In another country, in West Africa, I last week got to curate a debate about large-scale food fortification, which is where vitamins and minerals are added to our staple foods as a way of closing nutritional gaps that are often termed as ‘hidden hunger’.
In fact, we have the same problems in Kenya, where many children don’t get enough iron, or vitamin A. This causes fatigue, as 20 percent less energy than the norm, and destroys immunity, leaving children with no protection against even minor infections.
The same deficiencies also stop the brain developing properly and there’s no way back from that: once a child’s intellectual development is impaired in early and middle childhood through insufficient iron, they won’t be growing new intelligence or brain power later. That’s a life sentence.
Now, as a mother, I really did not get just how important these nutrients were when I was feeding my own children. If I had, it would have affected the food I bought, served, allowed and banned. It wasn’t that I had no idea it was important to turn down the sugar and turn up the vegetables — I knew that and I did.
But getting enough iron requires more than that. For some of our national diets are way too low in key nutrients and getting enough for our children is hit or miss unless we know what delivers how much iron.
Yet the thing that struck me most in that faraway forum was the debate on whether there was a need for consumer education on nutrition or on fortification to solve these national shortfalls.
Indeed, the biggest donor there had an absolute position that no consumer education was necessary, and, more than that, was absolutely the wrong way to go and should be prevented.
Now, they have a lot more experience than I do, and obviously have a whole set of reasons for believing that educated consumers would be a worse thing than ignorant ones.
On which basis, they argued that the key was to get the vitamins into maize meal and cooking oil and ensure people were consuming them without even knowing.
Yet, as it happens, that has been nearly impossible. For while large producers have added those nutrients, almost all the rural communities consume locally and even home pressed oils, and locally and even home milled flours, so none of the nutrients are reaching those homes. Thus, it is Africa’s rural populations that are suffering the greatest micronutrient malnutrition.
Now, the opposite should be true. For which child has more access to sukuma wiki (very nutritious) or orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (super-nutritious), between the rural child and the urban child?
Yet so great is the rural shortfall, that, in that country, we looked at figures showing people who had caught Covid-19 in its rural areas were four times more likely to die than those who caught it in the capital city. For sure, that may be due to hospital access, but there isn’t a great deal hospital can do for Covid: a bigger factor is how strong our immunity is.
So here I have sat for another whole week trying to understand why it would be anathema to educate consumers on iron and vitamin A, and on buying fortified staples, and on achieving a deep and profound understanding that these will make a taller, physically fitter, healthier, more resilient and more brilliant next generation.
For, in Kenya, the second biggest spend for families after shelter is education, all of which is spent to create a better future. So people can invest in a better future for their children, yet that is almost undermined if we skip the iron and impair our children’s brains.
And for every Mama who plants her shamba with maize this season, how much more would it cost to plant sweet potatoes and kale instead, with 100x the benefits in nutrition?
Yet who makes decisions like that for no known reason at all? People have to know. Or they make the mistake through not knowing, and yet pay the same harsh price anyway.