This opinion piece is published as part of a joint campaign for World Food Day, 16 October, led by the ARUA-UKRI GCRF Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) in partnership with the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), the University of Leeds’ Global Food and Environment Institute (GFEI), and the GCRF-AFRICAP Project.
With the current increasing rates of malnutrition, infant mortality, poverty, hunger and food insecurity, the future of the African child is at stake. These are children who need to contribute to the economic “rescuing” and growth of the continent and the world at large. The cost of child undernutrition in Africa is estimated at an annual loss of gross domestic product of between 1.6% to 16.5%.
Good nutrition is essential for the healthy growth and development of children. The first 2 000 days, from conception to age five years, are the most critical in addressing child malnutrition. Malnutrition can cause diminished cognitive abilities, resulting in lower IQs and rates of education attainment. It can also increase the risk of infection and contribute to a compromised immune system, and high child mortality. Consequently, poor childhood nutrition can slow growth and development, leading to low productivity in the work environment as children transition into adulthood. Studies suggest that in low-income countries, up to 10% of lifetime earnings are lost due to childhood malnutrition. The implications of child malnutrition are irreversible.
Everyone has a role to play in children’s nutrition
Often, mothers are left to fend for the well-being of their growing children and families. However, they too are often limited in their capacity to do so. Women face multiple constraints in meeting the needs of their children, particularly the recommendation to practise exclusive breastfeeding. Exclusive breastfeeding is when no other food or drink, not even water, except breast milk is offered to a baby for the first six months of life. Infants may only receive ORS (oral rehydrating solutions) and drops and syrups (vitamins, minerals, and medicines). However, few women have the time or capacity to breastfeed for this lengthy period.
For most working mothers, legislation does not make room for them to earn a full living while making themselves available to appropriately nurse their infants. Their job security is compromised while they need to also prioritise their new infant’s health and nutritional well-being. Mothers need to be encouraged, enabled and empowered at all times to practice breastfeeding. Breast milk provides the most optimal nutrition for better education and health outcomes later in life. When children are not breastfed exclusively from birth to six months, with breastfeeding continuing until two years, they are off to a bad start in life.
It is unfair for women to be expected to take sole responsibility for ensuring the nutritional well-being of children, especially in the first six months of life. It is time for fathers, families, politicians and communities to join the fight for better nutrition for children. Child nutrition should take centre stage in family and societal discussions.
If we really embrace the ubuntu principle, remembering that “I am because you are”, we will make it our role to ensure the nutritional well-being of our children. It is the role of taxi drivers, street vendors, security guards, employers at different levels to encourage, empower and enable mothers to breastfeed successfully. Some companies are making efforts to create baby-friendly environments for nursing mothers. For example, mothers are given breastfeeding breaks and facilities for proper expression and storage of their breast milk in the work environment. This is a step in the right direction. But it needs international and legislative support.
The role of school feeding in supporting child growth and development
The African child should not be held back by lack of enough, nutrient-dense, affordable food when they should be preoccupied with reaching for better opportunities, focusing on education and realising their full potential to match their counterparts. Another opportunity to address child malnutrition is through school feeding programmes. These programmes need to prioritise food that is safe, nutritious, culturally acceptable and nutrient-dense.
The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown had significant implications for child nutrition. School closures meant that many children lost the opportunity to have even just one healthy meal a day. At the same time, many farmers lost considerable amounts of produce because of the inability to move food from the farm to the market. COVID-19 has revealed opportunities to improve the links in the food system. Local food producers who are within close proximity to schools need to be roped in as key role players in the provision of affordable, culturally acceptable food to schools to ensure a sustainable food supply.
Ministries such as education, health, water and forestry, sports and recreation, environmental affairs, need to stand together in improving child nutrition in an environmentally, socially and economically friendly manner. There is no way to do this without channelling all energies towards the promotion, protection and support of breastfeeding and school feeding. Various community stakeholders need to recognise the importance of and engage around the health of children. Once this is achieved, they will realise that the solutions to the challenges are actually where the problem lies – within the communities.
Author: Dr Heather Sedibe-Legodi, Head of Department of Human Nutrition, University of Pretoria.