United in Building and Advancing Life Expectations

The Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts University is proud to be working with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and other partners in Malawi on the UBALE project, a five-year development food assistance program funded by USAID’s Office of Food for Peace with additional research funding under Feed the Future.

UBALE, which means partnership in Chichewa and also stands for United in Building and Advancing Life Expectations, is a key element of USAID’s comprehensive development cooperation strategy in Malawi.  The project is implemented with local NGOs through existing government structures in three food-insecure, chronically malnourished and disaster-prone districts of Southern Malawi: Chikwawa, Nsanje, and rural Blantyre, where UBALE aims to reach all 284 communities totaling about 248,000 households with an integrated set of agricultural and nutritional interventions.

The Friedman School’s work with UBALE began in 2015-16, and is scheduled to run through 2019.  Our contribution to UBALE’s aims is through research, to help guide improvements in two domains:  Delivery of program interventions, and control of aflatoxin contamination.


Improving program delivery

Many programs like UBALE are typically delivered through a cascade model, in which the central management and leadership of Catholic Relief Services or other large agency serves to coordinate the fieldwork of several specialized NGOs, which in turn work through numerous local government offices and village-level volunteers to reach remote households and individuals throughout a targeted region.  This model of program delivery allows a single large project to involve many more diverse organizations and dispersed individuals than would be possible if all activity was delivered by the employees of a single development service.  The corresponding challenge is to understand how the cascade actually works, and what conditions lead to greater success in the sharing of knowledge and services between disparate staff members, local volunteers and villagers.

In the first year of Tufts research on UBALE program delivery we conducted formative, qualitative research on the constraints facing front-line staff and village volunteers in the first stage of recruitment and training at the start of the project.  Staff and volunteers bring different types of experience to their work on the project, leading to different kinds of knowledge and capabilities. The second year of Tufts-UBALE research on program delivery will build on our first-year results, to quantify the nature of differences among workers in their nutrition knowledge as well as the communication and facilitation skills needed to help villagers take advantage of new opportunities in agriculture, nutrition and health.


Improving aflatoxin control

Nutrition and health outcomes in Malawi are heavily affected by mold on cereal grains (especially maize) and leguminous grains (especially groundnuts).  These fungi release mycotoxins (especially aflatoxins), which are known carcinogens and widely believed to cause stunting and malnutrition.  Mold on foods is not always visible, and the resulting toxins cannot be seen or tasted.  The toxins are typically not destroyed by processing or cooking.  UBALE and many other development actors are actively engaged in delivering new approaches to aflatoxin control, through both in-field agricultural measures and post-harvest food system improvements.

In the first year of Tufts research with UBALE on aflatoxin control we focused on post-harvest sorting decisions, so as to determine how households choose which batches of maize and groundnuts they decide to sell, buy, or devote to each distinct type of food.  This work builds on UBALE’s partnership with ICRISAT to address the in-field mechanisms and harvest practices that can limit mold growth in the first place.  The second year of research will extend our initial findings to investigate storage choices, particularly among households that receive hermetic PICS bags capable of limiting mold growth from month to month.


Team bios

William A. Masters is the project’s Principal Investigator at Tufts.  Details of his other projects are on his personal website and teaching blog.

Gloria Guevara Alvarez, Program Coordinator, provides direct oversight for the research and associated logistics.  She is a doctoral student at Friedman School, focusing on sustainable agriculture, small holders, farm-to-fork continuum, food systems and regional distribution systems, especially in Africa and Latin America, as described on her personal blog.

Graduate researchers (2015-16)

Rebecca Frank conducted the fieldwork on program delivery.  She is a graduate student in the Public Health Program at Tufts Medical School, as well as the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition Program at the Friedman School. Her concentration at Friedman is in humanitarian assistance, while her public health interests include psychosocial issues, the double burden of malnutrition and obesity, and infectious diseases.

Caroline Nathan conducted the fieldwork on aflatoxin control and how potentially contaminated grains are used.  She is a masters student at the Friedman School, focusing on the linkages between agriculture and nutrition in low- and middle-income countries.