Kenya's millers on forefront in fight against hidden hunger

Kenya's staple delicacy, ugali. [iStockphoto ]

The milling industry stands as a testament to the country's resilience and determination to provide safe and nutritious food to her people. Yet, this vital sector faces myriad challenges that threaten its ability to fulfil this crucial role.

According to the World Health Organisation, over two billion people today suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Women and children are affected the most, with 45 per cent of child deaths caused by malnutrition, 159 million children suffering from physical and cognitive growth deficiencies every year.

A third of the world’s women population of reproductive age suffer from anaemia, with 40 per cent of these being pregnant. Sadly, the goal to end hunger by 2030 is mainly off-track, with hidden hunger responsible for 7 per cent of the global disease burden.

Hidden hunger affects individuals at all stages of life. Still, it has been found to be especially devastating for women and children with children who suffer from hidden hunger, never being able to achieve their full potential as they remain physically and mentally stunted for the rest of their lives.

According to UK’s National Institutes of Health (NIS), hidden hunger is the presence of multiple micronutrient deficiencies (particularly iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A), which can occur without a deficit in energy intake as a result of consuming an energy-dense, but nutrient-poor diet).

In Kenya, according to a recent report shared by the Ministry of Health at the Kenya Fortification Summit, in Nairobi on February 29, 2024, about 945,610 children between six and 59 months are acutely malnourished and in need of urgent treatment. Another one million children under the age of five years suffer from acute malnutrition, whilst 217,000 have severe acute malnutrition. The report further revealed that the economic impact of undernutrition on Kenya's GDP stood at Sh18.6 billion, which was about 0.34 per cent of GDP in 2014. 

The Kenyan miller's journey begins with combating high cost of farm inputs. The price of maize, energy, and other necessities has soared, squeezing margins to a near-breaking point. Amidst this financial strain, millers are steadfast in their commitment to safety, particularly in the battle against aflatoxins. These toxic compounds, produced by certain moulds found in food crops, pose a significant health risk. The millers' vigilance in processing only aflatoxin-free maize is a silent yet heroic act of safeguarding public health. 

Fluctuating dollar rates and forex shortages have made planning and sustaining operations difficult. Moreover, the industry grapples with increasing taxation, punitive regulations, and the complexities of cess payments across counties, which amplify logistics costs on the back of rising fuel prices.

These factors contribute to an environment of extreme price sensitivity where even the slightest cost increase can sway consumer choices, affecting the millers' bottom line. Despite these challenges, Kenyan millers have not wavered in their dedication to food fortification - a process that enhances the nutritional value of staple foods. This commitment, though a hidden cost with no direct return on investment, underscores a profound dedication to social good and the well-being of the Kenyan populace.

The millers' role in ensuring a broader and more sustained impact in large-scale staple food fortification is critical. Not only does food fortification reduce essential deficiencies of micronutrients (Vitamins A, D, B1, B2, B6, B12, niacin, folic acid, iron, zinc, iodine etc), it has proven to be the most cost-effective method with the broadest reach of the entire population that requires no change to dietary consumption habits (as fortified foods are usually the most commonly – staple- consumed e.g., rice, maize and wheat flour, edible oil, sugar and salt). Of critical importance, this has an excellent return on social investment through the elimination of deficiencies and, thus, the creation of healthy and productive populations.

Food fortification, therefore, remains the number one most potent and sustainable practice to address hidden hunger. It is vital to laud the government’s efforts in research and innovation collaborations. The government has played a leading role in collaborating with milling companies and research institutions to develop innovative solutions such as researching drought-resistant maize varieties, high-iron beans or efficient milling techniques.

Such collaborations lead to increased crop resilience, better yields, and improved milling processes, benefiting farmers and consumers. Through government partnerships with milling industry stakeholders to provide training programmes on aspects like food safety, quality control, and sustainable practices, millers' skills have been enhanced, and the knowledge gained has empowered millers to operate efficiently, maintain high standards, and contribute to a resilient industry.

It is, however, time for the government to engage in deeper deliberations with the private sector. Policies must pivot to support the mills, ensuring they are connected to the sector's needs. Discussions on cess, regulations, and outdated legislation are imperative to reduce production costs and prevent compromises on quality and safety - factors that could lead to industry closure and jeopardise food security.

The national government must also coordinate with county governments to ensure seamless legislation that fosters industry growth and prioritises food safety, especially concerning aflatoxin management. Acknowledging the government's efforts and collaboration with the private and non-profit sectors, we see a shared vision for a secure food future.

Ms Cushny is an entrepreneur. Dr Obwogi is a senior researcher