Kenya must keep up efforts to tackle malnutrition, the hidden threat to the country’s development

Collins Baswony Global Health, News, Population Dynamics, Poverty-Related and Neglected Diseases

By George Kamau

Global Nutrition Report 2016

Global Nutrition Report 2016

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. Majority of these people live in the developing world. In countries such as Kenya.

Symptoms of malnutrition 

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 (micro-nutrient malnutrition).

The data

In Kenya, one out of every four children under five years of age stunted (are 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 8 times more likely to die than those who are well-nourished. Studies indicate that 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 under performance in schools.

The 1,000-day ‘window of opportunity’

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 among others.

Kenya has a predominantly rural and very young population. About 80% 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% of the territory but support 80% 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.

What can be done

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.

GNR cover

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.

Dr. George Kamau is the Country Director, Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevoelkerung (DSW) Kenya Country Office