BUJUMBURA, Burundi — 10,395,931 people. 68 percent – 7,069,233 – live below the poverty line. One in 15 adults suffers from HIV/AIDS. Only 2.5 percent – 259,898 – make it to the age of 55. Less than two percent of the population has electricity in their homes.
These numbers paint a dismal picture of life in resource-poor Burundi, a landlocked country in Southeast Africa bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
With a predominately agricultural economy, the country’s source of income lies in exports of coffee and tea. These two items account for 90 percent of Burundi’s foreign exchange earnings. Due to this percentage, the majority of the country’s population is affected by weather issues, food insecurity and limited access to land. Other factors include civil war and the recent flooding in Bujumbura that caused 3,000 people to lose their homes.
According to the 2013 Global Hunger Index, hunger in Burundi is among the highest in the world, along with Comoros and Eritrea. Chronic malnutrition affects 58 percent of children under the age of 5 in Burundi.
Being one of the poorest countries in the world is not helping to fight hunger. Four out of every five people live on less than US $1.25 per day, making it hard to feed a family. In fact, 70 percent of income goes to food, which doesn’t leave much for healthcare or other necessities.
Subsistence farmer Jacqueline Bangirinama knows this struggle well. Hunger is a part of her daily life. Her children suffer the most. Bangirinama recalled watching her two daughters, ages 2 and 4, fight over a miniscule piece of boiled potato. With a heavy heart, she has sent her tiny 7-year-old son off to school with his stomach empty and growling.
With the help of a mass malnutrition screening, Bangirinama discovered her children were underweight and malnourished. She was then referred to a 12-day course in which she was taught skills that would help her to feed her family.
January 2012 marked the beginning of a new hope for alleviating hunger in Burundi; they became one of 40 countries to join the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) initiative.
Founded on the belief that all people have a right to food and good nutrition, it unites people from all over the world in an effort to reduce malnutrition from 58 to 48 percent by 2016.
The SUN website explains, “With a shared understanding that many factors impact nutrition, each of us has a unique contribution to make. Together we are achieving what no one of us can do alone.”
SUN endeavors to help people like Ms. Bangirinama. Mothers hold a crucial role in reducing the hunger levels in Burundi and SUN fully realizes the importance of empowering these women.
Traditionally, husbands managed the harvest, leaving women with little decision-making power.
A UNICEF study shows that more highly-educated mothers have better nourished children. In fact, mothers with a secondary education are three times less likely to raise malnourished children.
“Since women are the ones who prepare the meals, they must be equipped with the proper knowledge regarding nutrition,” said Pelagie Ntahimpera. “That’s the only way to make sure that they use the little money they have efficiently.”
Other efforts for female empowerment focus on the same value: education. Educated mothers understand how to tackle malnutrition in the correct way instead of fixating and stressing over the problem.
Initiatives like Pathfinder’s Mamans Lumieres programme – which identifies positive female role models that have raised well-nourished children and gives them the task of educating others – are designed to empower these women in order to improve the health of their children. The program has engendered progress; children involved ended up gaining weight as a result.
SUN is also committed to improving agricultural efficiency and success.
“In every municipality throughout the country, there are at least two agricultural monitors, but they don’t make field visits and farmers don’t get the technical assistance they need to produce a good harvest and keep the best seeds for the next season,” said Noel Nkurunziza, president of the Burundian Association of Consumers (Abuco).
Along with help from SUN and the UN OneHealth Model, Burundi has created a national strategic plan for nutrition. Reinforcement of political commitment, promotion of breastfeeding, micronutrient supplementation and food fortification, and increased integration of nutrition interventions in primary healthcare are among the foci of the plan.
SUN’s nutrition-sensitive approaches offer a light at the end of a very dark tunnel that has clouded Burundi for years. SUN’s goals are to improve accessibility to sustenance, clean water, healthcare and sanitation while also supporting small farms as an income source.
Overall, these efforts – working towards advancements in health, nutrition, education and empowerment – have the possibility of bringing a brighter future to the country of Burundi: one without hunger.