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August 20, 2010

Brescia professor and students celebrate a new women-run business in Kenya that distributes healthy probiotic yoghurt

Hekmat in Tanzania

Dr. Sharareh Hekmat, associate professor in the Division of Food and Nutritional Sciences at Brescia, is shown here with one of the women running a probiotic yoghurt production and distribution site in Tanzania.

London, ON – Dr. Sharareh Hekmat, associate professor in the Division of Food and Nutritional Sciences at Brescia University College and one of the original members of the Western Heads East (WHE) steering committee, is excited about the opening of the most recent African site where women are empowered to produce and sell probiotic yoghurt.

The yogurt developed by Hekmat, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Western Ontario (Western) and the Canadian Centre for Probiotic Research at the Lawson Health Institute in London, contains micro-organisms effective in treating and preventing urogenital infections in women and in improving the nutritional status of people living with HIV/AIDS.

The Kenya site, which is now in full production, is the second started by the WHE team in Africa to produce and distribute the probiotic yoghurt. Hekmat’s recipe has been introduced to African women via the “yogurt mamas” project, and she has trained more than 25 interns (from Brescia and Western) who have helped to create a sustainable mini-dairy plant in Mwanza, Tanzania.

“The women in Tanzania feel empowered and have taken ownership of this project. They are producing the yoghurt, distributing it, and community members are either purchasing the yoghurt or receiving it free of charge,” Hekmat said. One of the women living with HIV, who also receives the yogurt each day, spoke about the health benefits she has realized and how she feels healthier after taking the probiotic yogurt. Currently, a Brescia student is in Tanzania working on quality control of the yogurt.

Hekmat expects the women involved in the Kenyan project will enjoy a similar sense of empowerment. Last November, Hekmat met with Baraka Women’s Group (BWG), which is staffing the new Kenyan kitchen. The group was enthusiastic about finally getting the probiotic yogurt kitchen started after two years. Hekmat is pleased to know that a product that was developed at Brescia is being used to empower women’s groups and build capacity in communities in Africa while helping to alleviate pain and suffering in those communities.

Hekmat has been working on the development of probiotic dairy products for more than 20 years. She continues to modify the probiotic yogurt recipe at Brescia to enhance its nutritional status and adjust its sensory characteristics to the needs of various communities as the project is being expanded to other African countries. “We are working on incorporating local ingredients in the yoghurt that may have functional properties. Specifically, we are looking at using Moringa – a herb in Tanzania.”

In the future, Hekmat and the team look forward to setting up probiotic yoghurt production and distribution sites in other countries. “Our hope is to expand the project to other African countries, like Zimbabwe and Rwanda, and in India. Funding and human resources are required to expand the project.”

Hekmat and the WHE team are also working with health and academic officials in Rwanda to expand the partnership, which may include student exchange programs and academic credits for WHE interns staying in Rwanda to work on the probiotic yoghurt project.

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Brescia University College, Canada’s premier women’s university college, is affiliated with The University of Western Ontario. The 1,100 women registered as either full or part-time students at Brescia study a wide variety of subjects in Arts, Social Sciences, and Foods & Nutrition in an empowering, compassionate, student-centred, and invigorating environment. Degrees are granted by Western. The Catholic College welcomes students from all backgrounds and values diversity.

For more information, please contact:

Dr. Shari Hekmat
Associate Professor in the Division of Food and Nutritional Sciences
Phone: 519.432.8353, ext. 28227