Fighting child malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa
In sub-Saharan Africa, 70 per cent of the energy intake of the local diet is based on everyday foods such as cassava, maize, millet, or sorghum, but those staple foods do not provide sufficient nutrition. One of the consequences is high levels of malnutrition, particularly among children, which affects not only their health but also their cognitive development. Scientists are convinced that the right doses of micronutrients added to certain basic foods can fight malnutrition.
The five and a half-year European Union (EU)-funded INSTAPA project undertook extensive research on the ground in Kenya and other sub-Saharan countries to identify practical ways of boosting the iron and zinc content of daily food. The project is being conducted by research scientists from Europe and Africa.
Research has indicated that the direct use of improved crops rather than dietary supplements would be generally more acceptable to consumers and that it is potentially a more economic route to providing an improved diet.
A particularly promising approach has been found in the inclusion of yellow cassava in the diet instead of the usual white cassava. Yellow cassava has higher levels of beta-carotene, a pigment that the body can easily convert into vitamin A. Yellow cassava is thought to provide children with around 50 percent of their daily vitamin A needs.
Iron and zinc supplements are known to have an effect on the cognitive development of children. The project team carried out trials giving children a multi-micronutrient powder with maize flour which is mixed in porridge and given daily for one year. After this the mental development of children is monitored over a three year period to identify the long term effects on cognitive development.
Improved nutrition is hoped to have long-term benefits leading to a stronger, healthier population that will contribute more to economic development in the region.
The next big challenge for the researchers is how to provide affordable enriched food to a widely rural, low-income and often isolated population.
Inge D. Brouwer, the coordinator of the INSTAPA project at Wageningen University, believes that with the right business model, the INSTAPA approach can be profitable to the agro-food industry.
“We are also trying to convince the food industry to go for ‘economies of scale’; that through lower prices and greater volume they can open up big new markets with less purchasing power and generate appropriate levels of profit,” says Ms Brouwer.
She stresses the importance of strengthening the capacity of Africa’s own researchers in this area and a network of researchers and institutions specialised in micronutrition is being developed while a number of postgraduate students will receive training.
Training manuals have already been incorporated into the curricula of some of the university courses in the participating countries and this will certainly have a significant impact on local research.
“Through capacity building and by strengthening scientific and technological knowledge in the field of staple food-based approaches in Africa and Europe, the project is making a significant contribution towards improving the quality of diet of young children and their mothers living in resource-poor areas in sub-Saharan Africa,” Ms Brouwer explains.
“The knowledge gained during the project will also strengthen the competitiveness of local SMEs targeted at production of foods with increased nutritional value,” Ms Brouwer concludes.