Villages Can Thrive

Brief Explanation: This is a proposal for addressing protein energy malnutrition in rural communities that my friends Peter, Luis and I (we called ourselves AF&T) created a few years back as part of another, bioenergy-related project. The people we submitted the proposal to weren’t responsive, but I still believe that it is such a high-potential approach to empowering rural women to feed themselves and their families with enough high-quality protein to thrive that I am posting it for anyone in the community who can use it. My friends and I would, of course, be happy to help if needed.

Proposal Summary

AF&T’s proposal seeks to interrupt the protein energy malnutrition (PEM) cycle in women from childhood through child-bearing age. Maternal PEM is the direct cause of both fetal malnourishment and low birth weight children and the low or absent capacity of the mother to provide breast milk for her newborn and infant children. AF&T will demonstrate that palatable, nutritious plant leaf protein, extracted from specific high protein plants using appropriate village-scale technology, can be produced at the local level in almost any environment and can address the primary obstacle to controlling and potentially eradicating PEM, which is that most people living in rural villages have inadequate access to high quality protein both for themselves and for their animals. All actions required to implement this proposal at the village level are consistent with the normal role of women in rural settings worldwide. 

Proposal Narrative

Inadequate access to protein means, for much of the rural underdeveloped world, inadequate access to animal protein. Women and children in developing countries frequently bear the principal responsibility for accompanying domestic animals on their search for widely dispersed and low quality forage. In many cases this search burns more calories than the forage that is found provides. Thus, both the animals and the people run permanent and increasing caloric deficits. Pregnant women are not exempt from accompanying the animals, resulting in gradual progressive starvation of both the mother and the unborn child. Women who run a caloric deficit before and during pregnancy, and more specifically a protein energy deficit, not only more frequently give birth to low birth-weight and otherwise health-compromised newborns, their breast milk production is also compromised.

It is a vicious cycle, resulting in permanent developmental damage to children, vulnerability of the newborn and infant to disease, injury, and infection and all too frequently in death before the age of  two. In turn, this results in more frequent pregnancies, and the accompanying progressive drain on the woman’s nutritional resources, as well as the loss of the protective effect of breast-feeding against pregnancy. AF&T proposes to develop and demonstrate a village-scale appropriate technology that can be used to extract high quality plant protein from purpose grown drought-tolerant crops that can be used to provide adequate high protein feed for domestic animals with little expenditure of caloric energy in search of forage. In turn, this appropriate technology will mean greater access to milk, meat, eggs and other forms of animal protein using only local resources and labor, requiring no external resources or support once installed.

The rationale for developing an appropriate technology that can be used to extract plant proteins for use as animal feed, rather than simply using the whole plant as feed, is that by separating the proteins from the rest of the plant materials those plant materials can be used for other purposes, including the production of biogas in household digesters which are ubiquitous in much of the rural underdeveloped world, and for other purposes including animal bedding and household heating and cooking fuel, while preserving the high value proteins as animal feed.

In a parallel phase of our proposed program, recognizing that a significant part of the rural underdeveloped world is vegetarian on the basis of religious beliefs, AF&T will take the protein extracted from purpose-grown high protein plants using the village-level appropriate technology referred to above, and will develop a high protein plant extract that is both palatable and nutritious using a process developed over thousands of years to make high protein vegetarian Miso from a wide variety of plant materials including soy, barley, chickpea and other plant proteins. We expect that this process will eliminate the primary obstacle to acceptance of plant leaf protein extracts in the past, which has been that, untreated, it has a bitter and unacceptable “green taste”. By applying the principles and techniques for the production of tasty and nourishing Miso from plant materials to the protein extracted using a variation on already established methods such as the well-known “Lucerne” method, we plan to develop a nutritious palatable high protein paste that can be eaten by itself or mixed into virtually any other food, or consumed as a broth, as is the case with traditional Miso.

The “Lucerne” method consists of macerating plant materials in water to create a slurry – Alfalfa is the plant material typically used in the case of the “Lucerne” method – and then slowly raising the temperature of the slurry until the plant proteins coagulate and rise to the surface, where they are skimmed off, then dried and ground into a high protein powder. As noted, while this material is indeed high in proteins, it is also rich in oils and pigments, accounting for its unacceptably bitter “green taste”. We will demonstrate that by applying the traditional Miso fermentation process to this extract, this bitterness and green taste will be removed, resulting in a highly nutritious, high protein food that is stable without refrigeration.

After a comprehensive review of many leaf protein resources worldwide, we have identified Pennisetum purpurem as the best candidate for leaf protein extraction. We propose to build upon known leaf protein extraction technologies to develop a methodology that can turn purpose-grown high protein Pennisetum purpurem (and other leafy non-food plants) into both (A) a nutritious, and palatable source of human food-grade protein and (B) a nutritious, abundant source of high quality animal feed that does not require foraging.

The basis for AF&T’s selection of  Pennisetum purpurem as our plant choice for leaf protein is supported by over 30 years of experience in ranch and livestock management on the part of one of our partners, and by a body of science that affirms the quality and palatability of Pennisetum purpurem as animal feed. There is also solid supporting scientific evidence that simple extraction methods using village-scale appropriate technology can be effectively used for extracting protein from herbaceous plants. Further, there are both scientific studies and voluminous anecdotal evidence that leaf protein can be an effective intervention in cases of childhood Protein Energy Malnutrition (PEM) and disease, and that leaf protein is also an effective animal feed, whether found in nature as forage or provided as feed.

Recognizing that, however desirable it may be as a leaf protein resource, Pennisetum purpurem is not a one-size-fits-all source of plant protein. AF&T has researched other common high leaf protein indigenous plant species capturing data on growing and climate conditions, fertilizer needs and application rates, best cultivation practices, and leaf protein levels.  These species include: (1) Amaranthus tricolor ( African/Chinese spinach, Tampala, Bledo); (2) Cnidoscolus chayamansa (Chaya, Tree spinach,Chaya col, Kikilchay, Chaykeken); (3) Crotolaraia longirostrata (Chipilin; also Sunnhemp); (4) Medicago sativa (alfalfa, Lucerne); and (5) Vigna unguiculata (cowpeas, Caupi, Frijol de Vaca, Frijo Mica, Feijao de Corda).

AF&T’s Phase I experimental plan has three main components. 1) produce a Miso-like leaf protein paste that is can be added to any food base or consumed by itself without a strong “green taste”;  2) test and compare several extraction methods and technologies establishing extraction and flavoring protocols; and 3) conduct a series of leaf protein palatability tests..

Upon a successful Phase I, we plan to move from small scale trials designed to identify the optimum extraction methods to moving those extraction methods to full village scale capable of supporting a model village of 500 people with 50 domestic animals, and initiating overseas leaf protein production trials. We plan to partner with a well-networked NGO to begin the familiarization process, and provide various forms of leaf protein foods to selected groups in developing countries and generate data on key indicators of improved maternal, fetal, newborn and infant nutrition including birth weight, ratio of live births, newborn and infant weight gain, and incidence and duration of successful breast feeding. AF&T’s primary partner, MMC, through its global online network will engage the local medical, scientific and analytical resources and capacities needed to monitor and evaluate the impact of these foods on human nutrition. AF&T will also generate U.S. data for leaf protein extraction residue used as animal feed, including weight gain, milk and egg production, fiber quality, fertility and reproduction.

Working with collaborators, AF&T will use our protein extraction experience and protocols to design and build a prototype protein extraction technology using essentially “off-the-shelf” components and placing a small number of prototypes in developing country communities. After prototype development and testing, we intend to model our dissemination of this technology following the “Heifer Project” model. Just as the Heifer Project puts animals, which are essentially meat and milk protein machines, into the hands of village-level entrepreneurs (mostly women), after a training program, AF&T’s vision is to put increasing numbers of Leaf Protein extraction units into similar hands after training. We will utilize the global village-level reach of MMC and other NGO partners to identify, qualify, train and support these food entrepreneurs and help them establish their local biomass grower networks. They will be able to produce culturally acceptable, nutritionally and clinically potent protein food products with high nutritive values that will gradually become a part of peoples’ volitional diets, with the residues of the process to be used as a high value animal feed that we believe will provide a community nutritional level solution to the human toll now wrought by Protein Energy Malnutrition.


Energy Cane (Pennisetum pupura) Concentrate Process

This process was developed for use with energy cane used as a substrate for a bioenergy project. It is based on a similar process used in the EU to extract leaf protein from Alfalfa for use as both human and animal feed. This same process can be directly scaled down for use with appropriate low-technology at the village level.

Animal feed values for Pennisetum p. are shown in this table.

If Pennisetum p. energy cane in excess of the bioenergy installation requirements is produced, that portion of excess cane can be taken through the process described below to extract additional co-product value.

In this way a crop of energy cane can generate three distinct revenue streams: (1) as a source of high value protein curd extracted from the macerated whole plant (2) as Brown Juice plus the fibrous pulp from which the Green Juice has originally been extracted, utilized as a biogas production booster when combined with animal manure and other substrates and (3) as a source of enhanced animal feed production when excess cane is produced but not used in the AD processes.

1. Pulping and pressing of energy cane

Immediately after cutting, the cane is pulped and pressed forcefully to separate a large part of the nutritional factors from the indigestible fiber. Done rapidly, this stage also limits hydrolysis of cellular proteins by proteases. The nutritional elements, consisting principally of chloroplastic and cytoplasmic proteins, pigments and vitamins, are recovered in the green juice expressed.

The co-product of this green juice production, the ligneous and cellulosic fibers of the stalk and leaves, is dried and used as fodder, as it remains an excellent source of high quantity animal feed. Its overall nutritive value, moreover, is improved because of the shattering of the stalk fibers (the nutrients are freed and the fibers themselves more easily digested by the cellulytic ferment in the rumen).

2. Heat coagulation of protein

The green juice, adjusted to pH 8.5 utilizing acetic acid to slow down the action of phenyloxydase and to improve the structure of the coagulum, is pre-heated and then brought to 85-90* C by steam injection. This causes coagulation without degradation of almost all the proteins which are within the pigments; fat-soluble vitamins, lipids and minerals.

3. Separation of the coagulum

Next, the coagulum (moist green curd containing the majority of the nutrients) is centrifuged from the rest of the solution (designated brown juice from this point on in the process).

This curd contains more than 50 % of crude protein, of which 80 % is true protein, accompanied by some free amino-acids or peptides. Heat coagulation extracts on average 8 % of the original DM of the crop and 20 – 25 % of its protein.

4. Drying and storage

The curd, as paste, having been mechanically separated from most of the brown juice is dried on a heated belt utilizing process heat from the generator unit of the AD facility. So far, the making of concentrates for animal or human consumption is the same.

Then, the concentrate is pelletized and stored in sealed silos’ cells under inert gas, awaiting distribution.

For human feeding, the energy cane concentrate is ground. This meal (on average with moisture content of 8 %) must be kept dry, away from air, heat and light. Thus, it is bagged hermetically immediately.

To protect pigments and vitamins an antioxidant is added

– For animal feed: Ethoxyquin (150 mg/kg)

– For human feed : Ascorbic acid (500 mg/kg).

5. By-product usage

The brown juice, still containing 13 – 15 % of the original dry matter (DM) is mainly soluble Nitrogen mineral salts and sugars It is mixed with the fibrous residue. This mixture is dried in high temperature air in a rotating drum. The by-product thus obtained is ground, pelletized and stocked for marketing. It contains 16-20 % protein, 25-30 % cellulose and 100-150 mg carotene/kg. It is excellent fodder for cattle and rabbits.

For the profitability of this industry, the realization of the value of the two products (protein extract and co-product representing- respectively 8 % and 92 % original DM) is essential.

6. Homogeneity of energy cane concentrate (ECC)

The protein content of ECC varies slightly, from 50 – 60 %, although the protein content of energy cane as cut varies from 15 – 25 %, according to the timing of the cut and vegetative stage of the crop. Thus the variation in quality of the vegetation processed results in a quantity of ECC between 6 and 12 % of original DM with an average of 8%


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