BANGUI — Freddy maneuvers his 4x4 with a steady hand, skillfully slaloming between bumps and potholes. Normally, at this time of day, he'd be in his restaurant, the Relais de Chasse (hunting lodge), a popular eatery he runs with an iron grip here in the capital of the Central African Republic. Instead, the aging French expat is on the road to a cooperative hidden in the middle of luxuriant tropical vegetation, where the miracle product he's been talking to us about for the past several days is made.
The product is called spirulina, a freshwater microalgae that has almost unrivaled nutritional properties — proteins, vitamins, beta-carotene, trace elements, it's all there — and can be used therefore as a dietary supplement. It is well-known among naturopaths, who say it can boost sick people's immunity, improve athletic performance, even help students concentrate better. Most importantly, spirulina can get a child suffering from dietary deficiencies on his or her feet in just a matter of weeks.
Spirulina costs a fortune in France, more than 150 euros per kilogram. But in the Central African Republic, it sells for about a fifth of the price, which is why it is a serious, natural and affordable alternative to the famous "Plumpy'Nut," a French-made sugar and peanut paste that is widely used to fight child rickets in developing countries.
A spoonful a day
The road passes through a huge wild cemetery, surrounded by nature, on the outskirts of Bangui. There are graves as far as the eye can see, some of them freshly dug. They reach right up to the base of a large rusty sign that reads, "Burying bodies here is strictly forbidden."
Many of the graves contain children or young adults who died from AIDS or were victims of the terrible civil war that recently devastated the country. There are also a handful of expats buried here, people that Freddy knew. "This is where my friends are waiting for me," he says, slowing down. He is quiet for a moment, but quickly lights up again. "They might actually wait a long time for me, you know, because I won't stay in Central Africa forever."
Freddy comes from Brittany, in France, but has spent almost half his life in Africa. He regularly swears he will leave Bangui and retire to his home in Kerfeunteun, in the Finistère department. But at 72, the restaurant owner is still here, year after year, shaking customers' hands, all the while single-handedly dealing with his small spirulina factory and a child nutrition center, where his "magic potion" is quite literally saving lives.
On his table, Freddy has spirulina in all its forms: powder, flakes, jars. His enthusiasm for the product seems to know no bounds. Freddy himself swallows a large coffee spoon of it every morning, and welcomes his guests to do the same. It's the secret, he says, to his own good health.
Bangui's spirulina culture bassins — Photo: Nutrition Santé Bangui)
A life of adventure
Freddy and his restaurant, with its clientele of French expats, European soldiers and local ministers, are well known in Bangui. For passing journalists who stay in his guesthouse, or UN officials living there long term, the Relais de Chasse is a hub of information. Good tips and secrets are exchanged around the large central table, where Freddy doesn't hesitate to open a few bottles to loosen up conversations before offering his specialty as a dessert: a spirulina sorbet. Of course.
The big-mouthed, big-hearted owner is like a caricature of an adventurer. And he seems to know everything about the troubled history of the Central African Republic, which isn't surprising given all he's seen and lived through.
Freddy's journey started with two trips around the world on the Jeanne D'Arc, a school cruiser, in 1961. André Lemonnier, his civil name, discovered his taste for adventure there. After a career in the coast guard police, he joined the French embassy in Bangui as quartermaster, in 1978. It was the great era of Bokassa, diamonds and the large hunting expeditions with President Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Freddy still laughs about it.
A year later, he got angry with the ambassador, walked out, worked for a time in a coffee plantation and returned to Europe through the Sahara desert with a friend, stopping in villages along the way to teach the children basic knowledge … of judo!
Once he was back in France, he soon got bored. And so he returned to the Central African Republic, where he fulfilled his dream of opening a restaurant. Over the course of 30 years, corruption, coups and war interfered with business, forcing him several times to close shop and start over again. Eventually he opened Relais de Chasse, which he protected with arms when anti-Balaka Christian militias and armed ex-Seleka Muslim groups spread terror in Bangui.
Freddy at a local golf competition in 2010 — Photo: Bangui Golf Club
Fixing the formula
His fascination for spirulina began in 1991, when he met Dr. Jean Dupire, a general practitioner working for a local clinic. Dupire had just gotten hold of two large barrels of spirulina that were supposed to go to Zaire, which was at war, but ended up by accident in Bangui. Locals didn't know what to do with the barrels. But for the doctor, a nutrition specialist, they were a priceless treasure. He knew all about the virtues of this algae filled with proteins that also has most of the essential nutrients and lacks only Omega-3 to be complete.
Spirulina isn't a new discovery. The Aztecs are known to have consumed it. It has also been used in Chad by the Kanembu people, whose relatively good health, compared to that of neighboring ethnic groups, caught the attention of researchers.
Nowadays, a growing number of small NGOs are using spirulina as well to fight malnutrition in places like India, Madagascar and Niger. Why not in the Central African Republic, where malnutrition affects almost one in three children? The conditions are ideal, according to Dupire. "Spirulina needs temperatures between 25° and 35°C. It develops admirably in Africa. It can easily be produced locally," he says.
Now back in Paris, Dupire is still a relentless advocate of this algae. "It has as much protein as meat but without all the requirements of a herd of steer," he says. The spirulina strains can reproduce naturally in a simple, regularly stirred and filtered freshwater basin. The next step is drying the spirulina and reducing it to flakes to consume it. Production costs are low.
To treat the unfed children and compensate for the lack of Omega-3, the doctor developed a "spirulina-fish" formula. With the help of a Japanese NGO, he founded the Nutrition Santé Bangui center, in a rural area of the capital. There, the children receive 5 grams of spirulina per day, mixed with two spoons of crushed sardines. "I would have liked to develop a fish farm so the center could be completely self-sufficient, but in this context it was too complicated," he explains. So it had to be canned sardines.
"We treat them all"
The results have been nothing short of spectacular. "In one month, a child suffering from severe malnutrition is back on his feet," says Dupine, who plans to expand the model by training doctors and producers.
But the project has also been beset by problems, especially with civil wars, which caused subsidies to run dry. Apart from a few thousand euros donated by a travel agency, funds are nonexistent. Production also took a hit when a shell destroyed the pylon that supplied the cooperative with electricity. With no power, it became impossible to dry the spirulina.
Even with all of his contacts, Freddy hasn't been able to restore the electricity. And so every day, they have to carry the kilos of wet spirulina into town, on foot, to dry it. Jérôme Saragba, the former head of the cooperative, takes care of this. Struck by a bullet in the neck during the clashes, this man is incredibly lucky. Every day, he walks 10 kilometers so children can receive their daily dose.
A few kilometers away, the nutrition center welcomes about 50 children each morning. All are examined, weighed, measured. It took hours for many to get here. Half of them suffer from malnutrition, ranging from moderate to severe. "We are only supposed to accept moderate cases, but as there isn't really any alternative, we treat them all," Dr. Félicienne Omabo explains. For many of them, rickets is combined with other illnesses too.
UNICEF does provide a few drugs, antibiotics and antimalarials. But that's it. Impressively, the children swallow every last drop of their potion. Last year, the center treated 395 children. It's both a lot and very little.