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How Ajinomoto Is Working with Stakeholders to Create Sustainable Social Impacts

Image credit: Ajinomoto Group

In 1908, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda changed the culinary world forever when he discovered umami as the fifth basic taste (along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter). Aspiring to foster healthy lifestyles and “create good, affordable seasonings and turn simple but nutritious fare into delicacies,” Ikeda invented a method for producing seasoning with glutamate as a key component. The following year, his friend, chemical and pharmaceutical businessman Saburosuke Suzuki II, launched a business venture to begin selling AJI-NO-MOTO®, the world's first umami seasoning, and the Ajinomoto Group was born. Today, Ajinomoto operates in more than 130 countries and regions with specialties supported by its two primary businesses: consumer foods and AminoScience.

Better nutrition, bigger growth, brighter future

Ajinomoto launched the Ghana Nutrition Improvement Project in 2009 as part of the Group’s centenary celebrations. The project aims to help improve nutrition in developing countries, especially for children; malnutrition in the first two years of life often results in failure to thrive, with little chance of catch-up growth.

The traditional, corn-based weaning food in Ghana, koko, is deficient in energy, protein, and micronutrients. To set local children on a firmer path towards long-term health, Ajinomoto decided to boost the nutritional value of its baby food through the development, production, and sales of KOKO Plus amino acid supplements.

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Unique conditions in developing countries often make it difficult for companies to pursue projects alone. So Ajinomoto fostered partnerships with multiple stakeholders to develop a viable social business for its Ghana Nutrition Improvement Project: The company worked with the Ghanaian government and the University of Ghana to satisfy local policies, rules and needs; Dutch company DSM helped commercialize KOKO Plus, which was then produced by local partner Yedent. On the retailing side, Ajinomoto partnered with international NGOs such as CARE, focused on the empowerment of local women. Together, the team developed a remarkable new distribution system, with local women selling products at each village to ensure last-mile delivery.

The project evolved over three stages. The first phase, from 2009 to 2011, included market research, product development, and partnership building. The second phase, from 2011 onwards, involved opening a factory and launching production. Then, from February 2013 through March 2015, Ajinomoto conducted tests with its partners to confirm the nutritional benefits of KOKO Plus in approximately 1,000 subjects in 40 communities. These tests clearly showed that KOKO Plus, with its mix of protein, amino acids and micronutrients, was an effective way to improve nutrition and prevent stunted growth or anemia in small children during weaning.

However, retailing supplements in developing areas is difficult, even for a recognized, effective product. Unlike regular foodstuffs, the sale of nutritional supplements involves educating users about nutrition, convincing them of the benefits, and getting them to experience those benefits for themselves.

Ajinomoto conducted one-year pilots to ascertain the most appropriate distribution model. In poor areas of northern Ghana, CARE helped teach people about nutrition and organize community cooking classes, while local saleswomen talked face-to-face with customers; in the commercial districts of southern Ghana, Ajinomoto held promotion campaigns about nutrition and supplements in facilities operated by the Ghana’s Ministry of Health, and advertised products on radio and other media. One year on, the rate of regular KOKO Plus use stood at 62 percent in the deprived northern areas and 11 percent in the commercial southern region, proving the need for a continuous marketing approach tailored to economic conditions in each region.

The project is currently in phase three: preparing for full-fledged production and retail. Ajinomoto is looking to extend its retail reach and expand the number of infants using its supplements and the amount used. The company is also hoping to use KOKO Plus channels to promote nutritional products for mothers.

After establishing a sustainable business model in Ghana, Ajinomoto aims to develop similar models in other countries.

Global campaigns highlighting nutrition, such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the World Health Organization’s Global Nutrition Targets 2025, are becoming increasingly aggressive. The business sector is expected to play a larger role in achieving these aims.

Ajinomoto has joined Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN), a global movement to improve nutrition, while also looking to share the experience gained through the Ghana project as a leading member of the Japan Platform for Global Nutrition (JPGN).

Ajinomoto’s efforts are a good example of sharing amassed know-how and expertise to foster business partnerships, and giving them back to society to resolve social issues.


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