In Focus: Reducing childhood malnutrition through partnerships

Our 'In Focus' series sits down with people at the cutting edge of improving nutrition outcomes to understand their perspective, passions and latest projects. Today we talk with Dr Vivian Ibekwe from Hearts for Africa.
Vivian Ibekwe
Tell us a little about yourself 

I am the founder and CEO of Hearts for Africa, a Community Interest Company. My research is based on effectiveness of fermentation on soybean supplements for management of malnutrition. I am passionate about transferring academia into direct benefit to communities. I am trying to do this through enterprises and collaborative engagements with SMEs.


What got you interested in nutrition? 

I grew up with an interest in the human body for which I decided to study nursing to learn more about anatomy and physiology. But those studies made me realize that the human body has the capacity to look after itself through adequate nutrition. 


What do you work on, and how does it relate to public private engagement for nutrition? 

I am dedicated to improving nutrition in women of childbearing age, children and teenagers at periods of increased growth and high nutrients demand. I am keen to implement soy-foods in enriching nutrient-poor meals specially to benefit people in low- and middle-income countries where malnutrition is driven by the lack of nutritious and affordable foods. At Hearts for Africa, we are implementing the “David Neven; development sustainable food value chain model” which has five interconnected pathways: enabling environment, return on assets, salary income, customer benefit and taxes. All the pathways – and the stakeholders within them – work together to reduce poverty and hunger. I have come to realise that collaborative charities, non-governmental and private organisations are more effective at making an impact on nutrition because they are more focused on the need for sustainable solutions “today, not tomorrow”.


What is exciting about your work? 

My work promotes sustainability and wellbeing through plant-based nutrition. Childhood malnutrition is a disaster that is preventable and my work is contributing to the solution by creating local availability and affordability of nutritious foods. It is incredible that fermentation in processing plant protein elevates such protein to more sustainable and health promoting food. Take fermentation’s ability to reduce soybean natural poisonous substances called toxins which if not treated by fermentation prevents nutrients absorption in humans and cause harmful effects in the body.  It is by application of natural fermentation that soy-based foods can be effectively used as complementary foods for young children.


What is challenging about it? 

Logistics, funding and time are constraints in delivering solutions and achieving set goals. You believe that the problems and challenges of malnutrition is so much in the fore and that everyone understands the urgency to tackle it but the reality is, this is not quite the case. The slow response to calls to help leaves you feeling “alone”.

What’s the latest news or a recent success? 

Collaboration with the right organisations and individuals. We are engaging with agronomists, soil scientists and SME farm holders to understand the best agronomic practices. We have concluded one Soybean Management with Appropriate Research and Technology (SMART) soybean varieties trial, which has allowed us to obtain useful information in understanding of the soil and the whole Agri-ecology system in the region. This means that in time the SME farm holders working with us will have access to improved soybean varieties to plant, access to better farming practices and improved livelihoods. Our partners who have provided technical assistance in this work include Soybean Innovation Lab (SIL), Illinois USA and SIL Pan-African Soybean Variety Trial (PAT) program expertise to guide us. 




What’s next? 

Once we establish soybean farming to produce the crop at scale, Hearts for Africa will purchase soybeans harvested by SME farms and process them into soy-based, naturally fermented nutritious complementary foods. By doing this, we are part of food system transformation and working to create a sustainable food chain – the ultimate goal of Hearts for Africa. 


Has this work made you change your mind about anything, or has anything surprised you?

The journey to achieve the goals I set out following my PhD research in soy protein for human consumption is long and challenging. I have put in very long and unpaid hours. Children still die from malnutrition today in our world, women of reproductive age are malnourished and they bear malnourished children.  The cycle of malnutrition continues. Most times government of the countries where this is occurring do not seem to understand the cost. Adult earnings are reduced by 2.4% for every 1% loss in potential attained height. More costs are incurred through impaired learning, poor school performance, compromised adult labour productivity, and increased health care costs.

According to BAPEN, UK, October 2018, Cost and Comparison of nourished vs malnourished individuals, estimated annual health and social care costs; malnourished individual patient costs £7,408 while nourished similar individual patient costs £2,155.


If you had to have a slogan, or a strapline, for this work, what would it be?

Give children ethical, affordable nutritious food and end preventable deaths.


What is your favourite food or meal to share with family or friends?

This is a good question because I enjoy cooking. I like to serve people what they like to eat, made delicious with fresh healthy ingredients. Vegetable Lasagne is my favourite food to make for sharing. It takes time to put the ingredients together but absolute everyone’s delight. Made with spinach, mushroom, milk and cheeses means that both those who prefer vegetable-based meals as well as those who like to eat meat can enjoy it as I serve the lasagne with side meats and salads.


More about Hearts for Africa...

Hearts for Africa is a Community Interest Company, registered in the United Kingdom and Nigeria. As a Community Interest Company, Hearts for Africa is an “asset lock” organisation meaning that her assets including any profits or other surplus generated by its activities are used for the community. We are also a member of Social Enterprise UK (SEUK), which has given us a lot of support, advice and general tools required to run a successful business. Having a dedicated consultant has been immensely useful with the business paper work and registration processes. As the business was formed recently, we have received no external funding yet and have used own funds, support from family and friends. We are however now in a good position to begin to put in funding applications especially as calls for application is beginning to come in for the year. 

For more information, get in touch:

+44 7956392339

129 Caistor Park Road


London E15 3PR




Note from the editor: Nutrition Connect aims to share examples of partnerships and collaborations that result in positive nutrition outcomes. We seek examples that objectively demonstrate the potential of public private engagement, in particularly those which are underpinned by sound methodology, including evaluation. However, Nutrition Connect and its funders do not endorse any specific company, government or partnership, and in all cases a single example may not reflect the institution’s overall impact on food and nutrition security. For more information, the Editorial approach sets out our policy for content management, including case studies. Any related queries should be sent to