Nutrition in Africa: time for “unusual business”, by Mercy Lung’aho

“As a nutritionist, I cannot look the other way while women and children are dying of anemia and malnutrition on our watch”



Visions of a sustainable food future

Mercy Lung’aho, nutritionist


Nutrition in Africa: time for “unusual business”

I’m passionate about working in nutrition. I do what I do because I know how it feels when everybody looks the other way. I was a “preemie” – a premature baby. Weighing a mere 1.08 kg and anemic, the doctors gave me 72 hours to live. But I’m still here; against all the odds I survived, and now I want to be part of the solution.

As a nutritionist, I cannot look the other way while women and children are dying of anemia and malnutrition on our watch.

Worldwide, malnutrition is responsible for almost half of the deaths of children under the age of five. Some 90 percent of those occur in 34 countries; 22 of which are in Africa. Although malnutrition has multiple causes, I strongly believe the root of the problem in Africa is dysfunctional food systems that fail to provide the right nutrients in the right quantities for people of all ages to thrive.

This has to change.

Fortunately, nutrition has become accepted as a global priority – it even has its own Sustainable Development Goal (SDG). But if we’re going to meet SDG3 – for good health and wellbeing – we’re going to need less business-as-usual, and more unusual business.

First, we need to radically rethink the concept of food security, and focus on nutrition security as well. Having enough calories is not enough – we need better food production and distribution systems that ensure everyone has equal access to safe, diverse, and nutrient-dense foods, produced with minimal damage to our environment. Yes, it’s a tall order.

But I’ve already seen how small changes in eating habits can be life-changing. For example, daily consumption of specially bred, high-iron beans can prevent and even reverse anemia in women and children. That’s a quick, effective response to a condition that can blight their entire lives – entire nations.

Those beans were bred for more than two decades – they were improved, adapted to local conditions and preferences for flavor, color, and seed size. They were released, made accessible, successfully grown, harvested, stored, prepared, and consumed. It required researchers to think broadly across a mini-food system – one just for beans. But it worked.

The scientists at HarvestPlus and the International Potato Center (CIP) who won the 2016 World Food Prize – and the teams that facilitated this innovation – have shown that biofortified crops, and the way they are produced and distributed, can play a critical role in tackling malnutrition.

But to have the greatest impact, to tackle malnutrition on every front – from under-nutrition to over-nutrition – we need to better understand what vulnerable populations eat and how. We need to understand what constitutes a healthy diet in the African context; to work with the public and private sectors to promote safe, diverse, and nutritious foods.

These things are achievable – I believe we live in exciting times. We’ve never been in a stronger position to tackle malnutrition, and we need to work with every sector of society to do it.

We can’t look the other way.