Mojisola Karigidi, Founder and Product Developer, Moepelorse Bio Resources

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Subjects of Interest

  • Food Security
  • Governance
  • Health
  • Sustainable Development

Rich and poor Nigerian households suffering from malnutrition 24 Dec 2021

Last month, the International Food Policy Research Institute released a policy brief which revealed a staggering imbalance in the food consumption pattern of Nigerians compared to the EAT-Lancet global reference diet. Both low- and high-income households in the country were affected.

About 40 percent of the country’s population live below the national poverty level, which implies that a significant proportion of the population is food insecure and inferably do not consume healthy diets. However, what is more shocking is the prevalence of malnutrition in rich households.

According to the report, about 12 million children under the age of five – 35 percent of the population – are stunted. Twenty-one million people from 15 years and above are overweight and about 12 million are obese. These figures can be doubled in severe situations of health emergencies and local or global crisis.

As rightly stated by the report, wasting and stunting occur more often among low-income households while overweight and obesity are common nutrient deficiencies among high income earners. Although a high socio-economic status should translate to a better purchasing power for high-income earners to access healthy diets, both categories of people experience varying forms of malnutrition resulting from low consumption of a diverse diet.

A diverse diet is a diet that reflects intake of a wide variety of foods – cereals, roots and tubers, dairy products, meat, fish, pulses and nuts, vegetables and fruits in the recommended daily proportions. This entails higher proportions of vegetables, followed by dairy foods, then cereals, fruits, pulses and nuts but low consumption of starchy roots and tubers, fats, and sugars.

Therefore, approaches to tackle malnutrition in Nigeria must target the needs and peculiarities of both categories of people in addition to dietary needs of different age groups. The daily diet of wealthy households is highly starchy with more roots and tubers including a lot of processed foods containing fat and sugar, low quantities of vegetables, fruits and very low consumption of dairy foods. The diet of the people in the highest income category is, however, rich in animal sourced foods such as meat, fish, egg and so on. The inability of this class to consume a diverse diet at the required proportion could be linked to poor information on nutrient requirements or a shortage in the country’s production of a wide range of highly nutritious foods.

For poor households, dietary intake is mostly starchy and extremely low in ani mal-sourced foods, vegetables, fruits, pulses and nuts. Poor consumption of nutritious foods for this category of people is linked to low purchasing power, high cost of nutrient-rich foods, and limited access to a diversity of healthy foods. Lack of dietary diversity is a strong contributor to micro nutrient deficiencies, which predispose individuals to several disease conditions. The same applies to excessive consumption of fatty foods and sugars.

Nigeria, like many other African countries, is far from achieving the zero hunger Sustainable Development Goal of ending all forms of malnutrition by 2030. However, based on data from the World Health Organization and the World Bank, a reduction in childhood stunting from 48.7 percent in 1990 to 31.5 percent in 2020 reflects the impacts of some of the interventions channelled into supporting agricultural development and fortification programmes.

To improve the nutrition status of the population, whether in rural or urban centres, government at all levels must invest more in a people-oriented food system that prioritizes the nutritional health of its citizens. Such investments should be geared towards increasing the production and consumption of diverse kinds of vegetables, fruits, pulses and nuts as well as animal products and dairy. There is an urgent need to make all classes of nutrient-rich foods widely available for everyone irrespective of socio-economic status or location. Increased availability and accessibility of these essential agricultural products to meet the demand of about 211 million people will cause a shift in the demand-supply curve, which will influence affordability through price reduction.

One critical step would be to transform the food production system from subsistence to mechanized agriculture with greater support for farmers to go into large scale cultivation of diverse nutritious foods. Agricultural policies in the country should not only seek to increase consumption of locally grown products in order to support indigenous farmers, but they must also boost the capacity of farmers to meet the increasing demand for nutritious foods.

With the increasing impacts of climate change that continues to threaten food security and buttress the need to do more with limited resources, the most populous country in Africa can no longer rely on traditional methods of food production. Diversification of sources of farm inputs, production, producers, market, and sup ply chain to scale up the production and consumption of nutritious foods must be embraced. Expanding the access of growers of other food items that are not staple foods (for example rice, maize, cassava, yam etc.) to agricultural inputs such as improved varieties, fertilizers, effective irrigation systems as well as unrestricted access to finance should be promoted to make more healthy foods available. Sustainable food production and resilient agricultural practices are essential to enable farmers recover quickly from shocks and other factors that tend to frustrate their productivity and livelihoods.

Strategies to improve the shelf life of nutritious but highly perishable foods must accompany efforts to boost production. Government bodies should work towards providing subsidies for farmers to cultivate more healthy foods. Subsidies can mitigate some of the risks associated with large scale cultivation of nutritious perishable crops and animal production for dairy foods. Subsidies for producers of healthy foods can also help to improve the income of farmers and other food producers which is one of the aims of the Zero Hunger goal.

In Nigeria, there has been a decline in the average income of food producers from approximately $657.94 million in 2016 to $481.26 million (measured at 2011 international US$ exchange rate to adjust for inflation) in 2019 according to the United Nations. Current income level may be much lower due to Covid-19 pandemic and increased security challenges within the country. Hence government policies should also target improving the income of healthy food producers to encourage higher productivity.

Policy reforms should include providing incentives to encourage the establishment of more agro-allied companies in the country for the processing of perishables into better stable products to limit spoilage, waste and income losses.

Having poultry products and veggies in sufficient quantities will reduce excessive consumption of calorie-dense foods that are low in micronutrients- vitamins and minerals. Apart from improving the health and nutritional status of citizens, boost ing the production of healthy foods also has promising economic benefits. Greater productivity translates to more jobs for unemployed people. The importance of creating more job opportunities through the establishment of agricultural industries cannot be overemphasized. For example, in Q4 2020, the country’s youth unemployment rate increase to 53.4 percent from 40 percent in Q2 of the same year.

To improve consumption of healthy diets, public information campaigns to educate the populace on the nutritional needs of different demographics should be frequently communicated through the media. Proper understanding of what to eat and recommended quantities will improve good health, promote resistance to disease outbreaks and possibly reduce the overall cost of maintaining public health. Educational policy measures are effective in curbing possible outbreaks of chronic dis eases stemming from nutrient deficiencies.

Consumption of healthy foods pro motes good health among citizens, which makes room for a stronger and more effective workforce. The wealth of a nation is dependent on the wellbeing of its people. Good nutrition plays a fundamental role in improving economic outputs. If we do not take concrete action to end nutrient deficiencies and position our food system to withstand shocks and emergencies, an epidemic of child malnutrition may be inevitable in the nearest future.

Mojisola Karigidi, a Financial Nigeria Columnist, is a Nigerian biochemist and the founder and product developer at Moepelorse Bio Resources. She is also a Global Innovation Through Science and Technology (GIST) awardee, and an Aspen New Voices fellow.