Malnutrition a threat to Kenya's growth

NAIROBI: Today, it is estimated that the world produces enough food to feed 10 billion people against a population of just over 7.4 billion people. Despite this, almost 1 billion people go hungry every day.

Over and above the 1 billion people who go hungry every day, another 1 billion people are undernourished, meaning that they suffer from a deficiency of calories or of one or more essential nutrients they need to live healthy and productive lives. The majority of these people live in the developing world; in countries like Kenya.

Malnutrition manifests in various ways, including the individual being underweight for their age, too short for their age (stunted) and dangerously thin (wasted).

Individuals may also be suffering from hidden hunger-deficient in vitamins and minerals (micronutrient malnutrition).

In Kenya, one out of every four children under five years of age is stunted (too short for their age). Four out of every 100 children under five are wasted (too thin for their height). These are millions of children, whose lives and futures are at stake.
Hunger and under-nutrition have been shown to have negative effects on the lives of individuals, over and above the physical effects.

New-borns who access proper nutrition have better chances of survival. Severely malnourished infants are eight times more likely to die than those who are well-nourished.

Studies indicate malnourished children suffer irreversible damage, grow up smaller and weaker, and their brains may not develop to their full potential. Chronic malnutrition is also linked to academic underperformance in schools.

There is a small window of opportunity for fighting malnutrition; the 1,000 days, from the first day of pregnancy through the first two years of life.

Malnutrition in this formative period results in extensive and largely irreversible damage to physical growth, brain development, and human capital formation.

Even though Kenya is on course to meet all five World Health Assembly maternal and child nutrition targets as captured by data from the 2015 Global Nutrition Report, more innovative action needs to be taken to reduce the numbers of those at risk.

Nutrition must be understood as both an input to, and an outcome of, the country’s development. Malnutrition originates not just from a lack of food, but from several interrelated processes linking health, education, sanitation and hygiene, access to productive resources amongst others.

Kenya has a predominantly rural and very young population. About 80 per cent of the land area is arid and semi-arid, mainly in the northern and eastern regions. Areas with a good agricultural potential represent only about 18 per cent of the territory but support 80 per cent of the population.

Agriculture, mainly rain-fed, is the main driver of the Kenyan economy. The country is recurrently affected by drought, floods and environmental degradation due to over-exploitation of natural resources.

Ensuring year-round access to adequate, safe, diverse and nutrient-rich food for all will support healthy diets and healthy food systems. This requires innovative approaches through adoption of long-term interventions geared towards resolving underlying constraints, while also dealing urgently with immediate needs.

As Kenya joins the rest of the world in launching Global Nutrition Report 2016 this month, concerted efforts must be made to help mothers and children understand and fight the threat of malnutrition.

We can start by empowering mothers with the vital information they need to make good nutritional decisions and access vital supplements.

Additionally, we must support the poor to fight poverty, which is one of the contributors to malnutrition. Malnutrition impacts negatively on Kenya’s socio-economic development and on her potential to eradicate poverty.

Achievement of the country’s aspirations as captured in Vision 2030 remains at risk if we do not prioritise nutrition in national development programmes and strategies.