In Myanmar, a simple switch to fortified rice brings huge nutritional impact

October 11, 2017 by Dr. Myo Myint Aung

How PATH partnerships deliver fortified rice from field to fork in Myanmar.

A rice paddy in Ayeyarwady Region, Myanmar. Photo: PATH/Dara Lee.

A rice paddy in Ayeyarwady Region, Myanmar. Photo: PATH/Dara Lee.

As four lanes become two and asphalt turns to dirt, we turn the corner and drive up a smaller path leading to the U Cho Rice Mill, where U Myo Wai, the rice mill owner, steps out to greet us. Rice millers like him receive technical support from PATH to produce fortified rice, a blend of rice enriched with vitamins and minerals.

While giving us a tour of his facilities, U Myo Wai explains that what excites him about this venture is that it represents a merging of his business interests and sense of civic responsibility.

Three men in a warehouse with green bags stacked in the background.

U Myo Wai leads a tour of the U Cho Rice Mill for Myanmar government officials. Photo: PATH/Dara Lee.

Just as rice millers in Myanmar have chosen to make an investment in fortified rice, various organizations in Myanmar are switching out regular rice for nutritional fortified rice. PATH is helping connect these organizations with fortified rice producers to integrate this nutritious staple food into their meal programs. There’s hope that this work, which is funded by the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT), will help improve nutrition across the country. We have come a long way since fortified rice first hit the shelves in Myanmar.

“I produce fortified rice because it is a two-way street. It provides nutritional benefit for the community, and it’s also good for my company’s bottom line.”
— U Myo Wai, U Cho Rice Mill

Promoting healthier, stronger athletes

The Sports and Physical Education Academy in Yangon, an institute with more than 400 gifted young athletes, is one of many organizations making the switch to fortified rice. Vitamins and minerals are essential for building, repairing, and maintaining the body after rigorous exercise, and fortified rice provides some of the extra nutritional boost that athletes need.

I like to think that these promising athletes—made stronger by a healthier diet with fortified rice—will one day bring glory to Myanmar in the Southeast Asian Games. For now, I’m simply excited they enjoy eating the rice. One student said that fortified rice tastes the same as normal rice, and it’s much easier to swallow than a vitamin tablet!

Students in uniform line up for lunches.

Students at the Sports and Physical Education Academy in Yangon line up to get their first taste of fortified rice. Photo: PSI/La Min Ko.

Meals on Wheels, Myanmar style

Fortified rice is also finding its way to the daily lunch boxes of 347 schoolchildren in Ingabu, a township in the Ayeyarwaddy Region south of Myanmar. Dr. Nanda Win, the founder of the Affordable Meals on Wheels program, has chosen to switch out the regular rice, which he serves in mobile lunch carts for children in the area, with fortified rice.

Several men stand in line with bicycles and umbrellas.

Dr. Nanda Win with the Affordable Meals on Wheels program volunteers at Ingabu. Photo: Nanda Win.

As a community doctor, Dr. Win was first struck by the extraordinarily high prevalence of goiter in the area. He noticed that many families maintained a poor daily diet of fish paste and rice. This was how Dr. Win developed a passion for promoting nutrition as a cornerstone of health, which eventually drove him to create the Affordable Meals on Wheels program. When I asked how he believes fortified rice fits into his program, Dr. Win said that fortified rice is the clear solution for people who want to improve their nutrition in a simple, effective way—and ensure everyone, including the kids, enjoy their meals.

It all begins with early childhood nutrition

The Department of Social Welfare, under the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, has also made the switch for 51 of its preschools as part of a comprehensive nutrition program, Fortifying the Future with Fortified Rice. As a result, more than 6,500 children aged two to five in the Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Bago, and Nay Pyi Taw Regions of Myanmar will eat fortified rice as part of their midday meal.

A group of adults and children stand in front of a sign that says "Fortifying the Future with Fortified Rice."

Children from Yangon’s nursery schools join the celebration for the preschool nutrition program launch with the Ministry of Health and Sports; the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement; LIFT; and PATH. Photo: PATH/Dara Lee.

Stunting is still a significant public health challenge in Myanmar—on average, nearly one in three children are too short for their age. Research in other countries backs up fortified rice’s nutritional benefits. In India, 5- to 12-year-old children who ate fortified rice increased their iron stores. Brazil and Mexico have seen similar nutritional benefits. With the eventual nationwide expansion of the program, I am hopeful that thousands more children in Myanmar will improve micronutrient intake and nutrition during their most formative years.

Just the beginning

It’s always been our goal to ensure fortified rice reaches those with the highest risk of micronutrient deficiencies. My team, our private-sector partners, and I rejoice as we see more and more inquiries from charities, hospitals, nongovernmental organizations, and other organizations interested in integrating fortified rice in their meal programs.

It’s clear that improved health in Myanmar is not something that will come with the flip of a switch. But a simple switch to fortified rice—a staple food that’s easy to procure and requires no change in our people’s diets—holds the promise to dramatically improve health in Myanmar for generations to come.