Through our subsidiary, Mozambique Leaf Tobacco Limitada (MLT), we have implemented a program called the “Kukula Project” that aims to fight child labor, absenteeism, and underachievement in elementary school through the preparation and distribution of free daily meals at schools. The Kukula Project is the result of the collaboration between MLT and the organization Associação Portuguesa de Apoio a África (APOIAR).

The project was started in mid-2015 and is scheduled to last 36 months. It is being conducted in three schools in a deprived area in the Mandimba district of the Niassa province in Northern Mozambique. The three schools—EP1 Nacalongo, EPC Joho, and EPC Mepapa—were selected based on the following criteria: percentage of students from tobacco-growing families, proximity to a borehole, and number of students in primary school. The program offers two meals per day—breakfast and lunch—to all enrolled students who attend school.

The involvement of district authorities is vital for a project like this, as is the involvement of local communities. Therefore, we began by engaging in regular contact with the district’s Permanent Secretary and the Education and Health Directors. We also met with community leaders where the schools are located and continue to do so throughout the process.

We started implementing the project by conducting surveys on the health and eating habits of all students enrolled in the schools. We worked with local builders to construct a kitchen at each school in 2015. The communities also worked together to construct eating areas for the children at each school. During construction of the kitchens, we met extensively with school committees, local communities and the several District Directorates involved.

Poor health and the presence of certain diseases and parasites can affect a well-balanced diet and compromise or even prevent proper nutrient uptake. Therefore, we helped schedule several health promotion and disease prevention (deworming and vaccination) campaigns in cooperation with the Health District Directorate. These campaigns involved more than 250 children and took place in the first half of September so that those health conditions were addressed when the meals started.

Food hygiene and safety is particularly important in a school feeding project. Therefore, we organized training sessions for both the kitchen staff on food preparation and kitchen cleanliness and for the teachers and students on hand washing. These training sessions took place between July and September and involved the 258 students present. Efforts increased weekly and were successful largely due to a specially-developed training tool—the hand-washing song. Now, all Kukula Schools’ students wash their hands with soap before the meals.

After the first few months, the project was deemed a great success. More than 16,000 meals were served, and in November (the month in which the project was in full operation), an average of 371 children were fed daily.

Each school saw dramatic increases in attendance. The first week, EP1 Nacalongo’s kitchen served 392 meals increasing to 914 by the eleventh week—an increase of 133 percent. In Joho, the kitchen saw the number of meals increase 116 percent in the first three weeks alone—from 643 meals the first week to 1,390 by the third week.

Another benefit of the Kukula Project is its positive impact on the local economy, both in the construction of the kitchens by using local builders, as well as in the purchase of food for the schools, which is bought in local markets and grocery stores.

Moving forward, the main goal of the project is to secure its future sustainability and the potential for it to be replicated. This next year, we will focus on three main issues. First, we hope to increase the involvement of local communities; for example, establishing a schedule for volunteer community mamãs to help with cleaning and dish washing. Second, we hope to increase the participation of District Authorities in the project. Lastly, we plan to promote sustainability through collaborations in the agricultural sector; for example, working together to plant community machambas or vegetable gardens.

We also plan to increase the food portions and gradually introduce new ingredients to the menu in order to promote an increasingly diversified, nourishing, and healthy diet. The goal for the 2016 academic year is to increase the number of meals served from 1,390 meals per week to 1,000 breakfasts and lunches per day among the three schools.

We were thrilled to see that overall attendance at these three schools increased 1,040 percent compared with the same time frame in previous years. Each school saw an increase from about 10 students per day to 114 students per day—an astounding success. This finding was extra significant as it occurred during the last four months of the 2015 academic year, when typically hundreds of children have already abandoned school.

Our hope is that attendance will continue to grow, with fewer children dropping out of school in the future. We are also exploring how to best expand the program to additional schools.