The children of Masiphumelele Township

Written by Dr. Gregor Reid, scientist at Lawson and professor at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, Western University

Just off the main road from Cape Town, South Africa to Simon’s Town, sits Masiphumelele Township where challenges of poverty, malnutrition, HIV and the risk of violence face people every day. 

It is also the location for the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre, a safe haven that provides adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health services alongside educational and recreational activities for youth living in Masiphumelele and surrounding areas. 

To understand some of the dangers that children face, in 2017 about 270,000 people in South Africa were newly infected with HIV, adding to one of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world. The Tutu Youth Centre aims at helping educate youth to reduce their risk of becoming another HIV statistic. 

I was invited there by University of Cape Town Professor Jo-Ann Passmore, a woman not only recognized for her research but whose passion for helping others is reflected in her warm smile (fourth from left in the below group photo). She asked if I would be interested in holding a workshop to illustrate to the youth how using sachets of probiotic bacteria could empower them. I jumped at the chance. On an afternoon break from the Keystone Symposium, thirty researchers joined me along with Jo-Ann and my wife Debbie, a teacher of children with learning disabilities. 

Dr. Gregor Reid with colleagues in South Africa

After a tour of the areas where children learn on computers, play games in safety, or have personal discussions about sexual health, everyone filled the room with a stunning backdrop of the Nobel Laureate’s image. Having been privileged to meet the Archbishop when he was hosted by St. Joseph’s Health Care Foundation in 2008, it was a nerve-tingling experience.   

Giving a lecture on beneficial microbes is hard enough to peers sitting in the back of the room, but to do so with young South Africans was somewhat more daunting. However, it proved to be a lot of fun especially when we had to identify kids who were good leaders (the boys all pointed to a girl), at making stuff and selling it to others (two boys stood out). By the end, we had picked the staff of a new company. 

The next step was for four groups to go and decide on the company’s name, what products they’d make from the probiotic sachets (the options were many from yoghurt to cereals, juices and maize), what marketing tools they would use and who they would target to obtain a respectable income.  

Dr. Gregor Reid presenting

Interestingly, several of the conference participants seemed less engaged, as if they had never considered how microbiology research could affect real lives. In front of them were children facing huge challenges on a day-to-day basis. In one group, the kids were quiet until my wife brought out pens and paper, then they went to town designing products, names and labels. A lesson for me on how different people need different stimuli to become engaged. The faculty left early to beat the traffic back to Cape Town, so unfortunately, they did not hear the outcome of the children’s work. 

Design concept for probiotic maize bottle
When we re-assembled to present the results, I was impressed with what could be created in such a short time. My favourite was the Amazing Maize, a bottle shaped like a corn cob. It emphasized the importance of marketing and for products to taste and look good to be purchased.

It had been over ten years since Archbishop Tutu had applauded us for the Western Heads East project, and thanked us for empowering women and youth and contributing to nutrition in Africa. Since then, thanks to the huge efforts of Western University staff and students, and more recently IDRC funding and partnerships especially with Yoba-for-life, Heifer International and Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, over 260,000 people in east Africa are now consuming probiotic yoghurt every week. The children of the South African townships were maybe too young to join in this new wave of microenterprises, but at least now they have heard about it and the importance of fermented food and beneficial bacteria. 

Dr. Gregor Reid presents to students in South Africa

In the background of the workshop several wonderful women committed to start up a new production unit. I left them some sachets to try out the process. 

But it was me who left with the biggest lesson on how precious each life is, and how those of us with the knowledge need to provide the means for others to use their own talents to fulfill the purpose that their lives surely have. 

No better way than to start with the children. 

Scientist, Lawson Health Research Institute, and Professor, Western University
London, Canada 

Dr. Gregor Reid