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Africa’s future depends on improved nutrition

Feb 3, 2015, 9:53 AM

Guest Editorial

More than two billion people still suffer from poor nutrition.

That’s the central finding of the new Global Nutrition Report, a first-of-its-kind evaluation of food security in 193 countries produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Researchers note that despite serious improvements in other key areas of global development in recent years, “little progress” has been made in addressing some of the core challenges associated with malnutrition in women and children namely, iron deficiency and the risks its poses during pregnancy, low birth weight and poor nutrition in a child’s first years.

The report is a reminder that nutrition must take top priority on the global development agenda. Nearly half of all deaths of children under five are caused by inadequate food and nutrition. That is a sad and shocking reality.

Even in South Africa - arguably the most economically advanced country on the continent - one in four children still goes to bed hungry every night. And as the South African economy has stalled, the proportion of kids under five suffering from “stunting” - physical deficiencies caused by chronic malnutrition - has grown.

The situation is much worse in other African countries. In Madagascar, for example, half of all children under five suffer from stunting.

The effects of malnourishment during childhood last a lifetime, even if one’s food situation improves in adulthood. No matter how much better our local schools, hospitals and economy become, malnourished children can’t flourish.

If a child’s brain isn’t properly fed, he or she can suffer irreversible cognitive challenges. The gold-standard investigation into this problem found that the average adult that suffered from stunting as an infant has a much lower IQ compared to a consistently well-nourished adult, completes about four fewer years of school, and is significantly less likely to be employed in a white collar job.

The deficits created by childhood malnutrition can permanently suppress an individual’s long-term earnings potential. The World Bank estimates that early-life food insecurity drops the average person’s lifetime wages by about 10 percent. In Congo, Liberia, Burundi and other low-income African countries, malnutrition by itself can compress GDP by up to three percent.

Of course, many parts of Africa are rapidly expanding. The continent is home to over half of the fastest growing economies in the world. This development is not exclusively a function of natural resources. Smart governments are cultivating high-tech sectors and setting the foundations for sustainable growth. Just look at Africa’s booming telecommunications sector, with more than a half-billion mobile connections on the continent today.

This evolution produces an array of knowledge-based jobs that can support families and transform communities. Without proper nutrition, our children will struggle to become the champions who can lead Africa through the 21st century. Simply put, improving nutrition is the key to accelerating Africa’s growth and empowering our people.

Published in: The Hill

“ Civilization as it is known today could not have evolved, nor can it survive, without an adequate food supply.”

Norman Borlaug