Employees pack Plumpy’nut, which contains vitamins, proteins and all necessary nutriments to fight malnutrition, at the STA company in the industrial area of Niamey. Image Credit: AFP

Niamey: The refugee crisis triggered by militant violence in a remote corner of West Africa has brought misery for many but success for a modest Niger company working to fight famine.

The STA food transformation firm has seen its staff swell from four to more than 100 in 15 years as a rare local producer of Plumpy’nut, a peanut-based food used by relief workers worldwide.

“We were able to help save 270,000 children with severe malnutrition in 2015,” Ismael Barmou, the 35-year-old head of the Societe de Transformation Alimentaire (STA) told AFP in the capital Niamey.

French-based firm Nutriset, which formulated the specialised high-protein food in the late 1990s, has exported technology to Niger among half a dozen African nations as part of a ‘PlumpyField’ initiative to promote local production.

The impoverished, largely arid West African nation has endured repeated humanitarian crises and food shortages and currently has some 300,000 displaced people and refugees on its soil, who have escaped armed Islamist extremists in neighbouring Nigeria and Mali.

Another 50,000 people in Niger itself fled their homes earlier this month to escape a massive attack from Nigeria-based Boko Haram Islamist fighters attack across the border, into Bosso in the southeast.

After studies in France and England, Barmou came home and in 2001 launched start-up STA to produce flour for the poorest families.

“The firm consisted of four people who ground [the flour] by hand,” he recalls.

Change came when a food crisis in 2005 induced Barmou to expand business into the making of “therapeutic foodstuffs, with a company that could respond in a proactive fashion”.

STA is a private firm in which Nigeriens hold two-thirds of the stock, while the remainder today belongs to Nutriset.

The firm on Niamey’s industrial estate has automated its production, employing 115 permanent staff, while also taking on about 200 seasonal workers for the peanut harvest in local farms.

With an annual turnover of six billion CFA francs (Dh38.16 million), STA produces about 27 tonnes of paste per day in individual meal packets that are ready for use, to a total of 8,500 tonnes in 2015.

The sealed packets are delivered to Unicef and other relief agencies which distribute Plumpy’nut to people in need, like emaciated seven-month-old Ramatou, who fixates on the red packet a nurse opens with scissors at the Creni hospital in Niamey.

Three packets a day give her “all the elements she needs to reach a normal weight and become healthy”, said Creni director Mamou Aminatou.

On a daily basis, production requires six tonnes of peanuts — already part of the local cuisine — delivered from another STA plant, along with sugar from Brazil, palm oil from Ghana, oil of soda, milk and lactoserum (high-protein whey) from France, and stabilisers.

“By producing in Niger, we considerably reduce delivery delays,” said Barmou, who plans to expand STA’s activities to making other food products that are less urgently needed. STA is already marketing a less rich paste intended to prevent the onset of malnutrition.

“Plumpy’nut has several advantages that meet the needs of humanitarian workers. There’s no need for refrigeration and it can be eaten without preparation. It suffices to open the packet,” said production manager Garba Mahamam Salissou.