Dutch microbiologists develop affordable ‘generic’ probiotic bacterium

Probiotic yoghurt for a healthier Uganda

 

All kinds of probiotic beverages – like Yakult, Vifit and Activia – are available and popular in the western world, even though the supposed health benefits of these products have been questioned. While studies do confirm positive effects of probiotics on people with a weakened immune system or an unbalanced diet, for example by preventing diarrhea, these products weren’t available in Africa. Dutch microbiologists Remco Kort and Wilbert Sybesma decided to change this situation by introducing probiotic yogurt in this continent.

Text: Andrea Dijkstra

Photography: Jeroen van Loon


First ‘generic’ probiotic bacterium in the world


To reach a broad audience, they realized it was imperative to develop an affordable, but effective, product. ‘The high prices in the west are mainly due to research costs and because the probiotic drinks are patented’, says Sybesma. Inspired by the idea of generic drugs the microbiologists started developing the first ‘generic’ probiotic bacterium in the world. They bought several probiotic products in the supermarket, isolated a bacterium of which in 2006 the patent was expired, cloned it, checked whether the DNA matched and named it Lactobacillus Yoba (‘yo’ referring to yogurt, ‘ba’ to bacteria).


Bacteria powder


In a small yoghurt factory near Lake Victoria Ugandans have been producing the probiotic Yoba yoghurt since one year, creating 60 liters of yoghurt out of one liquid Yoba starter. The healthy dairy product has been handed out weekly on a local primary school and will also be sold in small shops soon. In the meantime the duo is working on a solution that has better preservability by freeze-drying the bacteria into a powder. 'If you add this bacteria powder to milk and heat it up to 37 degrees Celsius, the bacteria will revive. That’s how we make Yoba yoghurt’, Kort says with a smile on his face. The powder lasts for one year and will be packaged in easy to handle sachets, as used for sugar.

      


Yoba-mama’s


The freeze-dried bacteria will not only be distributed to factories but also to women running small shops. ‘To make the yoghurt you only need the powder, a cow and a fire’, laughs Kort. These so-called ‘Yoba-mama’s’ can produce the yoghurt all by themselves and sell it within their own community. So the Yoba for Life foundation not only aims to provide healthy yoghurt, it also offers new business opportunities for local communities.


Mutandabota in Zimbabwe


To financially support the project, the foundation is planning to sell Yoba yoghurt in Dutch supermarkets later this year as well. Out of the price for every sold bottle a considerable portion will go to the project in Africa. In the meantime a fellow professor of the Dutch Wageningen University tests the possibility to add the Yoba-bacteria to mutandabota in Zimbabwe, a traditional dairy product enriched with sugar and the pulp of the fruit of the baobab tree. He investigates if the dairy product can be fermented with the Yoba bacteria to increase the nutritional value. ‘The Yoba bacteria can be used in any fermented dairy product’, Sybesma explains. ‘That’s how we are planning to spread Yoba all over the continent.’

 

 

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