Gregor Reid is Professor of Microbiology, Immunology and Surgery at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario (Canada), as well as the Director of the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics, and Assistant Director of the Lawson Health Research Institute.


What’s your background in the field of microbiota and probiotics?


I have published over 300 papers on the topic since 1983, mainly on Lactobacillus applications. We started working on the microbiota long before it was called ‘microbiota’ or ‘microbiome’, and have used techniques from culture to molecular. My colleague and I developed the world’s first probiotic for women’s health, which is now available in over 30 countries. One of the strains was used in yogurt studies.


Can you tell us about your project on natural food sources of probiotics in Africa?


I have long felt that humanity needs to share its worth, and even if governments are corrupt or poor, does not mean we ignore those who are suffering from malnutrition, poverty and disease. My father was born in South Africa, so I feel some affiliation with the continent, and have been fortunate to have found amazing people to take the project idea to reality. Our breakthrough came thanks to our partners at Yoba for Life, who created a two-strain, one-gram sachet that makes 100 litres of probiotic yogurt. Now, we have the potential to reach millions of people, through simply giving others the tool[s] to make the yogurt.


For the IDRC-funded project, the aim is to provide one million people in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya with access to probiotic yogurt through kitchens and dairy cooperatives. This will help farmers as well as societal wellness. African partners, mainly JKUAT and Heifer International, will reach the communities and teach people how to make the yogurt and market it.


Why is the project innovative?


It is innovative as it is the first in the world to reach extremely poor people, in a manner that empowers them to produce it. In Argentina, a probiotic yogurt is donated to poor communities, while in a few other financially challenged countries, forms of non-probiotic yogurt are made in ‘westernized’ mini factories and sold for low price.


In Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, your team created community kitchens and mini dairy production plants. What was the impact of these on Africans’ lifestyle and health? 


We intend to measure the impact and the effectiveness of the model, but the probiotic strains we are using (Yoba, which is a generic version of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG the world’s most clinically documented probiotic, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1, the second most documented and the first on African populations) have already been shown to improve health. Yoba for Life has shown the positive impact on economy. As for life expectancy, we have not measured this and do not make such claims, but in general fermented foods with good nutrition are more likely to help a person live longer.


In general, we expect improved gut health, including lower rates of diarrhea, increased energy in otherwise malnourished adults and children, and enhanced immunity.


What long-term benefits do you expect from the grassroots system of yogurt production in these African populations?


While we know how big a challenge this will be, in my view, by giving people the tools and helping them understand the message, they will drive the success and long term outcomes. The other model whereby a big multi-national company makes products, will always be driven by profit for the company and shareholders, and will always result in higher prices. The social business model in poor populations is much more likely to succeed. The profits per kitchen will not be large enough to attract criminal interest, we would hope, but sufficient for subsistence and better quality of life for the producers and farmers.


Where do you think probiotics are going in the next decade?


I would like to see the concept go global, for example as part of a UNICEF or UN or WHO program, and include different forms of foods fermented by these and other bacteria. We would hope that African scientists can come up with their own probiotic strains that confer other benefits, and so expand the reach. Humans have forever been associated with these microbes, so we are acting as a reminder of what makes us healthy, and how we should not forget our roots. In the end, the possibilities are endless, and the potential of humankind to make it happen is here and now.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.