Saving People with Salt

M.G. Venkatesh Mannar’s plan to wipe out global malnutrition.

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For over 40 years, M.G. Venkatesh Mannar has been transforming the world one tiny micronutrient at a time. The 63-year-old Indian-born, Ottawa-based chemical engineer has spent the better part of his life researching, implementing programs and educating governments about the benefits of food fortification – a method of adding vitamins to food. This process makes it easy to get much-needed vitamins to the people who need them most: undernourished children and adults in developing nations.

“We [take] the best science available in the world to the poorest countries and we translate it into results.”

As president of the Micronutrient Initiative (MI), a not-for-profit organization that develops food fortification programs for developing countries, Mannar has one goal: to eliminate global malnutrition. “We [take] the best science available in the world to the poorest countries and we translate it into results,” he says.

While Mannar has led initiatives involving vitamin A, iron and folic acid, he’s best known for making iodized salt popular in third-world countries. Iodine is essential for brain development and adding it to salt is an economical way to prevent brain damage. Thanks to his work, nearly 4 billion people in over 50 countries now have access to iodine-fortified salt.

Success has not been without challenges. When Mannar took over MI in 1994 – he moved to Canada from the U.S. four years earlier – it was a small pilot project with Canada’s International Development Research Centre. He was tasked with growing it into a globally respected organization. That meant convincing ministries and food partners to invest in the cause. He’s had to deal with security issues in countries like Nigeria, parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan and fortification programs also have to be done without comprising the quality of the food. “There should be no change in taste, odour or colour,” he says.

In spite of all of that, Mannar, an Investors Group client who plans to retire as MI’s president this year, has created vitamin fortification programs that now reach approximately 500 million people in more than 70 countries each year. Last December he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada for his groundbreaking work. “It’s quite amazing,” he says, still in shock over the nomination. “It speaks of a country like Canada to identify and pick someone who is a relatively new entrant and give him the highest civilian honour.”

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