One third of children under five years in Nigeria are stunted. Stunted growth, also known as nutritional stunting, is a reduced growth rate in human development. The 2015 National Nutrition and Health Survey indicates that 19.4 per cent of children under the age of five in Nigeria are underweight, 32.9 per cent are stunted, while 7.2 per cent are wasted.
Micronutrient malnutrition has farreaching effects on individuals and impedes the economic development of nations. Stunted growth has many effects, including reduced cognitive capacity. Women of shorter stature have a greater risk for complications during childbirth due to their smaller pelvis and are at risk of delivering a baby with low birth weight.
Experts have argued that if a child is stunted at age two, it will have a higher risk of poor cognitive and educational achievements in life, with subsequent socio-economic and inter-generational consequences.
Malnutrition has been described as a silent crisis raging in Nigeria. Each year, no less than one million Nigerian children die before their fifth birthday. Malnutrition contributes to nearly half of these deaths. In Nigeria, malnutrition remains a great challenge, particularly for mothers and children. It contributes to the deaths of about half a million children each year — or about 1 out of every 2 child deaths — and imposes a staggering cost to the nation.
The realisation of these problems has seen a call for the upscale in intervention by the government and private sector to arrest the situation.
The World Bank has calculated the return on investment in nutrition interventions as N25 to every Naira (N25:N1), with food fortification being one of the most cost-effective interventions for tackling micronutrient de ciencies globally. Food fortification, in which essential micronutrients are added during food processing, has been widely identified as a cost-effective strategy for addressing micronutrient malnutrition at scale. Undernutrition can lead to lifelong consequences, and increase the risk of impaired physical and cognitive development, and of diminished productive capacity. According to experts, increasing the availability of fortified food in Nigeria should become a critical pillar of the country’s food and nutrition security plans.
Micronutrient fortification was ranked third among high impact investments by the Copenhagen Consensus 2008. Fortifcation of widely consumed foods is demonstrated to be a sustainable and effective way to improve nutrition in developing countries. Therefore, last week, the key message at the project launch of “Strengthening African Processors of Fortified Foods” was the focus at a stakeholders dialogue. The event was held by Techno Serve Inc. which received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to implement the project in Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania.
The project takes a holistic approach to addressing the technical challenges faced by processors and working to strengthen the enabling environment that promotes the competitive, healthy and effective production of fortified foods.
Speaking at the launch on Thursday about the motive behind the initiative, Shawn Baker, Global Director of Nutrition, Bill Melinda Gates Foundation, said, “To set the context, under-nutrition is the cause of 45 per cent of under- ve mortality. Many children, almost half of children that die, die because of under-nutrition, and we also know that good nutrition is essential for children’s physical and cognitive development.
“There are many ways to tackle malnutrition, but there is only one fundamental way to ensure that the food the people eat has essential vitamins and minerals – vitamin A, iodine, folic acid, zinc, etc. – and that is to do large-scale food fortification. It is really an important way that private sector food producers can make sure that the food that they are producing contains the nutrients that consumers need.
“What we have seen is that Nigeria has really been a pioneer in Africa, having mandatory fortification of cooking oil, sugar and flour. But there’s a disconnect between what the government mandates and what the industry is producing because compliance is not meeting standards. This is to help fill that gap to provide technical assistance to companies so they can meet the standards, but to also work with the government to make sure that government continues to provide a level playing field so the industry has the right incentives to fortify foods to standards.”
One outstanding company which has done remarkably well with food fortification in Nigeria is Dangote Industries. Zouera Youssoufou, the Managing Director, Chief Executive Officer of Dangote Foundation, the largest private foundation in the sub-Saharan Africa told Daily Trust that all of Dangote food products are fortified. “They come at a very expensive cost, but we make sure all our food products are fortified,”
She said, “We advocate the possibility to continue to do the right thing by bringing the private sector together. As a business person, Aliko Dangote tries to speak his belief. Aliko’s belief in fighting malnutrition is what has translated into the Foundation having malnutrition as one of our biggest areas of intervention. The fact that we are trying to meet the needs of 500,000 children in three years and one million kids by 2021 in the context of this partnership is what we are doing together all about. How do we make sure that the children who survive eat appropriately fortified food when they grow up?” Youssoufou disclosed that the country has 2.5 million severely malnutrition children.
“Of course, we can’t reach all of them but with UNICEF and SPAFF, our goal is to bring those numbers down. On the business side, entrepreneurs should produce things that people can use so that our nutritional profile as Nigerians is improved. So our role on both side is complementary,” she said. Two of the world’s richest men, Bill Gates and Aliko Dangote, have committed $100 million, about N3.7 billion, to fighting malnutrition in Nigeria. A deal to that effect was signed by the duo on behalf of Bill & Melinda Gates and Dangote Foundation, respectively, in a new partnership aimed at improving the nutrition of children in the country’s North-East and North-West regions.
The programme will include communitybased approaches and proven interventions linked to behaviour change, fortification of staple foods with essential micronutrients, the community management of acute malnutrition and investments in local production of nutritious foods. A key objective will be improving the livelihoods of households by supporting nutrition-sensitive agricultural programmes that can increase family income, improve diets and empower women and youth. Dr Chris Isokpunwu, Deputy Director, Nutrition Division, Federal Ministry of Health and Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) representative, at a similar engagement, said that scaling up the availability and consumption of fortified foods in Nigeria would contribute to the achievement of a number of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),
He said, “The enabling environment has been built and critical building blocks established. For example, our flour fortification standards are in line with World Health Organisation standards. The national Universal Salt Iodization programme has incorporated a robust information management system to track compliance. Discussions on expanding food vehicles for fortification should begin, with rice, gari, tomato paste, noodles, etc. taking centrestage as possible vehicles.
“There is much more to be done. Nigeria once attained about 97 per cent coverage of adequately iodized salt as a result of strong commitment and joint effort between industry, government and development partners. We need to reinvigorate that programme. Through effective forti cation with iron of grains, we can expect to achieve a 2.4 per cent reduction per annum in anaemia. “Food systems and eating habits are changing rapidly due to urbanisation, changing climate, land and water use, and a younger population. While food fortification alone cannot end malnutrition in Nigeria, it is critical to micronutrient de ciency prevention and control strategies, and is an underexploited public health tool in this country.” According to the Nigeria Country Director of Technoserve, “We are creating a partnership project where government, the private sector and the civil society can work together to produce affordable nutritious food products in Nigeria. The malnutrition level is so high. We are now at a stage where Nigeria, the largest economy in Africa, thinks about a productive workforce. We cannot have a productive workforce if we don’t invest in our society. It is about giving the private sector companies all the tools and support and assistance they need to be able to produce affordable nutritious food.”
He argued that policies have to be made very relevant, functional and useful, policies around tariff and duties that make it easier for the food processor to do business. “How do we stimulate production of nutritious foods? How do we develop new products and ensure they speak to the palate of Nigeria? We need the food industry to do these and, that way, we will be getting closer to pending market solutions to eliminating the problems of malnutrition in Nigeria,” he added. Baker, in his concluding argument, said, “In an environment where you have a large number of people moving either as internally displaced people or as refugees, to have an opportunity to make food available that is not necessarily targeted is really important. In Canada, they have included food fortication monitoring as part of the food safety system. They consider a safe food as one that is nutritious.” Supporting, Youssoufou said, “Some of our expectations of the Nigerian industrial council is to elevate these issues: What is preventing everybody who is manufacturing in Nigeria to fortify? And what are the impediments and how di we overcome them?”