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Friday, December 3, 2010
By CHITRA NARAYANAN
A pinch of salt is Venkatesh Mannar's chosen weapon to end anaemia and nutritional deficiency..
Venkatesh Mannar, President of the Ottawa headquartered Micronutrient Initiative
It was a proud moment for Indians when last month, at the 10th Annual gala black-tie Tech awards in Santa Clara, US, watched by Silicon Valley industry giants, “salt man” Venkatesh Mannar walked away with the $50,000 Nokia Health Award.
The erstwhile salt producer from Tamil Nadu, who today is the President of the Ottawa-headquartered Micronutrient Initiative, got the award for creating double fortified salt (DFS), which packs both iron and iodine. It's a seemingly simple idea, but a chemically challenging one as the two elements just don't get along. With DFS, at one stroke, you can protect people against anaemia as well as iodine deficiency disorders.
It's amazing how much power this powdery white substance has in the hands of innovative men. Just as Gandhiji effectively used the “condiment of the poor” to launch a movement against the colonial powers, Mannar's life has revolved around finding interesting uses for the sodium compound. First as a producer, then as a researcher, and later as an activist for whom salt emerged as a powerful weapon to protect the world from hidden hunger.
Mannar's idea of double fortifying salt has already moved from lab to fields and on to markets. In Tamil Nadu, Micronutrient Initiative's DFS produced by the Tamil Nadu Salt Corporation and sprinkled into the State's school meal programme protects three million schoolchildren from anaemia as well as iodine deficiency disorders. Now his vision is to spread the protection wider by getting salt producing companies to adopt the technology and governments to follow the Tamil Nadu model.
Although attempts have been made to fortify wheat, rice and other staples, Mannar feels salt is the best suited medium to piggyback on to provide basic nutrients. “Salt is quite simply the best vehicle for fortification — world over practically everyone, rich or poor, uses it,” he says. “Also, there is a very narrow band of consumption — not more than 10 to 15 gm per day, so there is little danger of overconsumption,” he says.
Spreading the good work
The slightly built Mannar has been a key man in the universal salt iodisation programme, tirelessly travelling across the world, directly assisting nearly 40 countries in designing, developing and implementing their programmes. “Indirectly, I think I would have been involved in 60 to 70 countries,” he says.
One of his most satisfying moments came in China, where he was part of the team that convinced Zhu Rhongji (then vice premier and later premier of China) to adopt the universal salt iodisation programme. “When we made our presentation, Mr Rhongji looked very impassive, but when I told him about the effect iodine deficiency has on mental development, you could see the instant change in him — I think that point convinced him,” he recalls.
Today, China, which implemented USI only in 1993, has already achieved 97 per cent salt iodisation, and is one of the biggest success stories of the programme. By contrast India, an early adopter, is lagging at 70 per cent rates. “In India there are just too many detractors — medical doctors, lobbies and so on,” says Mannar. But he says the opposition is slowly petering away. “As long as you don't make it a big issue, it inevitably has to die down as it's not backed by scientific logic,” he says.
Adding iron to salt
But it's not his activism in the field that has fetched him this latest honour — it's the chemical experiments in the labs and the strategising thereafter to create a viable model that could be replicated. The Tech Awards recognise “technical solutions that benefit humanity and address the most critical issues facing our planet and its people”. Together with Prof Levente Diosady, a Food Engineer at the University of Toronto, Mannar, who has a chemical engineering background, brainstormed on developing a way in which iron could be added to iodised salt without the two elements interfering with each other. “Although the idea was simple, the work was difficult,” he says. The challenge was to not let the two react with each other as well as prevent the red of the iron compound from staining the salt into an unacceptable brown shade.
The Eureka moment came when they borrowed a technique from the food industry called microencapsulation. Basically, the iron particles were coated with a vegetable fat and white glaze, forming a barrier.
The salt march
For Mannar, his use of salt as a vehicle is hardly surprising considering that it literally flows in his veins. “I come from a family of salt producers. For five generations, my family were producing salt in Tuticorin. From my grandfather's uncle, the business got passed on to my father,” he describes.
After his chemical engineering from IIT Madras, followed by a Masters in the US, he worked with a couple of salt companies in Salt Lake, San Francisco. On his return, together with his father, he started the Marthi Crystal Salt Company, of which he was managing director from 1973-90.
“As we were producing salt we were also interested in salt technology. In the 1970s, in our salt works on the road to Mahabalipuram, we did some early work in fortified salt,” he says.
Noticing his work, UNICEF approached him for consultancy in helping set up salt iodisation plants for small salt farmers. “In the early 1980s, my father passed away and I got the responsibility of running the salt field. But even as I continued to run the business, I did short duration assignments for UNICEF,” he says.
This was a time of intense travel around the world — Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia, countries in Africa and so on — on the salt iodisation mission.
But the turning point for Mannar came in 1990, when he and his wife decided to emigrate to Canada. He sold his share in the salt company and moved shores, picking up a consultancy job from UNICEF. The move could not have been timelier.
At that time, the Canadian government was just setting up the Micronutrient Initiative, and asked him to join as executive director. Since joining, the organisation has grown from being a small division of the International Development and Research Council with four employees, into a global leader in nutrition development programmes with more than 100 full-time staff, 120 full-time consultants, two regional offices, 11 country offices and a budget of $38 million per year.
The DFS story: Worth its salt
JOURNEY DOWN TO MELAKIDARAM, a backward village in drought-prone Ramnad district in coastal Tamil Nadu, and you can see the impact of double fortified salt.
Here, at the Government Higher Secondary School, you will find surprisingly high attendance. The school has a creditable pass percentage of 84 per cent in 10th standard. More important, very few students drop out and most continue up to Class 12. Since 2005, the school's children have been getting double fortified salt in their school-meal menu of sambhar, rice and boiled eggs. Micronutrient Initiative likes to think DFS has made a difference in attentiveness levels. To prove that mass fortification using DFS to reach out to the bottom of the pyramid beneficiary was a viable strategy, the organisation partnered with the Tamil Nadu Salt Corporation, which was anyway supplying iodised salt to the midday meal programme in the State. Within four years, 3.6 million children in the State were getting DFS. Today, others have developed their own double fortified salt - the National Institute of Nutrition too, for instance, has come up with a technology to combine iron and iodine in salt. Some salt companies have launched DFS commercially as well. Mannar can be happy that he has played a catalysing role. Courtesy: L i f e / The Hindu Business Line