Friday, 28 April 2017

From the office to Eastern Africa: how digital technologies can be used to assess diet

Guest post by Emma Foster, Lecturer in Public Health Nutrition, Human Nutrition Research Centre, Newcastle University

Life in academia can be tough at times. It can be difficult to switch off, the list of tasks can seem never ending and just when you think things are going to quieten down along comes that call for proposals that you simply can’t miss.

I’ve worked at Newcastle University for almost 20 years now and throughout that time my research has focused on improving how we measure dietary intake. In the early years this involved going into school and talking to children and parents, which was always good fun. More recently we’ve been working with adults developing online systems for measuring intake along with colleagues at Open Lab. The work is really interesting and I’m enormously proud of the system we have produced but life is predominantly office based now.

Earlier this year though, my enthusiasm for work was suddenly re-ignited with a slight change in focus for my research. For 12 days in February I left behind my 6 year old son (bad mummy!) and my husband and headed off to do some research looking at how digital technologies could be used to assess dietary intake in Africa. Along with my colleague - research associate Maisie Rowland - I headed to Tanzania to learn about the food environment there, looking at the range of foods available, and the way things are cooked, served and eaten. We also looked at the uptake of technology such as use of smartphones and internet access. We started our visit in Moshi near Kilimanjaro (every time I say Kilimanjaro I still break into a smile). The weather there was lovely and warm and the people were too. We’d been put in touch with a school teacher, Amina who showed us around two primary schools and one secondary school in the area. Seeing the cooking facilities at the schools was really eye opening. The schools all cooked over wood fires.


I was amazed at the secondary school kitchen; this was what I had expected to find in the homes in poorer rural communities but not in a large (700+ pupils) secondary school. Yet the staff managed to cook enough food to feed all of the students and had taken the time to provide information for us on the common local foods.

Every day for school lunch the children got maize and beans, one of the schools added oil to the mixture to make sure the children got some fat in their diet. Children brought a bowl, plate or other container (some had margarine tubs) and most ate with their hands. The children ate their food outside. Amina invited us over for dinner one evening. “I thought I’d cook you banana stew and elephant leg” she said, monitoring our faces for a reaction. Politely we said “that sounds lovely” but we clearly looked a bit worried before Amina roared with laughter and told us that elephant leg was a vegetable….it just got its name because it apparently looks a bit like one!

Before we left Moshi we got to tour the local food markets, where people buy the majority of their food. There was very little in the way of pre-packaged foods consumed.

Our next stop was Dar es Salaam where we worked with the Tanzanian Food and Nutrition Centre (TFNC). We conducted two workshops, one with nutritionists, dietitians, food technologists and public health workers at the TFNC, which Maisie and I ran in English, and one with a rural community group which the TFNC researchers ran in Swahili. Through the workshops we gathered lots of information about the foods consumed and how these differed between regions, the time of year, celebrations and droughts, and how people would share recipes and consume foods. We learned that African power cuts can last a whole day - the workshop at the TFNC was done in 35 degree heat with the power (and therefore air conditioning) off! We discovered that the foods we were served for breakfast at the hotel were usually only reserved for celebrations for the local population.

We took our research very seriously and ate at a wide variety of restaurants, cafes and street food stalls. The food over there was really tasty. For breakfast every day we had an amazing beef stew that we got the recipe for. I’ve tried to re-create it but mine isn’t quite up to scratch, I think it’s probably to do with the way that they rear the cows rather than my cooking skills....

We plan to work with the staff at TFNC to put in a proposal to the Global Challenges Research Fund with the aim to develop a technology based method of assessing dietary intake that will enable them to run what would be the first National dietary survey for Tanzania.

….Now back to the office for some proposal writing to get us back out there. Next time I might even take the family with me!

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