ABUJA, Nigeria — Nigeria’s economy recently emerged as the largest in Africa. But the country has now become a leader of the continent in another way. While Nigeria’s economy has soared at a rate of 8.4 percent in recent years, the country’s rates of stunting and malnutrition have escalated to become the highest in Africa. As the single largest contributor to child mortality worldwide, malnutrition claims an estimated 350,000 Nigerian children’s lives and affects nearly 1 million children under five each year.
As the sixth largest exporter of oil in the world, the global picture of Nigeria masks the reality on the ground, according to Bamidele Davis Omotola, senior nutrition specialist at UNICEF’s Nigeria country office. Omotola argues that the worsening malnutrition crisis in Africa’s most populous nation is a silent one, driven by poverty, insecurity and lack of access to clean water.
“Most people do not see it, but 41 percent of Nigeria’s children are stunted, and that is a basic indication that something is very wrong,” Omotola said. Stunting, or low height for age, is caused by long-term insufficient nutrient intake and results in children’s delayed motor development and impaired cognitive function.
But recent measures have been taken to eradicate stunting and malnutrition throughout the country. In 2012, the Nigerian government joined Scaling Up Nutrition, a global movement that unites people in a collective effort to improve nutrition and food access. Meanwhile, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) increased support from public-private partnerships to supply nutrients necessary for Nigeria to be stronger and healthier. Large partnerships are also helping the Ministry of Health to develop national guidelines and policies for nutritional treatment.
Despite these indicators of progress in tackling widespread undernutrition, Nigeria’s food systems are still failing the poor. According to Action Against Hunger, food insecurity is the primary cause of malnutrition in Nigeria, with volatile food prices and recurring food shortages leaving 800,000 children at risk of severe undernourishment. People who cannot afford the high-priced food products are forced to rely on foods that lack the nutrients that children need, resulting in a lifetime of health complications.
However, a new solution to address food insecurity has surfaced that will eliminate malnutrition in Nigeria: local food businesses.
Using markets to fight undernutrition and the “hidden hunger” of micronutrient deficiencies has become a top priority of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. Food companies such as Grameen Danone Foods in Bangladesh and DuPont Solae in India have tried making low-cost food products fortified with key nutrients and selling them to poor populations in the developing world.
But these companies have struggled to overcome considerable challenges in their initiatives. While Grameen Danone Foods was unable to generate a profit selling yogurt to poor mothers, DuPont Solae was forced to end their sales of soy protein to impoverished people due to inconsistent demand.
The problem is that poor consumers result in high costs for businesses. Manufacturing products fortified with micronutrients, shipping products to urban slums and rural areas and building new distribution chains, while selling food at a price affordable to poor people, is expensive and unprofitable for businesses.
Meanwhile, Nigerian consumers are suspicious of food claims on labels, due to vast food market corruption, and businesses pay the price to convince consumers that their foods are nutritious.
Nigerians are developing an effective method to encourage businesses to produce nutrient-rich products using non-profit distribution to reach poor and vulnerable people. Government and non-profit agencies buy the products from businesses and distribute them, thereby covering the high costs of delivering to poor people and reducing consumers’ concerns regarding nutritional value.
This system provides businesses with a source of demand and secure profit, while allowing them to prioritize product development and manufacturing. New laws have also been implemented in Nigeria that require all food manufacturers to add vitamins and minerals to their products to ensure fortification of micronutrients.
According to the Globalization and Development, the system is successful because “it does not resolve systematic problems like poor regulation or bad infrastructure, which require huge resources and major reforms, but instead finds ways to work around these problems.”
Collaboration between the public and private sectors, including the federal and state governments, NGOs and donors, allows businesses to surmount market obstacles, which could be the ultimate answer to the Nigerian malnutrition crisis.
– Abby Bauer