How mothers and community leaders tackled malnutrition in Mali

Dedicated mothers and strong leadership helped move child stunting from a precarious to an acceptable situation in just two years

By Cindy Cao with Eliane Luthi
Bassan Koita stands in front of group
19 December 2017

In Yorosso, southern Mali, child stunting moved from a precarious to an acceptable situation in just two years – a stunning success achieved thanks to dedicated mothers and strong leadership.

KOURY, Mali, 19 December 2017 – In 2014, the district of Yorosso in southern Mali was approaching a crisis of malnutrition. Nearly 1 out of 3 children were chronically malnourished, and just under 1 per cent suffered from severe acute malnutrition – a condition which can be life-threatening to children.

Part of the problem was that many new mothers did not have the resources and education they needed about breastfeeding and proper nutrition for their children. What they needed was information.

A change started taking shape when, as part of an EU-UNICEF project, the local health centre assembled a group of role models to lead nutrition support groups for mothers. Bassan Koita was one of the first.

Despite high malnutrition rates in Mali, the small district of Yorosso is a stunning success story.
Taking action to end child stunting

“I love this role!” says Bassan, who has been leading the group for a few years now. Her work focuses on prevention of chronic malnutrition, also known as stunting, which can have a lifelong impact on children. Not only can stunting compromise a child’s physical and cognitive development, it can also weaken the immune system, and affect concentration and performance in school later on.

“Exclusive breastfeeding until six months is very important,” she says to a group of new mothers in her home village of Koury. “After that, you need to prepare enriched porridge with corn flour, boiling water, salt, oil and sugar. In addition to this, you can give vegetables, fruits and milk.”

Later, she continues the lesson by helping mothers prepare enriched porridge for their children.

“There are challenges of course,” says Bassan. “Some people are stubborn. It’s not easy to promote behavior change. It takes time.”

However, being a role model mother has been incredibly rewarding.

“I have been lucky enough to see a change. Now when I talk to mothers, I really feel they know that what I’m saying is true. Seeing this change is what I’ve liked the most.”

By 2016, Bassan’s work was paying off. Child stunting had fallen to 15.4 per cent – moving from a ‘precarious’ to an ‘acceptable’ situation on WHO classification scale. During the same period, severe acute malnutrition also fell from 0.9 per cent to 0.4 per cent.

Kadiatou Dao, 26, smiles as she breastfeeds her baby
Kadiatou Dao, 26, smiles as she breastfeeds her baby in Koury village. "Exclusive breastfeeding until six months is very important," says Kadiatou, "This helps my baby to be bright, he can be more resistant to diseases.”
“Families do not deserve this”

The dramatic decrease in chronic malnutrition was the result of a concerted effort from an entire community – from mothers, health centres, nutrition support groups and role models like Bassan. A significant part of the effort also came from political will, spearheaded by local official Bernard Coulibaly.

“Seeing malnourished children is heart-breaking. Families do not deserve this,” says Mr.Coulibaly. “If us, local authorities, we don’t do anything, nobody will. These are our people.”

Deputy Prefect Coulibaly has been a steadfast supporter of the nutrition programme from the beginning – overseeing its planning and implementation across all relevant sectors in the district.

“The fight against malnutrition isn't only a health issue – it concerns many other sectors: agriculture, education, water, sanitation....” he says. “Malnutrition is a scourge that slows down development.” 

Bernard Coulibaly, deputy prefect of Yorosso district, meets with mothers and their babies
Bernard Coulibaly, deputy prefect of Yorosso district, meets with mothers and their babies attending a community outreach event to promote good nutrition practices. “Mothers and children are the foundation. All activities are run for them and many activities are led by them," he says.
‘Healthy Not Hungry’

In September 2017, Mr. Coulibably’s efforts and the accomplishments of the community were recognized worldwide when he was awarded the Global Goal Award in the “Healthy Not Hungry” category, for the role he played in fighting child malnutrition.

“The example of Yorosso shows that there are simple, cost-effective solutions to preventing malnutrition,” says Marc Nene, Nutrition Manager at UNICEF Mali. “Investing in the prevention of malnutrition is truly one of the best investments a country can make.”

Indeed, with every dollar invested in preventing malnutrition, it is estimated that a country gains 16 dollars thanks to increased productivity. Seen this way, investing in preventing malnutrition can unleash not just the potential of all children, but the potential of an entire nation.

For now, Bernard Coulibaly and Bassan Koita remain closely linked by the same dream in Yorosso: “Tomorrow, there won’t be any malnourished children,” says Bassan. “Malnutrition will disappear.”