What government should do to improve food, nutrition security

Drip irrigation at work. [File, Standard]

Malnutrition, particularly among children, is associated with stunted growth, weakened immune systems, and lifelong health challenges. With 18 per cent of Kenyan children under the age of five reported to be stunted in 2022, this partly reflects on poor food consumption and inadequate dietary intake at the household level.

Cereals make up the main diet in Kenya and maize and its products are synonymous with food security and nutrition. Maize is the most accessible source of calories among the cereal grains, making up about 65 per cent of total food calories consumed by households. The consumption patterns result in the “hidden hunger” problem, a situation where the population suffers from chronic deficiency of vitamins and micronutrients despite adequate calorie intake. This is further worsened by vulnerability to socio-economic shocks such as prolonged droughts.

Malnutrition has long-term effects on the population. It leads to low educational attainment, labour productivity and economic growth, and perpetuates the vicious cycle of deprivations. In 2014, the government estimated the cost of malnutrition at Sh373.9 billion, representing 6.9 per cent of GDP.

Malnutrition results from a complex interaction of various nutrition-specific factors including poor caregiving and food practices; inadequate dietary intake; and the prevalence of infectious comorbidities. Simultaneously, it is influenced by nutrition-sensitive factors such as food insecurity, insufficient access to education, poverty, limited healthcare services, and a poor hygienic environment.

The ongoing nutrition-specific public sector interventions include efforts to promote fortification of foods such as maize and wheat floors, rice, salt, sugar, vegetable fats and oils, to fill vitamin gaps in diets and control micronutrient deficits. However, eradication of malnutrition requires a combination of policy reforms, community and international engagement, and multi-sectoral coordination.

Kenya needs to invest in sustainable agricultural practices that are resilient to the effects of climate change to enhance domestic food production. These include promoting crop diversification to meet the food and nutritional needs, improving irrigation systems for promotion of food security and dietary diversity, and facilitating access to modern farming technologies for smallholder farmers to enhance productivity and sustainability in food production.

Households could invest in kitchen gardens to facilitate easier access to food, offer a variety of nutrients, and guard against food shortages. Moreover, nutrition education is crucial. Educating communities about the importance of balanced diet and proper nutrition is likely to spur a change in feeding behaviour, leading to desirable nutrition practices and improved nutrition. Media campaigns, use of community health workers, and school feeding programmes could play a crucial role in raising awareness about the importance of good nutrition.

Increased access to clean water and proper sanitation is fundamental for good nutrition. Investing in water, sanitation, and hygiene at government and household level could reduce the risk of waterborne diseases and contribute to better nutrition outcomes, particularly among the under-five children.

The government could increase investment in social safety net programmes to support vulnerable populations during episodes of food crises. This could involve targeted food assistance programmes, cash transfers, and nutritional support for young women, pregnant women, and children. Additionally, nutrition should be integrated as a targeting component in social protection programmes for the highly vulnerable populations.  

Nutrition data plays a crucial role in combating malnutrition by providing essential information that informs policies, programmes, and interventions aimed at improving the nutritional status of individuals and populations. Nutrition data is critical for evaluating the effectiveness of nutrition-related interventions and programmes, and allows for the measurement of outcomes, such as changes in growth, weight, and micronutrient levels.

The National Information Platform for Food Security and Nutrition, an initiative of the government with support from the European Commission, links policies and programmes by enhancing the availability of data to monitor progress in nutrition interventions and use of available information for prioritisation of nutrition policy interventions.

The food security and nutrition concern in Kenya is not an insurmountable challenge. With concerted effort and ongoing commitments under the government development agenda, Kenya can transform its nutrition-specific and nutrition sensitive sectors to improve nutrition outcomes and secure a brighter future for its citizens. Collaboration at the national and county levels of government, and with development partners, civil society organisations, neighbouring countries and the international community could provide valuable insights and resources to tackle these challenges.

Sharing knowledge, technology, and best practices could help Kenya develop sustainable food and nutrition security solutions. In addition, strengthening private sector involvement in agriculture, food processing, and distribution could enhance food security.

By investing in this sector and creating an enabling business environment, the government would create quality green jobs and stimulate economic growth while ensuring a steady supply of nutritious food in rural and urban areas.