Africa Day: Malnutrition shouldn’t be our story

Stephen Kafeero

What you need to know:

  • In the absence of a formal organ, no one is directly taking responsibility hence absence of collective action.  Uganda must treat adequate nutrition as a human right. 

Ugandans must generally be aware that at any given moment, at least 5.4 million of fellow citizens are hungry and this is per government’s own statistics.
Millions of Ugandans are affected by malnutrition in different ways and the country has seen limited progress in reducing the levels of maternal and child malnutrition over the past three decades. Stunted children fall ill more frequently, which translates in high health costs to families and the economy.

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It impedes economic productivity and educational achievements. Limited resources have to be deployed to address related illnesses.  For every $1 invested in nutrition at least $138 is generated in better health and increased productivity.

The African Development Bank, which has taken a front seat role in the push against malnutrition dubbed the “the silent killer”, proposes that the private sector should incorporate healthy and nutritious foods into the food supply chain. On the other hand, the public sector should double up support for food and nutrition intervention programmes while national governments should make access to quality and nutritious food a basic human right - protected by national constitutions.

Between 2004 and 2009, widespread malnutrition in the country is estimated to have been responsible for at least 110,000 deaths of children.  The Uganda Demographic and Health Survey of 2016 shows that 29 per cent of Ugandan children are stunted, 3 percent of them wasted, and 32 per cent of women of reproductive age are anaemic.

The African continent has appropriately themed this year’s Africa Day as the “Year of Nutrition”. For the an uninitiated, Africa Day is intended to commemorate the founding of the  Organisation of African Unity (OAU now the AU) on May 25, 1963 and its fight against in the fight against colonialism and apartheid, as well as the progress that Africa has made while reflecting upon the common challenges that the continent faces in a global environment.

The African Union has endorsed 2022 as the year of nutrition dedicated to strengthening the fight against malnutrition in all its forms in Africa under the theme “Strengthening Resilience in Nutrition and Food Security on the African Continent: Strengthening Agro-Food Systems, Health and Social Protection Systems for the Acceleration of Human, Social and Economic Capital Development”.

Uganda is signatory to the Malabo Declaration. By 2035, less than 13 years from now, the country seeks to reduce the impacts of childhood malnutrition to 10 per cent for stunting in children younger than 5 and 5 per cent for wasting. The country aims for better even as we ask whether we shall achieve that target.
Uganda’s aspirations are many and the sustainability of food and nutrition should be top on the agenda. The country ought to move from declarations to actual work that moves us to those targets.  Malnutrition threatens to destroy a generation of children in Uganda. More than one third of all young children, at least 2.4 million, are stunted according to UNICEF. The damage caused by stunting is irreversible, the UN body warns.

Research shows that rising food costs have a major impact on vulnerable households, pushing those least able to cope further into poverty and hunger. There is an opportunity, however, with a regime of good policies and infrastructure which can raise incomes and support longer-term economic growth. Ugandans have been told to tighten their belts but this is already proving hard when some have to go hungry, sell their property, and fail to take their children to school among other things.
Malnutrition is a key contributor to childhood mortality in Uganda, as an underlying cause of around 150 childhood deaths every day. The long-term economic impact of this level of stunting is estimated at US$310 million annually due to lost productivity.

In the absence of a formal organ, no one is directly taking responsibility hence absence of collective action.  Uganda must treat adequate nutrition as a human right. Actualising this includes, among other things, increasing public investment through budget allocations specifically for nutrition at all levels. Adequate nutrition is a prerequisite for human development and socioeconomic well-being.

Mr Kafeero is an engaged citizen guilty of good trouble.