3 February 2014

Africa: Imported Nutrition Plans Not Healthy for Africa - Scientists

African nutritionists have called for homegrown nutrition plans saying imported initiatives are not healthy for the continent.

They said the current nutrition agenda in most African countries focuses on treatment and technical solutions like vitamin and mineral supplementation, instead of prevention through community-based interventions.

Their sentiments headline a report of the two-year study into sustainable nutrition in Africa, published last week in PLOS Medicine journal.

The study was carried out by the Sustainable Nutrition Research for Africa in the Years to come (Sunray), an EU-funded nutrition project in several African countries including Kenya.

"Africa needs to take charge of research priorities if it is to beat hunger and malnutrition. African research is mostly descriptive and generates too little new evidence. Most of it is driven by a donor-defined agenda and performed in collaboration with researchers from developed countries, while collaboration within Africa remains very poor," says Nago Koukoubou, of the Université d'Abomey-Calavi in Benin.

The study challenges African countries to take charge of research priorities to beat malnutrition and hunger.

Most countries in the continent still suffer high nutrition-related health problems even as such problems decline rapidly across the rest of the world.

According to the 2008-09 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, 35 per cent of children under five years in Kenya are stunted, 16 per cent are underweight and seven per cent are wasted.

Scientists say the stunted children, estimated at 2.1 million, will never reach their full physical and mental potential.

According to the 1999 national micro-nutrient survey in Kenya, the most common deficiencies include vitamin A deficiency, iron deficiency anaemia, iodine deficiency disorders and zinc deficiency.

The scientists sampled in the study called for additional efforts to promote cross-African networking of researchers, as well as interactions between researchers and policy-makers.

Prof Patrick Kolsteren of the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, said foreign donors working in food insecurity and malnutrition need to change their approach.

"We need to shake up nutritional research in Africa and turn it upside down. Currently, researchers from developed countries search African partners for joint research based on funding and research priorities defined outside Africa," he said. Prof Kolsteren is Sunray's project co-ordinator.

He suggested that the research agenda should be based on needs identified within the continent. "Calls for research proposals of donors should match this agenda," said Prof Kolsteren.

Kenya has a five-year National Nutrition Action Plan (NNAP) launched by former Health minister Beth Mugo in 2012.

Mugo said the NNAP was part of the country's development plan. "The NNAP is aligned to government's medium term plans to facilitate mainstreaming of the nutrition budgeting process into national development plans, and hence, allocation of resources to nutrition programmes," she said during the plan's launch.

The government says it expects to spend Sh6 billion up to 2017 to scale up nutrition. The money will be shared across several ministries.

In a separate interview with the Star, nutritionist Terrie Wefwafwa says the ministry of health is already working on several home-grown solutions to stem malnutrition in Kenya.

"We have home-grown school feeding programmes where local communities grow food and sell it to schools," she said.

Terrie says the ministry will also be launching national guidelines on healthy diets and physical activity this year.

She advises schools to set up kitchens to manage nutrition of students. She says there is evidence children in urban areas are getting obese, while in some rural areas, with no feeding programmes, are malnourished.

"We have developed regulations with the ministry of education for school feeding on the type of meals to be given," she says.

Terrie is the deputy nutritional officer, human nutrition and dietetic unit at the ministry of health.

According to NNAP, the government expects external donors to align their help behind the government plan.

The UK Department for International Development has already committed Sh2.29 billion to assist scale up nutrition in Turkana, Wajir and Mandera.

Additional multi-year funding for the nutrition sector will be provided through the Sh27 billion EU initiative called "supporting horn of Africa resilience", to assist communities in the horn of Africa recover from droughts.

The government has also strengthened a food fortification programme through a 2012 law that requires that maize flour and cooking fat have a minimum specified amount of iron, vitamin A, B-complex vitamins, zinc and folic acid.

The plan is expected to benefit around 27 million Kenyans.

Vegetable oil producers and wheat flour and maize meal millers have already committed to fortify their food products.

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