“Malnourished children do not feed their brains or bodies, and “stunted children today leads to stunted economies tomorrow”.
With the above statement, Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank highlighted the ways in which the African Development Bank (ADB) have addressed Africa’s nutrition challenge in an event in Washington in 2016. Only last year, he affirmed that he will not rest until Africa is fed.
Just like Akinwumi Adesina, across the globe World leaders, Non-Governmental organisations, dignitaries, celebrities and other personalities continue to bring attention to the burden of malnutrition. The burden of under-nutrition still persists in most parts across the African region, and today its impacts are being felt alongside overweight, obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases in many poor households.
Nutrition is often regarded by experts as one of the best drivers of development. It sparks a virtuous cycle of socio-economic improvements, such as increasing access to education and employment. Globally, one in nine people in the world today (815 million) are undernourished.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (UNFAO) estimates that about 795 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world are under-nourished. That is, one in nine is suffering from chronic undernourishment. Of these, 780million live in developing countries. Unfortunately, it is often the children who suffer the most in countries where hunger is an everyday fact of life.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Africa revealed in a report that under-nutrition is still persistent in the African region and the number of stunted children has increased. According to the report, countries like Haiti, Zambia and the Central African Republic have the highest rates of undernourishment in the world.
In the case of Nigeria, an estimated 2.5 million children under the age of five suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) every year according to UNICEF. This is an extremely dangerous condition that makes children nine times more likely to die from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria, the report states. It is widely reported that every year, nearly 420,000 children under- five die as a result of this deadly combination in Nigeria. Although the problem is more widespread in northern Nigeria, there are malnourished children in every Nigerian state.
As at August 2017, more than 1.7 million people are said to have been internally displaced as a result of armed conflicts in the north-eastern Nigeria. Conflicts, migration, climate change, drought and high food prices have contributed to high levels of food insecurity and chronic malnutrition in the country.
Alarmed by the growing threat of malnutrition, stakeholders have urged Government to take the bull by horn. One of the ways that have been identified to tackle malnutrition is strong political will. Meanwhile, Nigeria has moved closer to ending the chronic issues of malnutrition especially in children with the launch of the Strengthening African Processors of Fortified Foods project. The $10m four-year project is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and is designed to support local food processors produce more fortified foods to combat malnutrition. However, more needs to be done.
Making malnutrition a political priority has reaped dividends, experts say. Senegal and Ghana are seen by many as examples of what African countries can achieve with impetus from the state. In the case of the former, stunting rates in the West African country dropped by one-third between 2011 and 2015 after the prime minister’s office set up a co-ordinating body tasked with reducing malnutrition. Nigeria cannot be left behind.
Indeed, courageous and passionate individuals and corporate organisations have been working to end the scourge of malnutrition for decades in Nigeria. It would be recalled that in the middle of 2017, Aliko Dangote Foundation pledged to expend $100 million (about N36 billion) to reduce the prevalence of under nutrition by 60 percent in the worst affected parts of Nigeria. Other prominent Nigerians, organisations, non-governmental agencies and other partners should take a leaf from the Dangote foundation and forge partnership with Government to reduce the prevalence of malnutrition in the country.
Furthermore, armed conflicts in the north-eastern Nigeria have contributed to a large number of internally displaced people. Invariably, there are reported cases of lack of access to health facilities and chronic malnutrition in the region. Experts have stressed that food security exists when people at all times have physical, social and economic access to adequate and nutritious food so they can live healthy and productive lives. When individuals and families have access to food and are educated about nutrition, they can be self-sufficient and resilient to future crises.
In order to forge a common goal countries like Nigeria must become self-sufficient. This demands not just political promises, but also strong nutrition strategies backed by sustained, long-term investments, in order for every child to have the best start to life.
It is imperative to state that while Government must continue to invest in health and nutrition initiatives, experts have urged that developing countries like Nigeria must develop a Nutrition Accountability Score Card to track progress of efforts to combat malnutrition.