Venkatesh Mannar works to bring essential micronutrients through salt to the people of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa

Back in the 1900s, Venkatesh Mannar’s great grandfather who was in the business of salt production in Tuticorin wrote to the government seeking permission to expand the family’s salt business. “We still have the letter we received as response; it says, it is not our policy to allow native Indians to produce salt,” Mannar begins, tracing his roots in the salt industry. From being denied permission to produce salt in their own country to taking iodine and iron enhanced salt and other essential micronutrients to South Asian and Sub-Saharan African countries, and being made an Officer of the Order of Canada, it has indeed been an interesting journey for the Mannars.

In Chennai to soak in the margazhi music and dance festival with his wife and sons, Venkatesh who is the president of The Micronutrient Initiative based out of Canada, says, “Our family has been associated with the salt trade for over six generations. I went to the U.S. and learned more about the business formally and returned to join my father.” Venkatesh’s father too was interested in projects that sought to use salt to combat deficiencies. “In the early 1970s my father helped the USAID explore iodine enhanced salt.” It was around this period that studies revealed that iodine deficiency not only caused goitre but also affected mental development. “It is now established that there can be a loss of 10-15 IQ points if during the critical 1000 days (from conception to the second year of the baby) the right kind of nutrients are not given. This cannot be corrected at any point later in life,” he adds. It is the realisation of this critical need that led to Venkatesh working with the UNICEF in taking this micronutrient project to shores beyond the subcontinent.

“Coincidentally, around the same time, I was also invited to head The Micronutrient Initiative in Canada and over the last 20 years I have been involved in working with governments where there is an immediate need for our work,” he adds. It is in recognition of this work that the Canadian government has honoured him with the second highest honour for merit. But Venkatesh isn’t one to rest on laurels. Having taken iodised salt to the masses, he now focuses on iron deficiencies that lead to anaemia in several women, and consequently deaths during childbirth and zinc deficiencies that lead to the death of children due to diarrhoea.

“We work with governments and guide them on ways they can offer these micronutrients to a large number of the population,” Venkatesh says. “We are not a charity. However, we work on capacity building and seek to give local talent tools to work more efficiently,” he explains and adds, “While there is still a long way to go, we do see, in states such as Bihar and Gujarat, willingness to work towards progress.” There is also resistance from certain sections of the scientific community in the country to any kind of enhanced food. “They think these are all Western concepts , and sometimes these setbacks do affect our work,” he rues. There is a lot to learn from countries such as Brazil where leadership has ensured a reduction in malnutrition by a whopping 70-80 per cent, Venkatesh explains.

Even though he is based out of Canada, almost all his work is in India and other countries. “I have been given the freedom to choose where I want to spend the funds and my focus is currently on South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and wherever the need is greater,” Venkatesh adds before signing off.