East Africa: Kenya and Access to Healthy Diets - The Biggest Issue

Like many low- to middle-income countries, Kenya is home to a ‘double epidemic’ of malnourishment on the one hand, and diabetes and obesity on the other. Both are attributable to poor eating habits and lack of access to affordable, safe and nourishing food. With the eruption of COVID-19, the future is looking less than promising—which only makes the necessity for strong alliances and partnerships that much more pressing. Leah Kaguara is GAIN Country Director for Kenya.
interview

The Republic of Kenya is located in East Africa and borders Uganda to the east, Tanzania to the south and Ethiopia and Somalia to the north. With a population of more than 47.6 million people sprawled across 580,367 square kilometres, Kenya is the 29th most populous country in the world. Prior to the advent of COVID-19, it was showing considerable progress in the fight against malnutrition.

According the 2018 Global Nutrition Report, Kenya was on course to meet the global targets for under-five overweight, under-five stunting, under-five wasting, and infant exclusive breastfeeding. Nevertheless, the country is lagging when it comes to countering low birth weight and anaemia in women of reproductive age. Like many low- to middle-income countries, Kenya is home to a ‘double epidemic’ of malnourishment on the one hand, and diabetes and obesity on the other. Both are attributable to poor eating habits and lack of access to affordable, safe and nourishing food.

With the eruption of COVID-19, the future is looking less than promising—which only makes the necessity for strong alliances and partnerships that much more pressing. Leah Kaguara is GAIN Country Director for Kenya. We spoke to her from her home the nation’s capital of Nairobi.

What brought you to food systems, food security, public health and with GAIN in particular?

I was very much attracted to GAIN because of its mandate. GAIN’s emphasis on women and children is interesting to me, although I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor, I am an organizational leader. From a development point of view, nutrition is fundamental: Without good nutrition, we can’t make much impact on the other development indictors.

Food systems are fascinating. They include so many different actors and everyone should be paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the day, we should all be examining food systems and figure out the best wat to meet people’s nutrition needs.

What do you count as the biggest issues facing the country that you work in from a nutritional point of view?

The biggest issue is the limited intake of a diversified nutritious diet among the population. The majority being affected by undernutrition, and the growing middle-income population now being affected by obesity. This has led to negative health outcomes, placing a huge healthcare burden on the government. The role of various food system actors needs to be strengthened lead by the government to improve access, availability and affordability of nutritious food to the population.

What do you count as GAIN’s greatest successes in your country and why are they important? To the people we serve? To the country?

One of our key successes is our ability to convene, collaborate and build alliances. GAIN is not the only player in the food development arena but has become a very important one. GAIN supported the Government of Kenya to mandate the fortification of maize flour, wheat flour and edible oils.

We’re recognized for being the lead organization in working with the private sector, which has a considerable impact on nutrition. We work with big business and small- to medium enterprises (SMEs) and offer technical, financial and information support. We convene and chair the SUN Business Network (https://sunbusinessnetwork.org/ )in the country. This brings businesses, key government ministries, key UN agencies and civil society together to push the nutrition agenda. With appropriate support, we envisage the private sector becoming a key influencer in consumption of nutritious food.

We have joined alliances to contribute to the reduction of malnutrition among the most vulnerable populations in Northern Kenya. A good example is NAWIRI, nutrition in ASALs (arid and semi-arid lands) which is a joint programme with USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), Catholic Relief Services and other core implementing partners.

The collaboration between GAIN and Incofin Investment Management (http://www.incofin.com/ ) (Incofin IM) is another good example. The Nutritious Food Financing Facility (N3F) will increase the availability of safe, nutritious foods among low-income populations in Sub-Saharan Africa by providing financing and technical assistance to Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs). These are the smaller companies who are largely responsible for feeding Kenya.

These collaborations are really important and they’re accomplishing a great deal. Nevertheless, we’re still a long way from dealing with some of the underlying issues that drive malnutrition: youth unemployment, under-developed food value chains; poor infrastructure and unsustainable farming practices.
Why is it important to focus on women and girls? What is GAIN doing to ensure that this population is not left behind?

Nutrition really affects women and girls of reproductive age. It has a huge impact on their lives and that of their children and in fact, their entire household. Women and girls are more nutritionally vulnerable for all sorts of reasons. We know that any nutritional or micro-nutritional deficiencies are passed on to their children, which is why we focus on the entire household.

our projects support SMEs is to ensure that safe and nutritious food makes it into the supply chain and reaches the consumer. Behavioral change campaigns that emphasize the entire household to contribute to preparing safe and nutritious foods are also very important. Good nutrition begins at home.

How are you adapting programming to the COVID-19 crisis? What are the opportunities and the long-term concerns?

So far, Kenya is doing fairly well compared to many other countries, but a locust infestation is complicating the situation. Much of our food comes from Tanzania and Uganda, and border closures have limited the supply of food. Prices are also going up, which is really putting pressure on more vulnerable communities. GAIN is working with the government to ensure that public health teams ensure food supply remains consistent to markets and that the handling processes do not hamper health and nutrition.   We are also supporting businesses to stay open food and are helping them to procure and distribute food. This is through our Keeping Food Markets Working project and the Market Place for Nutritious Food project.

We are also supporting government to ensure food fortification, which is critical during times of economic distress and uncertainty. A considerable portion of the population is becoming increasingly unable to afford safe, nutritious food, which is why fortification with vitamin A, folates and iron is so important. We have pulled together a technical working group with like-minded civil society which is in constant dialogue with national and county governments to ensure fortification compliance.

Again, partnerships and alliances are very important in this context.

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