Child undernutrition costs African nations up to 16.5 per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP), according to a series of reports looking at social and economic consequences of child undernourishment in 12 African countries.
The first reports from the Cost of Hunger in Africa study of 12 countries estimate that Egypt has 1.9 per cent cut from its GDP because not all of its children get enough to eat, while Uganda loses 5.6 per cent and Ethiopia a staggering 16.5 per cent.
The three reports were launched in the respective countries in June, and a study on Swaziland is due to be published later this month or in August.
"Work is in progress in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Rwanda. Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya and Mauritania will follow," Rachel Quint, a consultant at the UN's World Food Programme and a member of the Cost of Hunger in Africa regional team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, tells SciDev.Net.
The overall study, led by the African Union, involves several local and international institutions including the World Food Programme, the UN's Economic Commission for Africa and Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, national statistical agencies and several ministries.
Undernourished children are those who weigh too little for their age or are of a low height for their age, or stunted, a condition that causes long-term physical impairments. They are at higher risk of anaemia, various infections and death, the reports explain.
And such children are more likely to need to repeat school classes or to quit education altogether, the reports say. As adults, because of their reduced physical capacity and educational attainment, they earn less in both manual and non-manual jobs, the reports add.
Increased medical and school expenses, reduced income and the loss of workers due to early deaths weigh heavily on families and on the healthcare and education systems and the wider economy, they say. A model used by the study estimates the health and economic impacts on the current population of their undernourishment before the age of five.
For example, the reports estimate that more than seven per cent of school repetitions in Uganda are attributable to undernutrition, costing US$9.5 million a year. In Ethiopia, the mortality rate due to child malnourishment has reduced the workforce by eight per cent.
The methodology is based on a similar study conducted in Latin America in the past decade, but it has been adapted to the African context, explains Rodrigo Martínez, social affairs officer at the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean and the coordinator of the Latin American research, who helped to set up the new study.
The main differences are that in Latin America undernutrition was estimated only by assessing how many people are underweight, while in Africa stunting is considered too. And productivity estimates consider manual labour, important in African economies, in addition to non-manual labour.
The reports' conclusions are sound, according to Robert Black, professor in international health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States.
"Though the data refer to 2009, they should not be very different today because stunting is declining slowly globally and more so in Africa," he tells SciDev.Net.
Martínez says that in Latin America, the study helped to change the perception of undernutrition from being seen as only an ethical and health issue to one with strong economic implications.
The same seems true in Africa.
"Not only are the national teams very supportive in doing the work, but the policymakers are reacting positively in terms of commitment to act," Quint says.
Both Quint and Martínez say that the work is also strengthening national data collection and information systems and leading to the creation of teams with a wide range of expertise.