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Zambia’s malnutrition conundrum

MALNUTRITION is a serious problem in Zambia. According to the National Food and Nutrition Commission (NFNC), malnutrition is one of the major public health concerns.

It says 52 percent of child deaths are due to malnutrition.
“We have a big problem on our hands,” NFNC head of nutrition education and communication, Eustina Besa, told traditional leaders at a workshop in June.
The 2013/14 Zambia Demographic and Health Survey notes that 40 percent of children under five are stunted.
Stunting means a child is too short for their age, has low weight for their age, and bone growth is delayed. It is caused by lack of nutrients in a diet.
The 2016 Global Nutrition Report notes that malnutrition and poor diets constitute the number-one driver of the global burden of disease.
For Zambia, a country that grows so much food – maize, rice, millet, sorghum, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cassava, groundnuts, beans, soya beans, cowpeas, fruits and vegetables, among others – it is something of a conundrum that malnutrition is at such a high level.
For far too long in Zambia ‘food security’ has been the catchphrase and, for many people, that means a maize or nshima staple-dominated diet.
However, among nutrition advocates discussion has now shifted to ‘nutrition security’, which the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) defines as “access by all people at all times to the adequate utilisation and absorption of nutrients in food, in order to be able to live a healthy and active life.”
Having ‘food’ – however defined – does not guarantee a nutritious diet. That food has to be of the right quantity, quality and variety. This is what children who are stunted lack.
Given the abundance of food Zambia produces, it is inconceivable that 40 percent of its children would be stunted. But that only shows the urgent need for a mind-set change. Zambians need to redefine their conception of food.
“It’s true that some households may lack access to food, but even those that have no problem finding food have a poor combination of it. They have a monotonous intake. For breakfast it’s most likely bread and tea, lunch and supper it’s nshima,” notes food technologist Mate Musiwa. “What of the many other foods available?”
“A diversified diet enables us to benefit from several essential nutrients in a meal. A carefully selected meal containing various foods rich in nutrients will result in an eventual accumulation of all the essential nutrients the body needs,” she adds.
Stunting has exacting implications on both individuals and societies. Apart from affecting one’s physical development, stunting also reverses economic growth.
“The annual GDP losses from low weight, poor child growth, and micronutrient deficiencies average 11 percent in Asia and Africa—greater than the loss experienced during the 2008–2010 financial crisis,” the 2016 Global Nutrition Report graphically illustrates.
“In children of less than 24 months of age, stunting negatively and permanently affects their health, learning and productivity,” states the NFNC Strategic Plan. “It affects the health and cognitive development of children with implications across the full life cycle and as a result negatively impacting on national economic development.”
However, the problem of malnutrition is not exclusively food-related. Poverty and inequality, water, sanitation and hygiene, education, food systems, climate change, social protection, and agriculture all have an important impact on nutrition.
The enormity of the problem of malnutrition is such that Government’s efforts alone are not enough and require interventions of other stakeholders.
It is for this reason that CARE International in Zambia is one of the organisations focused on tackling maternal and child malnutrition, alongside gender-based violence and social protection, as its three niche areas.
Through its programmes reaching thousands of people, the organisation is contributing to meeting national and global targets on the eradication of malnutrition contained in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Seventh National Development Plan (7NDP), among others.
One of the aims of the 7NDP is to “promote a well-nourished population free of all forms of malnutrition, capable of contributing to economic growth and diversification.”
Working with various government departments, CARE, which has been operating in Zambia since 1992, is implementing nutrition projects in Katete, Chadiza and Lundazi districts in Eastern Province, Mpika and Shiwang’andu in Muchinga Province, and Choma and Kalomo districts in Southern Province.