He’s helped 4.5 million people fight malnutrition by adding nutrients to flour

The machine invented by Rolex Award for Enterprise Laureate Felix Brooks-church enriches staple grain that nourishes two million people a day

To reduce malnutrition among those in need, Rolex Award for Enterprise Laureate Felix Brooks-church has developed a way to fortify flour – used to prepare this African dish of ugali – with vitamins and minerals. PHOTO: ROLEX/MARC LATZEL

Eating well can be difficult. Even in Singapore, which is one of the most well-fed and food-secure nations, some people do not have regular healthy meals.

Local scientists have found that one in three older adults are at risk of malnutrition, which means that they are not getting the nutrients, such as zinc, vitamins and iron, that they need. This increases their chances of injuries and falls.

To fight such malnutrition, which is worse in many other countries, American social entrepreneur Felix Brooks-church has come up with a sustainable way to improve the meals of mothers and infants living in underprivileged areas.

Sanku, his non-profit organisation, installs small machines called dosifiers that add vitamin B12, zinc, folic acid and iron to flour sold by local millers.

Remote video URL

The organisation buys flour bags cheaply in bulk, sells them at market price, and uses its profits to pay for the dosifiers and nutrients that it gives to the millers. This means that rural millers, who are often overlooked in government dietary enrichment programmes, can use the dosifiers for free.

Mr Brooks-church and a worker at a mill in Tanzania operate the dosifier that adds nutrients to flour. PHOTO: ROLEX/RETO ALBERTALLI

Mr Brooks-church, 45, says: “We care about reaching a lot of people, but we care even more about being cost-effective and sustaining this.”

Sanku has provided over 800 dosifiers to over 750 mills in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Malawi and Mozambique, where malnutrition is widespread.

Its efforts have helped about 4.5 million people. Part of this work has been supported by Swiss watchmaker Rolex through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise for which Mr Brooks-church is one of the Laureates for the 2021 edition.

A worker pours maize into a dosifier, where it will be enriched with life-saving nutrients such as vitamin B12, zinc, folic acid and iron. PHOTO: ROLEX/MARC LATZEL

Mr Brooks-church noted that with Rolex’s support, Sanku could pay for 40 dosifiers to transform small mills, feeding up to 200,000 people with enriched flour. The Award also raised Sanku’s profile and helped it to attract more financing to scale further. He shares: “Better nutrition is the first crucial domino. It means children grow up healthy and strong, smarter, and eventually more productive.”

‘Start of this journey’

Mr Brooks-church’s drive stems from his volunteer work in Cambodia over a decade ago. “I ran a project to get street children off the street, into our centre and back into their schools and families, but I soon realised that these children were often sick. They had weak immune systems, low IQs and learning disabilities. Some of them died from things that you should not die from.”

The experience convinced him to change tack, and focus on how to provide mothers and their babies with the nutrition that is crucial in the first two years of life.

“There was just such clarity in what I needed to do. This is what I wanted to do. That was the start of this journey.”

Mr Brooks-church developed the dosifier with Mr David Dodson – now Sanku’s chairman – based on sketches by engineering students at Stanford University in the US. PHOTO: Rolex/Reto Albertalli

He joined forces with Mr David Dodson, a fellow American who started the non-profit organisation Project Healthy Children to reduce malnutrition. They spent several years in Nepal refining a prototype of the dosifier based on sketches they commissioned from Stanford University engineering students.

After they proved that the dosifier worked in 2012, they co-founded Sanku in 2013, naming their organisation after the Nepali village where they finalised the machine’s design. Mr Brooks-church is Sanku’s chief executive officer, while Mr Dodson, who is a lecturer in the Stanford Graduate School of Business, is chairman of its board.

Beyond the dosifiers’ ability to mobilise small millers against malnutrition – a breakthrough as such millers are often unable or unwilling to pay for nutrients – they are also connected online so that Sanku can monitor them and fix problems promptly. Mr Brooks-church plans to add over 500 dosifiers this year to expand Sanku’s network.

Sanku and Mr Brooks-church have earned plaudits, including Time magazine choosing the dosifier to be one of the best inventions, Sanku winning the United Arab Emirates’ Zayed Sustainability Prize, and Mr Brooks-church being named a Fellow of the philanthropic Mulago Foundation – all in 2019 – and the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2021.

With the dosifier connected to the web, Mr Brooks-church can monitor the addition of nutrients at distant flour mills using his computer. PHOTO: Rolex/Reto Albertalli

Rolex has supported pioneering explorers pushing back the boundaries of human endeavour for nearly a century. The company has moved from championing exploration for the sake of discovery, to protecting the planet, committing for the long term to support individuals and organisations using science to understand and devise solutions to today’s environmental challenges.

This engagement was reinforced with the launch of the Perpetual Planet Initiative in 2019, which initially focused on the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, as well as longstanding partnerships with Mission Blue and the National Geographic Society.

The Initiative now has more than 20 other partnerships in an expanding portfolio. These include, Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, who are the founders of Sea Legacy, Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile, offspring organisations of Tompkins Conservation, the Under The Pole expeditions, Monaco Blue Initiative and Coral Gardeners.

Mr Brooks-church and a miller check maize grain that is being fortified by the dosifier beside them. PHOTO: Rolex/Reto Albertalli

Rolex also supports organisations and initiatives fostering the next generations of explorers, scientists and conservationists through scholarships and grants, such as Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society and The Rolex Explorers Club Grants.

With the funding and worldwide publicity received through the Award, Mr Brooks-church believes that Sanku’s “growth trajectory looks promising, with the potential to drastically scale our impact”.

“Our goal is to reach 100 million people by 2030,” he says. “What we are doing is not just adding nutrients to food. There is a lot of injustice in the world, and this is my part to play, to equalise. What we are doing is ensuring a basic human right to good nutrition.”

We The Earth is a partnership between The Straits Times and Rolex and its Perpetual Planet Initiative. Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Felix Brooks-church is a stellar example of the many individuals who are doing their part to solve the issues earth faces. 

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.