Mongolian Enterprises Target Healthy Urban Lifestyles

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

In the Northeast Asian nation of Mongolia – landlocked between Russia and China – the traditional diet is based on the nomadic ways of its herders. Rich in meat and milk products, it is a diet that has evolved from the need to survive in a harsh climate doing hard physical labour – winter temperatures can drop below minus 50 degrees Celsius.

Social changes brought about by Mongolia’s economic journey since embracing free markets and democracy in the early 1990s have led to a growing urban population. The capital, Ulaanbaatar, has seen its population balloon for a variety of reasons – from collapsing rural economies to environmental disasters to the need to find work and opportunities – and is estimated to be over a million, out of a national population of just 2.6 million (World Bank).

Mongolia is experiencing serious food security problems due to factors including economic inflation and weather-related disasters, and is also confronting problems common to many countries in the age of globalization. According to the World Diabetes Foundation, 10 percent of the population is at risk of the disease, which it calls a lurking catastrophe.

As the paper “Lessons from a small country about the global obesity crisis” by Kelly D. Brownell and Derek Yach notes: “Globalization changes many features of modern life, including diets. As trade changes, diets can become more secure (hunger becomes less of a problem), but the cheapening of calories, the reliance on imported food, and the influence of food marketing drive up consumption and drive down nutrient density. Obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases are not far behind.”

In response to these problems, increasing awareness of healthy lifestyles has led to some new business ventures in Ulaanbaatar. This past summer, saw the opening of an organic vegetarian restaurant and shop: the Organic Café Shop, reports Green Traveler Guides.

Started by business partner-sisters  Bayarmaa Jarantai and Enkhmaa Jarantai with nephew Lkhagvasuren, the modest four-table restaurant and shop is a mini-revolution for a country as meat-loving as Mongolia. It serves up organic vegetarian meals and sells certified organic products. The spark of inspiration came when Bayarmaa read three books on the macrobiotic diet translated into Mongolian. The macrobiotic diet (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macrobiotic_diet) avoids highly processed foods and uses grains, beans and vegetables as its staples.

The cafe’s menu includes: vegetable salads (shredded cabbage, bell peppers, carrots and seasoning), stir-fried vegetables with tofu and asparagus soup, 10-grain soup, eggplant, and Mongolian vegetarian fried vegetables. Prices range between 2,500 Mongolian tugrug and 4,500 tugrug (US $1.75 and US $3.00).

The vegetables are sourced locally from Mongolian farmers and gardeners and are chemical-free. While not officially certified as organic, they are effectively that.

The shop sells certified organic products from China. The products include rice, grains, sugars and jams. (Made-in-Mongolia organic produce is a business opportunity waiting to happen: so far there are no certified organic packaged-product producers in the country).

The sisters import the products from Lohao City (http://www.lohaocity.com/eshow.asp) organic food market in Beijing, China.

But despite the Organic Café Shop’s good intentions, it is not immune to the country’s food security issues: Bayarmaa admits to being puzzled about how she will be able to continue to source the fresh vegetables she needs during the harsh winter months. Ulaanbaatar is the coldest national capital in the world and fresh produce has to be imported at considerable expense.

Another enterprise promoting healthy living in Ulaanbaatar is the Ananda Café and Meditation Centre (http://www.anandacenter.org/), a vegetarian restaurant and yoga (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga) centre. Yoga is the traditional physical and mental discipline from ancient India used to keep physically fit. It is a form of exercise that appeals to a wide age range and can be done pretty well anywhere.

The Ananda Centre offers courses in yoga and meditation, vegetarian cooking classes and nature retreats.

Resources

  • Global Food Security Crisis: A joint UN website with frequent updates on the global food crisis and how to respond. Website: http://www.un-foodsecurity.org/
  • Ananda Yoga Centre: Part of the increasing awareness of the importance of a healthy lifestyle, this yoga and meditation centre is located in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Website: http://www.yogamongolia.org/

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