Finding your ‘karma bhumi’
A job posting to East Africa changed the course of Darshana Joshi’s career. Having cut her teeth in the private sphere, working for consumer food companies based in London and Switzerland, it was here she saw firsthand the stark difference that nutrition can have on an individual’s life. As a result, she was driven to embark on a path aimed at amplifying the impact that food systems can have on the lives of individuals, communities, societies, and nations.
“East Africa, like most regions in Africa, has stunting and malnutrition levels of over 30%, and what this means is the region is dealing with the long-term impact of a fundamental lack of nutrition,” she said.
The facts spell out a bleak scenario. Nutritional stunting is most often caused by insufficient nutrition at every stage of life, from maternal nutrition onwards. It means that a developing fetus suffers intrauterine undernutrition; a young baby is not breastfed for the recommended six months of age; an older child is introduced to inadequate complementary nutrition later than should occur for its optimal development, and their ability to absorb nutrients is impaired due to infectious diseases.
Furthermore, researchers have revealed that stunting has long-term effects on individuals and societies, including poor cognition and educational performance, low adult wages, lost productivity, and an increased risk of nutrition-related chronic diseases in adult life. As a result, East African nations and economies face a tremendous crisis in terms of both productivity and health burdens.
A question of purpose
While working as a Consumer Marketing Manager for a leading food company in East Africa, Joshi became increasingly aware of the staggering effects of malnutrition via her broader network.
“I had friends who worked for NGOs and the UN in peacebuilding and post conflict reconciliation, and specifically working with refugees in the region. They were doing such amazing work and it made me begin to question my purpose in life, and to ask myself what impact I was creating in this world,” she said.
Joshi’s ongoing self-reflection meant that when a colleague reached out and suggested she join Africa Improved Foods Rwanda (AIF Rwanda) as its Commercial Director, she jumped at the opportunity. A private-public partnership between the government of Rwanda, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), CDC Group PLC, Royal DSM, and the Dutch development bank FMO, AIF Rwanda is geared towards producing relief foods for Africa in Africa.
“Before this, all the relief food going into UN-WFP refugee camps was produced by companies in Europe. AIF Rwanda wanted to create a broader impact out of the relief funding coming into Africa, initially through the production of fortified porridge but then also through capacity development across the value chain. That was fascinating to me,” said Joshi.
Discovering one’s ‘karma bhumi’
Having lived in Kigali, the Capital and largest city of Rwanda, for six years now, Joshi has witnessed up close the impact of AIF’s work. Since then, she has expanded her view of the scheme’s potential, and indeed her role in innovative ventures in the food and agricultural sector.
“I have made Rwanda my ‘karma bhumi’: the place my life’s work has impact” she said, using the Sanskrit-Hindi word meaning ‘land of action.’ “With food security now an urgent topic, the war in Ukraine having a detrimental impact on food prices in African nations, and the threat posed by the climate crisis, this is my plan: at every turn to try for more impact-led, purposeful stepping stones that benefit the greatest number of vulnerable populations,” she said.
Now a consultant, Joshi works across several projects. Her two start-ups aim to bring financial inclusion and access to nutrition to under-served communities. Benefactors, for which she is a board member and investor, was launched in 2017 and connects impact funds with small/medium-sized enterprises. She also co-founded Lentera Ltd with fellow IMD MBA colleague Moses Kimani. The firm utilizes satellite imaging and precision agriculture to increase efficiency in the East African agricultural value chain.
Darshana Joshi (MBA 2014)
In addition, she is Director of Food Systems for the Future, a fund focused on providing growth capital to businesses operating within the food system, with a view to improve access to affordable and nutritious foods. She is also Rwanda lead for the Rockefeller Foundation’s PP4N initiative which aims to increase access to healthy diets by maximizing the nutritional value of meals served in schools and other institutional settings through the fortified wholegrain initiative.
“The PP4N initiative will, at its full potential, support more nutritional diets for four million school children in Rwanda. For the majority of them, it’s their main meal of the day so the nutritional impact of the food has to be high,” said Joshi. “Not only that but through our
Food systems approach, we will try to connect every player in the value chain to the broader vision while creating value. So, our farmers will know the food they produce is going towards feeding their children.”
Joshi’s next project is to create Rwanda’s first insect-protein factory in a joint initiative between FSF institute and the Rwandan government.” At the early stages of development, the project promises to be an innovative local solution that fill in gaps of international food systems.
“Our countries; Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and Ethiopia are set to have the world’s largest populations. It is imperative that they have access to affordable, nourishing food. There is nothing more basic or important than that in a child’s life.”