Obituary

Dr Basil Kransdorff picDr Basil Kransdorff – Scientist, Entrepreneur, Philanthropist

2 December 1946 – 14 December 2016

Basil Kransdorff was born into an entrepreneurial family in Zimbabwe and, as a child, he worked with his mother to create an arts and crafts business that utilised the talents of local women. He qualified as an industrial chemist and worked in that field until his wife, Rose, came home one day with a request.

Rose, who had been an anti-apartheid activist during the struggle, and had suffered 111 days of detention, was helping an AIDS support project in Johannesburg. The AIDS pandemic was just hitting South Africa. There were no drugs available, and the only advice for patients was to go home and eat a healthy, balanced diet. It was advice that few poor South Africans could afford, so the project became involved in distributing food parcels. Rose asked Basil to support this work as part of his corporate social responsibility. He was keen to help, but he questioned the nutritional value of much of what went into such food parcels. They usually contained staple foods, like refined white maize meal, white sugar, cooking oil and maybe some beans, but it was precisely these depleted foods that were causing malnutrition in the first place.

Basil was keen to ensure that his contribution had nutrient value, so he began some research. What he was to unearth shocked him. With the enquiring mind of a scientist, he started asking questions. He soon realised that the doctors he spoke to knew almost nothing about nutrition. From his reading, he learned about our compromised food chain, resulting from soil depletion and the machinations of the food industry. He was to discover the well-meaning, but futile efforts of international agencies to fortify food and tackle famine relief. Worse still, he searched for a product that made nutritional sense and could correct malnutrition. Surprisingly, no one was manufacturing such a product.

It did not seem to him to be rocket science. One could start with the staple food, maize, and add a more nutritious staple, like soy. If one was then to ensure that the grain was unrefined, so as not to remove any nutrients, and pre-cooked, because cooking destroys nutrients, this would be a good start. If one then added into a small meal portion the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of all the essential micronutrients in a form that was likely to have some bioavailability, then malnutrition would be in retreat. And so it was that Econocom Foods and its first product, e’Pap, were born. The ‘Pap’ part was chosen because that is what the maize porridge staple is called in South Africa.

Basil was to learn that one reason for refining grain was to prolong its shelf life. The cereal fat may contain important micronutrients and omega oils, but it can cause clumping of the flour, which tends to become rancid. Special packaging was needed to address this. As to the added nutrients, Basil had discovered what had been taught in biochemistry classes in the 1960s, that phytic acid, found in grain, combines with important minerals such as iron, zinc and, to a lesser extent, calcium and magnesium, to form insoluble phytates, which cannot be absorbed. This process contributes to the mineral deficiencies in people whose diets rely on these foods. Phytic acid also chelates vitamin B3, the deficiency of which is known as pellagra. For these reasons, phytic acid is known as an antinutrient. It makes it futile to attempt the mineral fortification of maize flour with inorganic minerals.

To circumvent this difficulty, Basil obtained his minerals from Albion in the US. Since their establishment in 1956, Albion has become the world leader and innovator in the manufacture of amino acid chelates. These are better than other types of minerals because they are designed for better absorption. In order to be absorbed, minerals from foods or supplements have to be combined with a carrier molecule. When this molecule is an amino acid – a protein building block – the mineral/amino acid compound forms a stable molecule, which does not combine with phytic acid. And because the body is efficient at absorbing amino acids, chelated minerals are more easily transported across the intestinal wall than non-chelated minerals.

Less easy to solve was the problem of the added vitamins. Basil sourced these as isolates, fully aware that their stability was poor and their bioefficacy was low, but he felt he had no other choice. The one big advantage of e’Pap in this connection was that, being whole grain, Basil had not started out with seriously vitamin-depleted cereals. Once he learned of the superiority of food state nutrients, he was excited about exploring this possibility.

Basil was not a medical doctor and he was not a nutritionist, but he took the trouble to learn nearly everything there was to know about nutrition. More than this, he meticulously designed a product to deal with what is now known as Hidden Hunger and to make those who consume it nutrient replete. And he was still keen to learn and to improve the product if he could.

DSM Nutritional Products is one of the world’s leading suppliers of vitamins, carotenoids and other ingredients to the feed, food, pharmaceutical and personal care industries. The business has sales of more than €3 billion and a long tradition of innovation that benefits people, planet and profit. DSM produces isolate nutrients and works closely with the Micronutrient Initiative, the Amsterdam Initiative against Malnutrition and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) to eliminate vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the world´s most vulnerable populations. You might think that these enormously powerful international agencies might be interested in hearing about e’Pap. But you would be wrong.

To address micronutrient deficiencies, especially in the most vulnerable, on GAIN’s advice, South Africa began a food fortification programme in 2004, adding iron, zinc, vitamin A, B vitamins and folic acid to all maize and wheat flour. But five years later, the project was judged a resounding failure. Apart from a modest improvement in folic acid status, the prevalence of vitamin A, zinc and iron deficiencies in children had all increased.

Fortifying or supplementing a defective diet with micronutrients in the form of chemical isolates is now commonplace, despite a plethora of scientific evidence that they are poorly absorbed, rarely act in the body in the way intended and, in some cases, may even be toxic. So, what is GAIN now recommending? More of the same. It beggars belief and forces one to ask, ‘Whose interests are they serving?’

Despite this antipathy, Basil achieved success. His conviction, passion and dogged determination to be of use to those less fortunate ensured this. He did not hesitate to speak out against vested interest or muddled thinking and, in the process, he made a few enemies. Despite this, an ever-increasing number of companies, aid organisations and communities are using e’Pap, which is now sold in eleven African countries, and it is the experience of those on the ground that e’Pap is transforming lives.

In 2011, Basil was awarded an Ashoka Fellowship for his entrepreneurial leadership and for the production and promotion of e’Pap. ‘In his work, Basil is addressing the critical problem of Hidden Hunger in Africa. He is changing the approach to food production and consumption, and challenging society’s current understanding of the importance of nutrient form in relation to bioavailability and bioefficacy. Calories alone don’t fight malnutrition; understanding and providing the correct combination of micronutrients, in the correct form, does. Basil’s objective is to create ‘nutrient-replete’ and ‘physiologically functional’ people, something that most nutrition and feeding programmes still fall short of achieving.’

In 2014, Basil was awarded an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, the University of KwaZulu-Natal. ‘Industrial chemist, social entrepreneur and CEO of Econocom Foods, Basil Kransdorff, is the co-inventor (with his wife, Rose Grealy Kransdorff) of an innovative and low-cost nutritional product – e’Pap – aimed at redressing micronutrient deficiencies in marginalised and poorer populations’.

In 2015, he was awarded the Rotary Foundation’s Paul Harris Fellowship.

Basil died suddenly, at the age of 70, on 14 December 2016. He leaves his wife and business partner, Rose, and a 15-year-old son, Daniel. He will be sorely missed by many. His favourite quotation came from Ayn Rand: ‘The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody had decided not to see’.

Dr Geoffrey Douglas – CEO, Health Empowerment Through Nutrition

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