South Asia

'Wai-Wai' Group Wants Junk Food in Name of Nutrition, Gates Foundation Says No

The Chaudhary Group makes Wai-Wai noodles and says a fortified version of its product will be supplied to the Baliyo Nepal nutrition initiative that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is paying for.

In August 2019, The Kathmandu Post quoted Nirvana Chaudhary, managing director of the Chaudhary Group – makers of Wai-Wai noodles and one Nepal’s largest conglomerates – saying that his company “has teamed up with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a project called Baliyo Nepal.”

Though the Chaudhary Group has built its fortune on what most nutritionists regard as  junk food, the Baliyo Nepal project would “fight against malnutrition and all associated health problems” by the fortification of popular food products. “The idea is that rather than giving them supplements, why not make the existing products that they’re consuming rise to that level,” Chaudhary said.

“The project will be formally announced in September, and launched in an undisclosed province, with fortified CG food products, and would be rolled out countrywide next year,” Kathmandu Post reported. “We will definitely start with noodles, and then move to juice in the later stages,” Nirvana Chaudhary was quoted as saying.

Since the Chaudhary Group has no noodle products other than various brands of Wai Wai instant noodles, it almost seemed as if the Baliyo Nepal project was created for the fortification of junk food by Nepal’s largest junk food producer.

While it is absurd to fortify junk food in the name of better nutrition, the Gates-Chaudhary partnership is problematic even beyond the perspective of health.

The Gates Foundation’s website shows funds to “launch, develop and scale Baliyo Nepal” were granted to the Chaudhary Foundation in October 2018. However, Nirvana Chaudhary’s assertions suggest that the Gates’ money granted to the Chaudhary Foundation – certainly a portion of it, at any rate, if not the entire sum – would actually end up in the hands of the Chaudhary Group itself for the ‘fortified’ noodles it would provide.

Baliyo Nepal was formally launched on November 1. On the day, Swarnim Wagle, who chairs Baliyo Nepal’s board, was quoted in Republicca as saying, “We will work only with products with high nutritional standards, those that meet Australia’s Health Star Rating >3 and it excludes noodles and all junk food.”

While Wagle’s words were reassuring for nutritionists, the fact is that Baliyo Nepal is a project of the Chaudhary Group and the Gates Foundation, and the latter’s funds – amounting to US$ 788,192 – were granted to the Chaudhary Foundation and not to Baliyo Nepal directly. Therefore, the claim that Baliyo Nepal is no longer going to fortify junk food should ideally be made by the Chaudhary Foundation.

What the Gates Foundation website says about the Baliyo Nepal grant for $788,192.

Social Welfare Council’s approval?

Last week, the Himal Khabarpatrika’s  reporter Gopal Gartaula raised the issue of how the Gates Foundation’s grant entered Nepal. Under Nepali law, all projects of Nepal-based NGOs that receive funds from foreign donors must be approved by the Social Welfare Council and the funds thus received can only be used for the specific purpose for which they were brought into the country.

The Social Welfare Council’s approval process regulates the activities of NGOs and holds them to account for using the funds in the manner in which they were originally intended and for which they were approved, in much the same as the Ministry of Home Affairs in India regulates the use of foreign donations by NGOs under the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act (FCRA).

The Chaudhary Foundation is familiar with the process of Social Welfare Council (SWC) approval. Gartaula found records at the SWC that the Chaudhary Foundation had received funds worth Nepali Rs. 1 crore 28 lakh (US$ 113,097 by today’s conversion rates) from four different sources: LG Electronics Inc. in Seoul, South Korea, LG Electronics Singapore, Seeds India, and the New Venture Fund of Washington, DC. However, according to the Himal Khabarpatrika article, the SWC does not have records of any proposal made by the Chaudhary Foundation for the “Baliyo Nepal” project with the Gates Foundation as donor.

As an official at the council told Gartaula, “These funds do not seem to have come through the official channels. We will now look into this.”

Under the Social Welfare Act (1992) of Nepal, it is illegal for funding by foreign donors to bypass the Social Welfare Council. Yet, President Bidya Bhandari herself inaugurated Baliyo Nepal on November 1.

Could one explanation for this discrepancy be that Baliyo Nepal has been launched with the Chaudhary Foundation’s own money and that the Gates grant will only come in due course? Perhaps not, since Baliyo Nepal openly claims it is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Either way, the lack of clarity on this question, when taken together with the unresolved matter of whether the philanthropic programme will push a ‘fortified’ version of the Chaudhary Group’s noodles brand, has left a bad taste in the mouths of many in the health and development sectors.

Gates Foundation responds

In a statement, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has clarified that “noodles are not one of the foods being promoted by Baliyo Nepal”.

“Noodles are not one of the foods being promoted by Baliyo Nepal, and we do not expect them, including Wai Wai noodles, to be eligible to become a Baliyo Nepal product. To be eligible, partners must ensure foods meet a high nutritional standard, either by being naturally rich in nutrients or by being fortified. Baliyo Nepal verifies nutritional standards by using the Australian Government’s Health Star Rating system and requires all products to have a 3-star rating or higher,” the foundation said.

“Baliyo Nepal is a new nonprofit organization, initially funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the Chaudhary Foundation, which transitioned Baliyo Nepal into an independent organization governed by a diverse board from Nepali civil society. Baliyo Nepal is collaborating with the food industry to develop more affordable and nutritious food and generating demand through social marketing and behavior change communication. Baliyo Nepal’s first program aims to reduce the risk of nutritional deficiencies among children aged 6 to 23 months by promoting complementary feeding, including partnering with four companies to grow the accessibility, affordability and consumption of eggs and fortified porridge.”

Kathmandu Post stands by story

After Nirvana Chaudhary claimed on Twitter that he was misquoted by The Kathmandu Post, the daily released a statement standing by their story. They said that the reporter had “demonstrated his integrity” in reporting the story, and also published the relevant portion of the full conversation between Chaudhary and the reporter.

Note: The headline of this article has been changed to reflect a clarification from the Gates Foundation. It was also updated on November 7 with The Kathmandu Post‘s response.