Israeli NGO Africa 2030 takes on malnutrition in the Congo

Israeli NGO Africa 2030 takes on malnutrition in the Congo via the superfood spirulina – and it all began because founder Ariel Kedem wanted to save the endangered eastern lowland gorilla.

By ARIEL DOMINIQUE HENDELMAN
August 2, 2019 14:47
Israeli NGO Africa 2030 takes on malnutrition in the Congo

ARIEL KEDEM (right) and John Kahekwa Munihuzi in Congo with some eastern lowland gorillas, the world’s largest gorilla.. (photo credit: ARIEL KEDEM)

Ariel Kedem is an explorer. It’s in his bones to seek out the world’s remote places.

Kedem’s journey of discovery began when he was born on Kibbutz Hatzor near Ashdod, to Anglo parents. From an early age, he was captivated by nature, wildlife and hiking.

After serving in the army, Kedem embarked on his first big solo trip, to South America in 1998.

“I didn’t do the regular track,” Kedem says. “I was just always looking for something more interesting: jungles, remote villages. I don’t know how to define myself – I don’t want to jump from a plane. But in terms of travel and exploration, I feel that I have to always take it to the edge.”

After eight months, Kedem returned and attempted to figure out what was next. He realized that he had to go to Africa, which had always held an indescribable pull. So, in 1999, Kedem flew to Cape Town and bought a 1977 yellow Volkswagen Kombi with a bed inside. This became his home for the next three-and-a-half months.

“It broke down pretty much every day of the trip, but I still managed to cover about 8,000 miles [12,875 km.] and go to very remote places in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia,” Kedem recalls. “That was my biggest adventure ever. I went to game parks, different wilderness areas, I traveled all over. Africa was like a dream come true. I was more naive then, but it was magical. I didn’t go on a safari with loads of tourists. I was out in the middle of nowhere, and I met a lot of interesting people. It was what I was looking for; I got to the real thing.”

Kedem returned to Israel and began Tel Aviv University: a dual major in humanities and biology. One day, he happened upon a small room that had “African Studies Department” written on it. After speaking to the department head, he learned – much to his delight – that it was possible to major in African studies. Within a week, that’s exactly what he did.

Because of his need to further explore, Kedem went back to Africa in 2001, this time to West Africa.

“That trip blew my mind,” Kedem adds. “Anyone who wants to really feel Africa, needs to go to West Africa. It’s bursting with culture, different languages and ethnicities.”

Upon returning to Israel, Kedem began thinking about what he could do to get more involved with the continent. Around that same time, he launched his own business, Ariel Kedem Resource Development, which does fund-raising for Israeli nonprofits. He considered helping nonprofits in Africa the same way, but the path ahead was not yet clear.

In 2012, Kedem traveled to Africa again, this time to Uganda and Rwanda.

“That trip was awesome; I saw gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild,” Kedem reflects. “But the Congo was always like the holy grail. It’s the center, the heart. But it felt off-limits for a while. Truthfully, until 2007 or 2008, you really couldn’t go there, because it wasn’t safe.”

Luckily, by 2012 the Congo was safe enough for Kedem to delve into options of how to get there and what to do. While searching online, he stumbled across the website of the Pole Pole Foundation, led by John Kahekwa Munihuzi, who would ultimately become his partner.

IN THE Africa 2030 team’s trial test, the eight children treated with spirulina and porridge progressed as well as the control group receiving therapeutic milk – and in some parameters did even better. (Credit: ARIEL KEDEM)

KEDEM WAS enthralled with Kahekwa’s work with gorillas. Kahekwa was born in a small village called Miti. Kahekwa’s uncle, Adrian Deschryver, would venture deep into the forests with pygmy trackers to look for and habituate gorillas.

Habituating a wild animal is not the same as domesticating; it’s a process, usually of years, where one slowly accustoms the animals to a human presence by approaching them in the wild, carefully and methodically.

“Interestingly, this was at the same time that the world-famous Dian Fossey was doing her work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda,” Kedem says. “Adrian, who is not well-known, was habituating gorillas intuitively, and then he and these pygmy trackers established a national park.”

When Kahekwa was 18, he went to work for the park and simultaneously continued his uncle’s work of habituating gorillas.

While working in the park, Kahekwa kept having to arrest the same people for illegal hunting, searching for medicinal plants, and other activities that could sustain them. As the African adage goes, “Empty stomachs have no ears.” With the forests as the only resources the Congolese villagers had to feed their families, they needed another viable option.

Kahekwa realized that the solution was in wildlife and the community. In 1992, he established the Pole Pole Foundation (Swahili for Slowly Slowly) with the goal of promoting nature conservation and sustainable development. They operated many educational and alternative livelihood programs, including training people in various vocations and providing them with jobs so that they no longer had to destroy the forests.

Kahekwa and Kedem spoke on the phone, and shortly thereafter Kedem was on a plane to Congo.

“Just the thought of going into Congo was a crazy idea in itself,” Kedem shares. “It was amazing. John and I started working together, and for the first two years I was helping his organization. We did a project together to habituate another gorilla family.

“In 2014 I established my own organization, which I called Africa 2030 because I believe that the approach has to be to generate sustainable, long-term solutions. So I launched Africa 2030, which is registered in Israel. It started as a continuation of what I was already doing with John – helping conservation and community activities in the Congo. But what really caught my attention about John’s work was the eastern lowland gorillas.”

MANY PEOPLE around the world are familiar with the mountain gorillas, which are known because of Fossey’s work and the subsequent film Gorillas in the Mist. There are approximately 600 mountain gorillas in the wild today, in an area that covers three countries: Rwanda, Uganda and Congo.

When Kedem learned about Kahekwa’s work, he also learned about another subspecies of gorilla called the eastern lowland. It’s the largest gorilla in the world and, sadly, is being wiped out.

“You see very quickly that no one knows anything about it and no one is doing anything about it,” Kedem adds. “The population was estimated to be 17,000 before the war in Congo broke out, and today it’s about 2,000. The threats are still huge: illegal activity, fewer ecological corridors and isolated populations.

“The official stance was that Congo is a dangerous country and the ability of these big, famous conservation organizations to operate on the ground there is very limited. So when I came back from my first trip to Congo, I approached everyone I possibly could around the world and asked these very naive questions about why no one was conducting a census on how many gorillas were left in the wild, and things like that. I kept getting these bureaucratic answers. It took me a few years to understand that the conservation world is not what I thought it to be; it’s as politically driven as anything else. I wanted to save this subspecies of gorillas.”

Kahekwa and Kedem applied to many foundations for funding but received only rejections. Much to his chagrin, Kedem found that the large conservation bodies were only interested in scientific projects. In Kedem’s heartfelt opinion, further research is not necessary when the gorilla population continues to decline. Action is what’s needed now.

“When you go to the local communities, you don’t see the direct impact from these big international NGOs,” Kedem continues. “It’s a lot of conferences and programs and no direct impact. I alone cannot save these gorillas, neither can John, or even Congo itself. There needs to be a huge, systemic solution.”

THE CONGOLESE team visits a pepper packing plant in the Arava desert, where they also saw some very advanced spirulina farms. (Credit: ARIEL KEDEM)

WITH SAVING the eastern lowland gorilla on the back burner, Africa 2030 was honing its organizational goals to work in two main fields that Kedem and Kahekwa see as interconnected: conservation and community empowerment.

In 2015, Kedem came across a project at a high school in Tel Aviv involving spirulina. Students were asked by their school principal, Ze’ev Degani, how they could make the world a better place. The students were attempting to find solutions to malnutrition and hunger, and they learned about spirulina being the richest food nature has to offer. They began thinking about how they could make spirulina growing accessible to any person, school or village in Africa. They grew it in 1½-liter bottles – a feat in itself. The idea was to simplify it so that anyone could grow it.

The second aspect was education. Instead of bringing in professional people with PhDs to teach Africans how to grow spirulina, the Israeli high school students would teach the African high school students and thereby create a chain of nutrition. The first cohort of Israeli students went to South Africa, where they taught their African counterparts how to grow spirulina.

Kedem saw that the project could work seamlessly with what Africa 2030 was already doing: being sustainable, grown locally and minimizing dependence on resources (not requiring much water or land). As a community model that could be developed into a business, it fit well with Africa 2030’s organizational philosophy.

In the fall of 2015, another trip was planned to train Rwandese students, and Kedem joined, bringing some of his friends from Congo. After participating in the training, they went back to Congo, and within several months established the first spirulina farm on the grounds of a pediatric hospital, so that it could be used to treat acutely malnourished children. A few months after that, they were harvesting spirulina.

Rodrigue Ciribagula, who oversaw the center’s establishment, worked with malnourished children in the hospital.

Roughly half of the children in Congo are malnourished. Acute malnutrition is when the system begins collapsing and other diseases set in. If a Congolese child’s family lives close enough to the hospital, knows where it is and has the means to get there, then there is a chance that the child will get the necessary treatment. But those are all rather big ifs.

The international protocol for treating acutely malnourished children is to give them therapeutic milk, which is a sachet of milk with protein, vitamins and minerals. Theoretically, within a week or two, the child will recover. The second aspect is medication; a child who is malnourished is usually suffering from a slew of other diseases, such as malaria, dysentery or blood poisoning.

When Kedem first met Ciribagula, he reported a recent case of a malnourished child and his parents who arrived at the hospital to find there was no therapeutic milk and no medication. The cost to buy them was a total of $40 that they did not have. The child essentially went home to die.

“Even in these remote locations, you still need to work according to protocol, which dictates treating with therapeutic milk, but there is not enough supply,” Kedem explains. “So we can’t just give spirulina to anyone we want, because there is a protocol, which of course is there to protect the children.”

Kedem and the Africa 2030 team knew that spirulina could help these malnourished children, so they devised a test trial, where eight children were treated with spirulina and porridge, and another eight were given therapeutic milk. After monitoring the progress to evaluate and compare both methods, the children treated with spirulina progressed as well as the control group, and in some parameters (like skin coloration and hair coloration) even better.

Soon afterward, the Africa 2030-Pole Pole Foundation team in Congo built a second center in Miti, Kahekwa’s hometown, on the grounds of a school established by the foundation. The center is a community-educational framework, where schoolchildren from all over the region come to be taught by their local counterparts how to grow spirulina.

About a year ago, Africa 2030 began establishing a third center – larger, more modern and more sophisticated. It has now been operating for four months.

LOCAL CHILDREN in Kahekwa’s home village of Miti learn about spirulina cultivation. (Credit: ARIEL KEDEM)

“It’s possibly the most advanced spirulina center in Africa,” Kedem says. “In order to build it, we had four of our guys come to Israel in October to undergo advanced spirulina production training. We traveled with them down to the Arava to see some really advanced spirulina farms.

“We’re very fortunate to have partnered with the AlgaeMor company, whose founder, Baruch Dach, is one of the world experts on fresh spirulina. We are very grateful to have had him guide our partners when they were in Israel and personally train them.”

When Africa 2030’s new center reaches the desired scale in 2020, it will produce several hundred kilograms of spirulina each year, translating into the ability to treat hundreds of malnourished children on a daily basis.

While hopeful prospects hang on the horizon, the facts on the ground have not always been as promising. One of the girls who recovered during the spirulina trial returned to the hospital several months later, having fallen back into malnutrition. She died shortly thereafter.

“If you look at the solutions that exist in the world, most are Band-Aids,” Kedem shares. “Give therapeutic milk for two weeks and send them home. Spirulina in itself is more advanced because it reinforces the immune system.

“What we did already was more advanced, and even that wasn’t enough. This girl died. So we were asking ourselves, what are we doing here? We realized that we needed to do an annual program, and that children needed to be receiving spirulina every day for at least a year. So we built that program. Then we started asking, how can we treat only one child in the family? They might even excommunicate this child. So we realized that we needed to provide food for the whole family.”

The idea was to follow up on 20 children who underwent previous treatments in the hospital, which became 20 families, which then became 24 due to need. The acutely malnourished children come once a week to the hospital, receive a week’s supply of spirulina and porridge, and their families receive monthly food staples. Thus far, none of the children have fallen back into malnutrition and neither have their siblings. The program is working.

Concludes Kedem: “It shows that if you do something long-term and sustainably, you can succeed.”

To learn more about Africa 2030, visit www.africa-2030.org


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