Why Our Staple Foods Should Be Fortified

Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) has been in Nigeria for the last five years supporting food fortification programmes. The Country Manager, Nigeria and Regional Representative West Africa, Larry Umunna, spoke to TOPE TEMPLER OLAIYA about the agency’s interventionist strategies to reduce malnutrition in the country.

Larry Umunna

What are the activities of GAIN in Nigeria?

IN the past five years, we have been working with local stakeholders such as the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and the National Planning Commission (NPC).

In March 2011, we decided that Nigeria was an important country and it was not enough to stay back in Geneva and operate by remote control. We came in and set up a country office and invest more resources in Nigeria with the objective to reduce malnutrition, using various interventionist strategies.

What are some of these strategies?

We have a vision of a world without malnutrition, but it cannot be reduced overnight. For us, we are supporting the government, private sector and development agencies to reduce malnutrition. Previously, we have invested money through other partners, but beginning from June 1, we are investing $2 million in the area of food fortification for the next three years; first to see how we can strengthen compliance to the legislation.

There is legislation in place that makes it mandatory for staple foods to be fortified, but the question is are these foods really fortified? How can we help NAFDAC and SON to build their capacities to truly monitor; and how can we encourage the private sector to comply and move towards self-regulation, so that they don’t need a NAFDAC to wield the big stick.

We also recognise that many consumers in the rural areas do not understand what food fortification is all about. We want to create this awareness and build it into consumers about the need to patronise fortified foods.

We are investing $500,000 in a social marketing campaign, which will be launched very soon. We are already finalising the selection of proposals from various marketing agencies by the middle of June. The selected agencies will have the task of developing and implementing a social marketing campaign, in conjunction with our partners.

We need to revive the standards. The standards for food fortification in the country still uses an iron form that is not in line with WHO guidelines. Some work will be done with the SON and the flour millers to ensure the right form of iron is used; otherwise, we are wasting our time. We consume the food; we still don’t get the iron the body needs.

What has changed since GAIN began working in Nigeria?

It is very sad to note that when you think about Nigeria – the giant of Africa, 160 million people, very vibrant private sector, and very wealthy country – when you see that picture, you actually expect the nutrition indicators will be the same. One of the things I always emphasise is that we cannot talk about development if we don’t address this basic indicator.

All the statistics about growth is nothing if our people are still hungry and malnourished. It is very sad to see our GDP in the last five years grow steadily, between six and eight percent, which is much higher than the average growth for Africa, but still, during this same period, we still have situations of 40 percent stunting in children under the age of five. Stunting is a glorified name for chronic malnutrition.

Two out of every five children are malnourished; we still account for 14 percent of the global maternal mortality rate in the world; we still account for 12 percent of under-five child death in the world; we are still one of the 10 countries that account for 80 percent of the global under-weight in the world.

It is difficult to reconcile that with this wealthy picture we have, which is one of the many reasons GAIN decided to make Nigeria one of its priority countries, and we are putting a lot of energy in this because we know if we get it right here, we would at least have put a dent on the global malnutrition figures.

What other projects does your agency intend to implement in Nigeria?

In addition to our food fortification programme, we are looking at infant and young child nutrition. One of the things we want to do, in collaboration with the Federal Government, is to introduce the use of micronutrient powders, which has been formulated and would be made affordable to improve the nutritional status of our foods.

We are starting with Lagos and Kano because we can’t go round the country at the same time. Besides, you need to show that things work before rolling out to other parts of the country and we don’t have unlimited funds.



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