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Combating malnutrition with Spirulina

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By Lucas Mackie

 

Back in 2016, I was fresh from university and keen to see some of the world. I decided to go on a trip to South America, a continent which had always fascinated me. With four months of traveling around Chile and Peru planned, I want to do some volunteering and stumbled upon the Sustainable Bolivia webpage. The variety of volunteer work available through 30 partner organisations, the community of volunteers in the SB house and the opportunity to explore Bolivia all made it an appealing place to come and I was soon linked with an organisation called Fundación SODIS.

SODIS are a non-profit NGO based in Cochabamba who run a number of different projects which improve access to safe water supplies for rural communities. The project I worked on was to grow a type of health food called Spirulina, distribute it as a means of battling malnutrition and also sell it to people in Cochabamba to obtain funding for the organisation. The project was still in its early stages when I arrived and I committed to six months of volunteering.

Spirulina is a type of algae that is green in colour, spiralled in shape and can be consumed both fresh and in its dried form. It has gained worldwide recognition due to its extremely high nutritional content: it is one of the richest sources of protein, vitamins and minerals nature has to offer.

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It grows best in hot, tropical climates, needs relatively little investment or maintenance as it grows in bodies of water, and can be consumed both in its fresh form or as a powder. Additionally, it is a highly sustainable food source.

It has been sold on the health food market for decades and it is also used to treat a number of types of malnutrition such as protein deficiency, zinc deficiency, iron deficiency and vitamin A deficiency. After identifying that no one in Bolivia is producing Spirulina, SODIS decided to begin a project to cover both these areas.

At the end of October, I received a share of the $500 mini-grant fund available to volunteers who work at partner organisations of Sustainable Bolivia. After submitting a successful application, I was given $385 towards my project. The fund was required to obtain the algae, set up the project to begin production and then determine the best conditions for the Spirulina to grow in.

As Spirulina is not available in Bolivia, starter cultures needed to be purchased from a lab in the US. Ten samples were ordered to account for the risk of the cultures dying on the journey. 1ml culture vials were mixed with nutrients and fertilizer and after three weeks, eight of the ten turned a healthy green colour.

 

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The fund was also used to purchase other materials to experiment with various conditions and determine which were the best for this particular project. The aim was to find a good balance of cost and productivity. The experiment was a chance to get well-practised at methods of growing Spirulina and observe how it behaves. Four tubs filled with Spirulina were set up in a makeshift greenhouse to limit their exposure to UV. They were connected to air pumps to keep them continuously agitated.

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The experiment had two variables: the culture medium and the fertilizer. The culture medium is the liquid in which the Spirulina grows and is composed of water and nutrients. One of the mediums tested contained various chemicals, while the other had a more organic composition. The same was true of the two fertilizers.

To harvest Spirulina, it must be filtered through a cloth. It can then be consumed in its fresh state. However, after two days it is no longer edible so it is better to dry the fresh produce into a powder where it can keep for up to a year.

The mini-grant fund was also used to buy various materials for a dehydrator, which will be used to dry out the Spirulina. This included wood for a frame, shelves made of stretched cloth and a ventilator.

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The project is currently at the stage where Spirulina is going to be grown in a 400L pond. A method for growing in this project has been established and experimentation is ongoing. The funds obtained from the mini-grant were vital to get the project started and it will soon be self-sustainable from the income it generates from sales.

The project was a great opportunity to develop new skills, experience working for an NGO and learn a new language. It was also great to be part of the Sustainable Bolivia community. There was never a dull moment in the house and I have made some lifelong friends. An experience I could not recommend enough!

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