Each year, over 3,5-million children under the age of five die of malnutrition, which affects one out of every three people on earth.
“We face a social crisis, a catastrophe. It’s an indictment on us that the numbers of hungry are rising by the billion, that children are dying by the minute. This is an ethical issue and a human rights issue,” said Jay Naidoo, former coordinator of the Reconstruction and Development Programme and now chairperson of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain).
Naidoo was speaking at the Gain Africa Regional Forum, held in Johannesburg this week, where nutritionists and policy makers from across the continent gathered to discuss strategies to fight malnutrition. “There has been great discussion and enormous buzz but now we need to translate that into action,” he said.
One of the simplest ways to improve nutrition is to fortify staple foods like wheat or maize with a “nutrient premix” that includes nutrients such as vitamin A, zinc or folic acid.
The South African government launched a national food fortification programme in 2003. Today over 90% of wheat flour and 70% of maize is fortified. But malnutrition is still rife, with one in five South African children stunted and one in ten underweight. Without adequate nutrition in the early stages of development, children can suffer physical stunting and damage to their intellect.
Bruce Cogill, Gain manager of nutrition and infections diseases, said governments must reposition nutrition as a fundamental right of children. “They need good nutrition to reach their potential and society is going to benefit from that,” said Cogill.
Larry Umunna, CEO of LHD Africa Group and a former Gain regional director who chaired one of the discussion groups at the forum, said the public and private sectors should work together to overcome malnutrition. “Government should provide an enabling environment for policy formulation, monitoring and enforcement [of food fortification]. The private sector also has to develop the food products.”
Umunna said governments should incentivise fortification for millers and those who work in food production by, for example, making sure the importing of resources such as equipment and nutrient premixes required for fortification is duty free.
Graça Machel, the wife of former president Nelson Mandela, in her closing address said delegates had reached a “consensus that nutrition has to be placed at a very high level of priorities of any nation” and called for regional strategies to end malnutrition.