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Affordability of Improved Nutrition While Optimizing Economic Opportunities


From an agronomy perspective the interest in improved nutrition is how malnutrition and under nutrition impact crop management and ultimately household food security. For smallholder farmers this is the calories needed for the manual labor they are expected to undertake in producing their crops and managing their animals. However, it looks like most of the nutritional effort to date is concentrate on the science of nutrition and what constitutes an appropriate diverse diet, with an emphasis on pregnant and nursing women. While this is an important consideration, it must also be recognized that someone must be producing the improved diet or earning wages to purchase the improved diet, and this will require some heavy manual labor and calorie exertion. The overall dietary needs are well understood, so that the science of Nutrition is fully define, perhaps only needing some “fine tuning”. Thus, should the nutrition effort start shifting focus to Integrating the science of nutrition into the economic circumstances of the beneficiaries and the compromises they rationally make in adopting the improved scientific derived diet to their specific economic circumstances including the food consumption they can afford or otherwise have access to. Does the food consumption Balance the Dietary Needs? Do these compromises separate the Science of Nutrition from the Art of Nutrition; or the academic, where knowledge is the endpoint, from development where acceptance is the endpoint, or at least an understanding of why acceptance is limited? Before embarking on large scale extension/education effort to educate the beneficiaries on improved nutrition, should time be allocated to make certain the beneficiaries have enough discretionary control to take full advantage of improved nutrition or are they forced to make serious compromises, particularly for the caloric energy needed to optimize their economic opportunity, which is largely associated with heavy manual labor. While it is often recognized that people are poor and hungry, rarely is this identified as a major hinderance to their economic opportunities. How much priority should be given to obtaining enough calories to optimize economic opportunities at the expense of a more diversified diet? If the economic circumstances are not factored in will nutrition extension/education programs be mostly badgering beneficiaries with information they are reasonable familiar with, but don’t have the means of fully utilizing?

There are three questions:

  1. What are the caloric requirements for a manual labor for smallholder farmers or other laborers such as porters living on minimum wage.
  2. How affordable would an improved diet be with a minimum wage and what are the rational compromises they would make in optimizing the quality of the diet with energy needed for their manual labor tasks?
  3. How much priority will be given to calories needed to optimize economic opportunities vs. more balanced diversified diet?

Dietary Energy Requirements

Figure 1. Examples of 4000 kcal from various staple foods of host countries

Typically, manual agriculture labor such as land preparation with a hoe will consume 300 kcal/hr. and require 300 hrs. of diligent effort per hectare. However, the 300 kcal/hr. includes the basic metabolism estimated at 2,000 kcal/day or 80 kcal/hr. Thus, subtract that from the 300 kcal/hr. and work consumption is 220 kcals/hr. If working 9 hrs./day this would be 220 x 9 = 1,980 kcal of work energy. To this must be added the 2,000 kcal for basic metabolism making a total of 3,980 kcal/day which for discussion purposes rounds up to 4,000 kcal/day as a computed estimate, subject to confirmation. Anything less will mean a decline in the work hours or paced with declining diligence, either situation resulting in declining economic output and prolonging time to complete specific tasks such as crop establishment. The 4,000 kcal/day represents a substantial amount of food (Fig. 1). In the tropics with 12-hour days and night all year, the 9 hrs. work day could represent the maximum practical daylight opportunity. The 4,000 kcal/day manual labor caloric requirement is substantially (30%) greater than 2,800 to 3,000 kcal/day exerted by active people with a healthy exercise regime .

Against this 4,000 kcal/day need there appears surprisingly little available information on calories available to smallholders or other manual laborers. Apparently, the energy available for smallholder relying on manual labor has not be a high priority for development effort. What is available indicates most smallholders have access to only 2,000 to 2,500 kcal/day (Table 1). This is only enough to meet basic metabolism, with little energy to engage in heavy manual labor, perhaps 2 hours of diligent effort but paced over 4 or 5 hours. The result smallholder farmers taking up to 8 weeks for crop establishment over the entire farm, typically 1 to 1.5 ha. After 8 weeks, the potential yield has drop by about 50%, possible more. This 2,000 kcal/day is also consistent with farmer interviews in Malawi and Ethiopia indicating retained subsistence stocks of maize at 200 kg/adult/year in Malawi and comparable combination of maize and potatoes in Ethiopia. Two hundred kilos of maize would pro rate to 0.55 kg/day and provide 2,000 kcal. This will meet basic metabolism, but the farmers would need substantial additional food to accommodate the 4,000 kcal computed work requirements. Also, the per capita consumption of rice in Madagascar is 115 kg/year amounting to only 315 g/day which will provide a diet of only 1,121 kcal/person, half the basic metabolism and quarter the energy for manual labor as mentioned above. Rice is the staple food of Madagascar.

Case Studies

Looking at case studies of buying power vs. wages the difficulty of obtaining an improved diet can be easily illustrated even though the consumer prices in host countries are only a fraction of the USA or EU prices. The case studies will rely on a hypothetical family but use real wage and consumer prices data. It will emphasis the 4,000 kcal/day estimated calorie need for manual labor then see what else is possible. It will also seek to include an egg a day for the children as emphasized in World Bank Webinar (Secure Nutrition Seminar, 26 Nov. 2017, Cracking the Egg’s Potential to Improved Child Growth and Development Global Forum on Food Security & Nutrition) and FAO E-consultation (FSN Forum: Eggs: harnessing their power for the fight against hunger & malnutrition. 9 Nov. 2018), to avoid stunting as well as being a convenient, quick and easy check on what is possible.

The Family: The family is husband who is the sole source of income, wife mostly engaged in domestic chores with limited time to engage in economic activities, pre-school son and toddler daughter.  The husband loves his family and wants to provide them as best he can, including providing the young children an egg a day to minimize stunting as promoted in the World Bank Webinar. Unfortunately, his economic opportunity is limited to being a porter, perhaps one of the most deeply poverty entrenched laborers, frequently overlooked by the development community. His work is piece meal manhandling 100 kg bags, hopefully without wrenching his back and being forced to miss a week of economic opportunity to recover, but without any income.

The family basic caloric needs are:

  • As a heavy manual laborer, the husband needs at least 4,000 kcal/day,
  • The wife doing mostly domestic work around the house including spending several hours getting water, firewood, and child care will need 3,000 kcal/day
  • The pre-school son will need 1,200 kcal/day, and
  • The toddler daughter will need 550 kcal/day.

The total family energy requirement will be 8,750 Kcal/day.

Angola: First locating the porter and family in Luanda, the capital of Angola, where he earns piece meal income loading or unloading 10-ton lorries. His typical daily wage is $2.50 for working as part of 6-man teams loading or unloading 5 10-ton lorries typically filled with 120 100 kg sacks per day. The wages represent $0.50/lorry/person. The $2.50/day is set to equal the government established agriculture casual labor wage for Angola at 250,000 A0A/mo. Which with an exchange rate of $ 1 = 3,300 AOA provides a monthly income of $75 and a daily income of $2.50. Of this $2.50 he earns he can only spend 80% or $2.00 on food as he still has non-food costs for transport, rent, cooking fuel, light at night, etc.

At the current Consumer Prices in Angola, if he spent the whole $2.00 on maize meal as the primary staple food in Angola he could purchase 1.7 kg which would provide only 6,000 kcal/day. With nothing else it would leave a Daily Deficit of 2500 kcals. No opportunity for substituting some beans to increase the protein in the diet but will reduce the calories and work potential, let alone some green vegetable to enhance the vitamins and mineral consumption. That highly desirable egg to minimize the little girl’s stunning is out of the question. If they spent the $0.40 for an egg, it would reduce the porter’s ability to load or unload the lorries. He likely will quit after only 4 lorries, coming home early but with $0.50 less income. Keeping the wage rate and consumer prices as stated what adjustment could be made in food purchased? This is an example of the Hard Choices: Compromises in Quality Nutrition many impoverished people have to make?

Transferring the impoverished family to a smallholder farming community and the question is what can they produce to meet the family’s dietary needs? In this case the farmer has retained two 100 kg bags of maize per adult for subsistence use (based on Malawi interview with similar results from Ethiopia). The 200 kg of maize per year will provide a daily diet of about 2,000 kcal, just enough to meet basic metabolism needs for the husband and wife, but not necessarily the children. This does not allow for any manual agronomic field work. Thus, the family must have some additional stocks of beans, etc. or purchase additional food. They do have a few “chickens that forge around the homestead and provide a couple eggs a day. What should they do with the eggs? They can sell them for $0.40 ea. or provide them to their daughter to minimize the stunting. If they sell the eggs, mentioned as a common practice in the World Bank Secure Nutrition webinar, they could buy 300 g of maize meal that would provide enough energy for 3 to 4 hours of diligent agronomic field work, that ultimately assist in improving the family’s overall food security. What is the rational thing for the farm family to do? Again, this represents Hard Choices. What adjustments are possible to better provide the quality nutrition and food security to this smallholder family? How effective will an extension/educational program on quality nutrition be for this family deeply entrenched in poverty?

Madagascar: If the hypothetical family moved to Antananarivo the capital of Madagascar where our porter is employed along with a couple companions pushing heavily loaded hand carts through the hilly streets. Again exerting at least 4,000 kcal/day. Here the legal minimum monthly wage is 450,000 Ar. which with an exchange rate of $1 = 3,280 Ar is a monthly income of $137, and daily allowance of $137/30 = $4.57 and if they allocate 80% for food the daily food expenditure is $3.60.

The family will still need a daily diet of at least 8,750 kcal to meet both basic metabolism and optimizing economic opportunity as a porter. With the Current Consumer Prices the 8,750 kcal requires 2.4 kg of milled rice, the staple food for Madagascar and cost only $1.40 or approximately 1/3rd food allowance. Thus, the Madagascar family has the opportunity for a more diversified nutritious diet than the Angola family. This will allow them to reduce their rice consumption to allow for some dry beans that will provide both calories and protein. They can also provide each family member with an egg, plus half a fish divided among the family (the typical farm raised marketed fish such as tilapia is approximately 0.5 kg), provide each child a glass of milk, share 0.3 kg of mixed vegetables, and still use a 100 cc of vegetable oil to prepare the food. Thus, the family daily food expenditures could be Table 2. This would allow them to undertake a full day of diligent manual labor, and still have a reasonable balanced budget.

Zambia: Moving the porter family to Zambia where the husband is loading and unloading 10 t lorries. The family daily energy requirement remains at 8,750 kcal as is the desire to provide the young children an egg/day to minimize stunting. In Zambia the official minimum monthly wage for general workers is ZK 699 which converts to US$ 58 or $2.00/day. Again, if he can only spend 80% on food, the food budget would be $1.60.

In Zambia the only way he can obtain the needed calories is to rely on maize meal at $0.27/kg . The Maize Price is 1/4th the price of alternatives including rice that is widely grown in Zambia. To use alternative stable crops would require spending more than the $1.60/day budget just for the staple energy food. It would require: 

  • 3.3 kg of rice costing $2.48
  • 2.3 kg of pasta costing $2.28
  • 5.3 kg of cassava costing $2.17
  • 10 kg white potato costing $5.60
  • 9.8 kg sweet potato costing $12.15

With maize it is possible for the family to meet their energy requirements to optimize their economic opportunities. They can also include an egg for each child but no milk for the infant nor any vegetable oil to assist preparing the food. A possible daily food consumption could Table 3.


Ethiopia: Finally move the hypothetical porter and family to Ethiopia but continues to load and unload 10 t lorries. In Ethiopia the minimum agricultural wage is 50 Birr/day which equals US$ 2.63. Again, he can only spend 80% or US$ 2.10 on food but still needs 8,500 kcal for energy and wants to provide the children an egg a day. While he would like to eat teff, the national grain of Ethiopia, According to the Consumer Prices, it is three times as expensive as maize meal, and even 1.5 times as expensive as rice. Allowing some Teff the food must concentrate on maize meal. It is also possible to include an egg for each child, but that is about all. Chicken is the cheapest meat protein, but the family can only afford 100 g for the day. There is no milk for children and no vegetable oil to assist with meal preparation and fresh vegetables. A possible daily food consumption could be Table 4. Giving up some Teff would allow some more diversifying of the diet.


While the article is conceptual and the family hypothetical, the wages and consumer prices were real. Thus, the case studies emphasis the difficulty of purchasing a balanced diet with minimum wage and the need to fully evaluate the importance of manual work energy in nutrition studies when the beneficiaries’ economic opportunities are limited to high manual labor employment or manual farming. It is possible that a person with a more nutritional background could tamper with the food purchase mentioned above but unlikely it will result in the quality diet desired to meet a family’s nutritional needs and while the current emphasis is on improved diet for pregnant and nursing women, it has to be recognized to obtain that diet someone in the household is obligate to undertake some hard manual labor consuming 4,000 kcal/day. While for the case studies discussed above, in 3 of the 4 countries it was possible to obtain the necessary daily calories needs by the hypothetical family including the 4,000 kcal to optimize the husband’s economic opportunity, and even include an egg for the children. However, there was not much else they could afford, and some critical needs had to be overlooked. It also must be noted that the family was relatively small for most developing countries. The more typical larger families will require more calories putting more pressure on obtaining a well-balanced diversified diet. Conversely a smaller family would have an easier time. Also it is noted that the calories obtained are considerable higher than mention in the beginning as being available to smallholder farmers (Table 1). Thus, if the farmers are sacrificing energy and economic opportunity for more diversified diet, smallholder farmers are economically worse off than wage laborers, or most likely the government does not have the financial resources to enforce minimum wages and many employers are paying below the mandated minimum wages.

Future Needs

The article highlights the need for:

  1. Nutrition studies to consider the economic opportunities of the beneficiaries likely requires heavy manual labor and large calorie consumption, wish probably has priority over improved nutrition.
  2. Within the overall effort at improved nutrition with emphasis on pregnant and nursing women, who is responsible to determine if the scientific results are financially feasible for the beneficiary’s households?
  3. Review the calories needed by manual labors. The article used 4,000 kcal as a computed estimated based on some internet values, but this needs to be confirmed as it could be considerable higher . With the current availability of sport watches that monitor calorie exertion getting solid data on calorie exertion should be relatively simple to obtain. While spots watches are not the most accurate means of measuring calorie consumption, they should be relatively easy to calibrate and provide substantially better-quality data, then the estimates currently used.
  4. There is a need to look at the relationship between nutrition and manual labor, including if supplemental food interventions will substantially increase productivity and food security.
  5. Future development projects should but more emphasis on drudgery relief, which for smallholder farmers implies access to contract tillage and other forms of mechanization.
  6. Be careful of manual labor intensive “appropriate technology” innovations such as treadle pumps and bicycle-based processing to make certain beneficiaries have the energy to operate them. The example would be treadle pumps that have been widely distributed by NGOs, but very limited open market sales. How often are those distributed by NGOs quickly set aside by recipients in favor of small petrol pumps? Does it require an advanced appointment to see one in operation? Similarly, the soybean promotions are emphasizing bicycle powered grinder for making soymilk, which could become excessively tiring for the operator unless well fed with an unusual hardy meal.
  7. As a policy minimum wages should be set to make a quality nutritional diet affordable, although this may be the case. Just not enforceable!
  8. If most of the population is spending over 80% of their income to purchase a meager diet, there is not enough discretionary funds available in the population to have viable tax base to fund civil services, including enforcing minimum wages.
  9. Does the limited purchasing power of most a country’s population put sufficient downward pressure on consumer prices so private food value chain participants have razor thin profits making it exceptional difficult for an administratively cumbersome business model like a cooperative to effectively compete without forcing the producers deeper into poverty?
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