As Kenyans prepared for the festive period in December last year, disconcerting facts about our food came to light. Much of the maize flour sold in Kenya – particularly in rural areas and informal urban settlements – does not contain the required vitamins and minerals (micronutrients).
Micronutrients are critical to our health and wellbeing. They are particularly relevant now, considering the importance of robust immune system in the face of Covid-19.
Malnutrition, also known as “hidden hunger,” is disproportionately prominent in the developing world, among populations with limited resources. It has some of the gravest repercussions for women and children. In Kenya, almost a third of women of reproductive age (27.2 per cent) have anaemia, while the national prevalence of under-five stunting is 26.2 per cent, above the developing country average of 25 per cent.
Malnutrition is often cited as a result of both food shortages and absence of diet diversity. There are, of course, those who can access and afford micronutrient-rich foods regularly – meat, eggs and dairy products. However, most Kenyans have historically relied on cereal-heavy diets.
Without the addition of sufficient micronutrients in food vehicles such as maize and wheat flour, there is a grave risk of increased cases of malnutrition. The process of adding these essential nutrients to staple foods is known in our industry as food fortification and is achieved by using premix during the milling process of maize and wheat, among other products.
It has been widely observed by economists that malnutrition affects productivity and human capital development, while also putting a heavy financial burden on an already squeezed public health system. According to the World Bank, malnutrition is one of the world’s most serious, but least addressed development challenges.
According to the Global Nutrition Report, the effects of poor nutrition accounts for approximately 11 per cent of GDP loss in Africa, but the comprehensive economic impact is likely to be far-reaching.
It is thus imperative to ensure all millers in Kenya sell adequately fortified products. They must comply with existing fortification standards legally mandated by the Kenyan Bureau of Standards (KEBS). A routine surveillance by KEBS in May 2020, for example, revealed that compliance levels stand at only 50 per cent.
TechnoServe has also conducted a baseline study to gauge nutritional compliance levels of staple foods such as wheat and maize flour. The study measured the levels of micronutrients for these products available in the local market and compared analysis results against the national standards issued by KEBS.
Our findings were broadly in line with those of KEBS from May 2020. Additionally, TechnoServe identified certain premix suppliers operating in Kenya despite their status of being non-compliant. As the fortification quality of flour is directly linked to the quality of the premix inputs, such practices need to come under more intense scrutiny and regulation.
Recognising the seriousness of the issue, a number of development and technical partners have been working with relevant government bodies to support fortification and drive up compliance among the suppliers of premix for flour and Kenya’s small and large-scale millers.
KNFFP complements ongoing initiatives, under the Strengthening African Processors of Fortified Foods (SAPFF) Programme, to boost the nutrition status in the country in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommendations. The aim is to improve the capacity of manufacturers to fortify wheat and maize flour and other staples consumed by low-income households where the levels of malnutrition are typically found to be higher.
To succeed, we need recognition and support from both industry and consumers. Consumers should feel empowered to defend their rights to access healthy and nutritious wheat and maize flour everywhere in the country.
Establishing an open dialogue at an industry level is also key to improving the quality of the staple foods.
By spearheading the fortification compliance agenda, industry leaders will not only demonstrate higher value to consumers, but also transform the way regulatory oversight is done in Kenya. Rather than responding to punitive regulatory measures, industry-led conformity to best practices and quality benchmarks comprise a much more sustainable and practical approach to solving Kenya’s malnutrition crisis.
Without collective action by consumers, businesses, and government actors, malnutrition will continue to impede Kenya’s growth and wellbeing for decades to come.
-Ms Esta is the Regional Deputy Director for East and Southern Africa at Technoserve