By: Joab Wako
In mid-June, I attended a webinar that focused on malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa. The two-day webinar was hosted by NCD Child, in partnership with the Ghana NCD Alliance and South Africa NCD Alliance, and looked at the link between malnutrition and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs are chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, and have modifiable risk factors, one of which is unhealthy diets. Unhealthy diets usually bring fast food to mind, which if consumed too much can lead to obesity and malnutrition. The World Health Organization defines malnutrition as deficiencies, excesses or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients, which means though an individual may be eating enough calories, they could still be malnourished as most fast food lacks essential nutrients. On the flip side, if a person doesn’t have access to food, and they occasionally eat a little healthy food, they will also face malnutrition. Fast food has increased the availability of ‘cheap calories’ from fatty and sugary foods, but it hasn’t changed that many still cannot afford or access enough nutritious foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, meat, and milk. Cognizant of this, the webinar challenged youth from different sectors, backgrounds, and vocations to discuss how we can combat this double-burden of malnutrition as it increases the risk of developing an NCD.
As a first step to addressing the challenge of malnutrition, positioning youth as agents of change in strengthening and creating sustainable food systems is key. Additionally, there needs to be increased funding and youth participation in dialogues around food systems. Using a rights-based approach to combat malnutrition will help gain momentum, and technology (more specifically surveys) will ensure the youth are involved. Updated statistics of reported NCD cases can be used to see the impact of a food project/initiative. Health clubs can be formed to encourage families to grow healthier foods and empower youth in rural areas on healthy, nutritious diets. Also, research institutions should be utilized to identify barriers and inform a way forward. As most youth actively use social media, it should be used to engage us and find out what we know so that we can be engaged/educated further. This engagement will impact knowledge on what nutrition is and what it means for us in our lives empowering us to demand healthy, nutritious food and implement initiatives in our spaces.
Suggested solutions to reduce NCDs
A part of the webinar also looked at how we can integrate approaches to reduce multiple NCD risk factors. These solutions include:
- Acknowledging the importance of research, and what has worked before, and using that knowledge to find out what can be implemented
- Raising awareness on healthy diets among the youth
- Involving young people in agriculture and making funding available in the sector to increase the availability of healthy food options in our communities
- Continuing to engage policymakers and follow up with planned actions for implementation
- Learning to measure the impact of local solutions for improvement
- Involving marginalized communities in the implementation process
- Continuous education and advocacy at all levels
- Presenting food labeling codes and policies to governments for implementation in countries that do not have them in place already
- Including healthy plant-based nutrition in school curricula up to the university level
- Integrating NCDs into education systems where youth will learn how to prevent and manage NCDs
After the two-day webinar, I felt a vital part in combating malnutrition is the youth being used as agents of change in creating sustainable food systems that provide affordable healthy foods on the continent. There is a need to improve food processing in Africa and make sure local fresh food can be preserved, increasing shelf-life, and reducing waste; while taking care not to over-process the food until it loses its nutritional value. Educating the youth on healthy foods and the importance of eating fresh local food is central to fighting malnutrition. On a higher level, organizations and advocates in the space need to keep the government accountable to the policies they come up with, as many governments in Africa struggle with implementation. These actions at different levels will ensure everyone has access to affordable nutritious foods. Affordable nutritious foods allow for a healthy balanced diet, reducing the chances of an individual being malnourished or developing an NCD, thus eliminating the burden of managing an NCD that could be prevented. Consequently, a healthy diet would be a big win in the fight against NCDs.
About the author
Joab Wako is the Executive Director of Transplant Education Kenya and a kidney transplant recipient. He is part of the Young Leaders Program with NCD Child. His lived experience with chronic kidney disease has made him a passionate advocate for universal health coverage.