PATH Snags $1M Federal Grant to Take Ultra Rice to Africa

10/20/10Follow @xconomy

One of the cool projects that PATH has been working on for years to put a dent in global malnutrition just got a significant boost in the place it could have its biggest impact—Africa.

PATH, the global health hothouse with headquarters in Seattle, is announcing today it has received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to bring its fortified “Ultra Rice” to the small, landlocked central African nation of Burundi. PATH will work with its partner, Federal Way, WA-based World Vision, a Christian humanitarian group, to distribute the fortified rice as part of a food assistance plan.

Ultra Rice is one of the fascinating local innovation stories that I started tracking in these pages more than two years ago. The original concept, born in a food science lab in Bellingham, WA, was to fortify a staple food like rice with Vitamin A that could help prevent blindness in developing countries. The father-son inventing team, after failing to find commercial partners to help get the technology to people in need, donated the patent to PATH. The nonprofit has since evolved the technology so that rice can be fortified, at low cost, with other essential nutrients like iron to prevent anemia, folic acid to prevent birth defects, and zinc to stop immune deficiencies.

“We are thrilled” to expand the program to Africa, said Dipika Matthias, the director of PATH’s Ultra Rice effort, in a statement.

At PATH, the program moved forward with support from a $6 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The plan was to fortify rice in four original markets—Brazil, India, Colombia, and China. The program has had its ups and downs—not every commercial partnership panned out as hoped. But PATH showed signs of significant uptake of the technology in India in May 2009, noting that 60,000 kids there were getting the fortified rice. The technology is currently made available to about 90,000 schoolchildren in Brazil and will soon be part of meals for 185,000 kids at schools in India, PATH says.

Today’s announcement marks the first time that PATH has been in position to bring the Ultra Rice technology to bear in Africa, home to many of the world’s 195 million children who are estimated to be malnourished.

Naturally, when a problem is this big, $1 million isn’t going to wave any magic wand that will make it go away anytime soon. The federal grant, through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), will be used in part to generate data to support the idea that Ultra Rice is an effective way to fortify food aid. World Vision will provide technical support, training, and warehouse facilities to store the rice and distribute it to an estimated 15,000 children through a school feeding program supported by the United Nations.

Assuming the pilot program generates good data, then PATH could be in position to extend the reach of the Ultra Rice program even further.

“Using Ultra Rice to address global hunger is important because so much of the world already depends on rice as a staple food,” said Paul Macek, World Vision’s senior director for integrated food and nutrition programs, in a statement. “Rice fortification has potential reach beyond this trial in Burundi.”

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