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Casting light on high levels of malnutrition in Kenya

© Picture courtesy of the Office of the First Lady.
Her Excellency The First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, officially launches the Nutrition Symposium and the EU-GOK-UNICEF Maternal and Child Nutrition Programme.

By Ruth Ayisi

NAIROBI, Kenya, 5 March 2015: The National Nutrition Symposium, held at the Kenya School of Government on 18 February 2015, was packed full of dignitaries, but they did not dwell on formalities; instead delegates focused on the high level of malnutrition in Kenya and, more importantly, on how to turn it around.

“I am informed that, despite advanced scientific evidence and knowledge on causes of malnutrition and how to address the problem, we have not given nutrition enough attention as individuals, planners and leaders,” said The First Lady, Margaret Kenyatta, who has recently taken on the role as nutrition patron.

Recent official data estimates that as many as 2.8 million or one third of Kenyan children under the age of 5 are stunted, which if left untreated will mean that they will not reach their mental and physical potential. Speakers at the symposium acknowledged this was not only a huge loss for that individual child but also a massive loss for Kenya’s national development.

Mrs. Kenyatta also highlighted the loss of life due to preventable conditions caused by malnutrition. “It is unacceptable to have over 19,000 children dying every year because they are underweight due to lack of adequate food,” she said.

“The theme of the symposium, to ‘step up commitments to scale up nutrition in Kenya’, captures our desire as a nation to enter a new phase in changing the malnutrition trends that we have seen for decades,” the Director of Medical Services, Dr Nicholas Muraguri, told the delegates, who included principal secretaries, county governors, ambassadors, development partners, the UN, and representatives of NGOs, civil society alliances and the business network.

A four-year Nutrition Resilience Programme, launched at the symposium by the First Lady, was hailed as a significant contribution to these scaling up efforts. The €19 million programme to help improve maternal and child nutrition in Kenya is funded by the European Union and implemented through UNICEF in partnership with the Government of Kenya. 

“The EU is committed to this programme as development is one of our central goals,” said EU Chargé d'Affaires, Marjaana Sall. “As well as having a detrimental impact on the economy, malnutrition hinders efforts to reduce poverty. In addition, recurrent and prolonged droughts have exposed Kenya’s arid and semi-arid counties to repeated food and nutrition crises. This programme will contribute towards building resilience and protecting the economy against these types of shocks.”


© UNICEF Kenya/2015/Serem
Participants at the National Nutrition Symposium in Nairobi, Kenya.

Madhavi Ashok, UNICEF Deputy Representative, stressed that, “If levels of undernutrition remain the same until 2030, close to half a million children will die in Kenya. We must not let this happen,” she said.

Ms. Ashok continued, “UNICEF, as the lead technical agency for nutrition in Kenya, stands by the government together with our UN sister agencies of WFP, FAO, WHO, UNAIDS and UNFPA. With this new grant from the EU, as well as all the other generous resources, we have made a commitment to making a difference to the lives of these children by supporting their right to good nutrition.”

The EU-funded programme is intended to expand the nutrition activities implemented since Kenya joined the global Scaling Up Nutrition Movement (SUN) in 2012. For example, Dr. Muraguri pointed out that, increasingly, counties have successfully introduced the recommended 11 high impact nutrition interventions which form part of the Nutrition Policy for Kenya.

These include promotion of breastfeeding and appropriate complementary feeding; vitamin A, iron and folate supplementation; management of acute malnutrition and food fortification. He also acknowledged that there have been more efforts to prevent and manage diet-related non-communicable diseases, as well as improvements to surveillance of nutrition security and faster responses to emergency situations. 

Mrs. Kenyatta highlighted the need to scale up multi-sectoral initiatives, such as one by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health to link nutrition to agriculture. “This will help to prevent over 10,000 child deaths every year due to Vitamin A deficiencies,” noted Mrs. Kenyatta.

Furthermore, she urged both national and county governments to allocate sufficient human and financial resources to support the implementation of the National Nutrition Action Plan. “Counties are encouraged to develop nutrition plans that they will use to mobilize resources in the same way it has been done at national level,” she said.

 Mrs. Kenyatta continued to give keys examples of achievable goals  “I would like to see mothers and care-givers being supported to feed their babies appropriately by having all health facilities certified as baby friendly and nutrition being integrated in the ongoing review of the school curriculum so that our children can grow knowing how what they eat affects their lives.”

One child who is well aware of the importance of nutrition is 14-year-old Danny Kinaro, the President of the National Children’s Government. In his speech to the delegates he stressed the need to educate not only about undernutrition, but also obesity.

“Parents focus on what their children love and forget what is crucial and essentially vital to their health. The foodstuffs children adore are simply greasy and cholesterol-packed junk.”

As Mrs. Kenyatta launched the Maternal and Child Nutrition Project, an indoor firework briefly lit up the stage, while delegates pledged to keep the light on the initiatives to end malnutrition in Kenya.



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