Feed the Future
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Perceived and Actual Quality of Commercial Infant Cereals in Malawi: Measuring Nutrients, Aflatoxin, and Caregiver Demand

This post is written by Rachel Gilbert, IFPRI and William A. Masters, Tufts University.

Infants are needy – their small stomachs require frequent, small quantities of foods of the right consistency to meet their nutrient needs during a period of rapid growth. In countries like Malawi, these feeding requirements can pose difficulties for time and cash-poor mothers. Premixed porridges and cereals – commonly known as likuni phala in Malawi  –  that cook quickly and are fortified with micronutrients can help caregivers feed their infants more easily.

In Malawi, a country with high levels of child malnutrition, mothers’ demand for premixed cereals was unknown. The safety and quality of the cereals for sale was also largely unstudied, although previous research on infant cereals in 22 low- and middle-income countries found inadequate nutrient composition of similar cereals. So, with financial support from the Feed the Future Policy Research Consortium, a team of researchers from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and IFPRI Malawi set out to study willingness to pay for and quality of commercially-available premixed cereals (CPCs) in the Malawi’s central and southern regions.

Local manufacturers can readily mix and fortify cereals from locally-available ingredients, like producers are doing at the Domasi Likuni Phala production facility in southern Malawi. Photo credit: Rachel Gilbert/IFPRI

Our team worked with graduates from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources to conduct experimental auctions in actual marketplaces, eliciting the amount mothers were willing to pay for four different types of CPCs – three locally-produced brands and one imported brand. We also purchased a sample of 94 CPCs for sale in these marketplaces, recorded their prices and packaging characteristics, and sent them out for quality testing.

Premixed infant cereals are widely available for sale; international and local brands on gas station shop shelves in Salima, Malawi. Photo credit: Rachel Gilbert/IFPRI.

The market surveys showed high willingness to pay (WTP) for both locally-produced and imported brands of CPCs. On average, mothers were willing to pay the most for the imported cereal brand, Nestlé Cerelac. However, when comparing the amount mothers were willing and able to pay to the actual market prices of these cereals, WTP was above the observed market price for just two of the local brands: Lunda Likuni Phala and Rab’s Sunshine Likuni Phala. So, while effectively having a lower relative value to mothers than a multinational brand, the much lower cost of the locally-produced likuni phala made Lunda and Rab’s desirable and affordable for the mothers interviewed.

For example, mothers were willing to pay approximately 95 Malawi Kwacha (MWK) per 100 grams of Lunda Likuni Phala, while the average cost was only 58 MWK per 100 grams. On the other hand, while mothers were willing to pay an average of 336 MWK per 100 grams of Nestlé Cerelac, the actual cost was more than double that - nearly 800 MWK/100 g.

In experimental auctions in actual marketplaces, caregivers tell enumerators how much they are willing to pay for a variety of premixed cereal brands.  Photo credit: Jessica Wallingford/Tufts University.

Unfortunately, we also found that the quality of the premixed infant cereals we purchased was low and variable. First, we tested the nutrient content of these cereals, which are blended with legume powders like soy and groundnuts and often fortified with micronutrients. The ingredient ratios in these processed products are meant to ensure appropriate and consistent levels of energy, protein, fat and micronutrients for infants. We found high levels of noncompliance with national standards for protein, fat and zinc levels in infant foods. We also saw statistically significant differences between the nutrient content stated on product labels as compared to the actual nutrient content of the tested product for calories, carbohydrates, fats, and iron – meaning producers are mislabeling CPCs. 

We also wanted to explore safety of these cereals in terms of mycotoxin contamination. Each CPC was tested for aflatoxin and fumonisin – toxic, carcinogenic byproducts of molds that grow on many staple crops in warm, humid climates like Malawi’s. Previous studies have found high levels of these mycotoxins in Malawian maize, the primary ingredient in the cereals tested. As expected, we found levels well above the recommended concentration for infant foods in the majority of the locally-produced cereals - less than one-fifth of Malawian CPCs tested met European Union standards for aflatoxin in baby foods (0.1 parts per billion). Only 57 percent met the considerably less stringent national standard that has been in place since 1988, while all imported products met this standard.

Choice experiments allow researchers to elicit caregivers’ knowledge and preferences
about each type of food. Photo credit: Binita Subedi/Tufts University.

While fortified CPCs can improve complementary feeding practices for infants in Malawi, quality and safety improvements are crucial for reaching this potential. Current standards for infant foods need to be strengthened and enforced – a difficult task in Malawi where various government agencies share responsibility for market surveillance on limited budgets. In the meantime, there is an incentive for producers market these products more broadly to mothers with unmet demand for fortified CPCs. More research is also needed on the incentives needed for product quality improvements in a market where standards enforcement is weak and product quality is unobservable – and the potential for third-party certifiers to help fill such gaps. These questions are worth answering if the distribution of such cereals could provide mothers with easier, more affordable ways to feed their children.

Link to full study:

Gilbert, Rachel; Subedi, Binita; Wallingford, Jessica; Wilson, Norbert; and Masters, William A. 2019. Nutrient and mycotoxin content of commercially-sold premixed infant cereals in Malawi. MaSSP Working Paper 28. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). https://doi.org/10.2499/p15738coll2.133335