementary food products for children.

The porridge has been provided during mid-morning meals to 2,550 children in 21 pre-schools in Lao Cai. Preliminary results of the project show that anemia rates among a cohort of children declined roughly 45%, although further analysis is required to confirm the findings. The number of underweight children was reduced and there has been a 10% increase in the consumption of iron-rich complementary foods.

Children at Quang Kim kindergarten enjoy porridge made with EcoSun during their afternoon snack time.

The capacity of Vietnamese groups, such as NIN, the Vietnam Women’s Union, universities, and farmers’ and women’s organizations were strengthened in technical areas of food security programming to secure the sustainability of project models and results. Women farmers who participated in co-ops in three provinces received information and seed packets to supply locally produced crops as raw materials for the production of complementary foods. Approximately 20,000 rural women in the nine project locations have been reached through individual and family nutrition counselling sessions, training workshops for women farmers, and marketing events and they are using the ECOSUN fortified complementary foods for their children.

Expanding networks

NINFOOD and the Thuy Dung’s company plan to build and expand their networks over the coming years, including expanding Little SUN centres in the provinces of Hai Phong, Hoa Bonh, and Thanh Hoa, as well as hospitals, pre-schools, international health organizations, and urban markets. The Vietnamese partners also plan to add more small-scale food processing plants in other provinces.

A joint mission of NIN, the World Bank, and development partners is underway to review intervention models to scale up nationwide, with ECOSUN being one model for consideration. On the policy front, lessons learned from the project will inform the development and implementation of national food security policies, such as Vietnam’s National Nutrition Strategy, the nutrition policy for ethnic minority children, and the Prime Minister’s directive calling for the enhancement of nutrition. NIN is also expected to use findings from the project to inform best practices for Vietnam’s Zero Hunger Program. The project teams are seeking funding from different sources to continue to expand the project’s effectiveness at reducing child malnutrition in Vietnam.

The Canadian International Food Security Research Fund is jointly funded by Global Affairs Canada and IDRC.

Learn more about this project and its outcomes.