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Hidden hunger – the impact of nutritional deficiency on early childhood development

Hidden hunger – the impact of nutritional deficiency on early childhood development

By Brenda Wawa

For years, boosting agricultural production was believed to be the solution to world hunger and malnourishment. But years of intensive farming with chemical fertilizers and pesticides has done little to move the needle on food insecurity, health metrics or life expectancy.

Today, experts have identified a new kind of hunger—one caused not by lack of food but by food that lacks essential micronutrients necessary for growth and development.

Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals such as iodine, vitamin A, iron, zinc, calcium, and many others.

The effects of micronutrient deficiency can be irreversible. For example, without iodine, children are susceptible to brain damage.

Its most devastating impacts occur during fetal development and in the first few years of a child’s life,” warns UNICEF, the UN body that handles issues affecting children.

Micronutrients, though needed in microquantities, its deficiency can condemn a child to lifelong irreversible damageThey would never be able to attain their intellectual, economic and developmental potential,” said Anna Lartey, director of nutrition at the Food and Agriculture Organization, a specialised UN agency that leads efforts to defeat hunger.

Lack of vitamin A is the leading cause of preventable childhood blindness, stunted growth, weakened immunity and high mortality for children under five.

Hidden hunger also leads to acute undernutrition or child wasting, which can be diagnosed in children under five with low height for their age. It affects them at an extremely crucial phase in development.

Globally, up to 2 billion people do not get enough essential vitamins and minerals from food, according to the 2018 Global Hunger Index, which tracks and measures efforts to fight hunger, indicating that many of the affected are in poor countries.

Nearly 48% of Africa’s population relies on cereals and root staples that lack vital micronutrients, according to the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the implementing arm of the African Union. Millions have no access to or can not afford foods such as vegetables, fruits, and animal products that are rich in micronutrients.

Possible solutions

To provide adequate micronutrients for children, UNICEF recommends a diverse range of nutrient-dense foods. It also recommends that children be breastfed.

Biofortification is another effective remedy, experts say. The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes biofortification as “a process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through agronomic practices, conventional plant breeding, or modern biotechnology.”

The process usually targets the three crucial nutrients—iron, zinc and vitamin A—that are the most limited in the diets of populations across Africa.

Researchers and nutritionists are optimistic about the impact and cost-effectiveness of biofortification.

It is a complementary intervention that can reach many people in the rural areas more easily, and has the advantage of being more sustainable,” said Dr. Natalia Palacios, maize nutritional quality specialist at the Kenya-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. “Farmers and their families can benefit directly from a micronutrient-enhanced diet.”

WHO has yet to officially endorse biofortification, stating on its website that more research is needed. Nevertheless, by the end of 2017, about 6.7 million households globally had benefited from biofortified crops, of which 5 million households were in Africa.

HarvestPlus, a Washington D.C.–based organisation that seeks to reduce hidden hunger, is working with private and public sectors to implement biofortification in Africa.

Biofortification is also an objective in the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), a framework adopted in 2003 by African leaders that requires countries to invest at least 10% of their budgets in agriculture.

Farmers in 13 African countries, including Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, are already growing biofortified crops and have incorporated them into their national nutrition policies and programmes. Thirty-eight other countries, including Angola, Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mali and Zambia, are carrying out tests.

Research has shown positive health impacts of vitamin A in maize and sweet potatoes in local systems, as well as the ability to scale up,” said Dr. John McDermott, director of the Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health at CGIAR, a global network of organizations engaged in research on food security.

Dr. McDermott added that “similar evidence for iron in beans and pearl millet show effectiveness and scalability of iron in plant sources, and we are working to show the same for zinc.”

Limitations of biofortification

Despite its touted merits, biofortification has its limits, including that some members of a target population will not consume a fortified foodstuff, even when exposed to the increased levels of micronutrients in food, according to WHO.

Also, infants and young children consuming relatively small amounts of food may not get enough micronutrients from fortified staples alone.

Poorer families often have multiple micronutrient deficiencies at once. While multiple micronutrient fortification is possible, these families may not be able to get recommended intakes of all micronutrients from fortified foods alone.

Although more cost-effective than other strategies, there are nevertheless significant costs associated with the food fortification process, which might limit the implementation and effectiveness of food fortification programmes in developing [countries] like India,” notes WHO.

The current funding for biofortification in Africa is restricted to adding the nutrient trait into already growing crop pipelines as opposed to including the nutrient trait right at the onset of plant breeding work. The current approach may not be sustainable in the long term, experts warn.

Also, weak seed and market systems in Africa continue to impede delivery to farmers of biofortified crops from which seeds can be obtained. Effective engagement between research and development institutions will likely address this weakness, posit biofortification researchers.

In sum, biofortification may not eradicate hidden hunger entirely, but it just might be an effective shield against hunger pangs in Africa.

Africa Renewal

About The Author

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Following reverse listing, public can now acquire shareholding in Paratus Namibia


20 February 2020, Windhoek, Namibia: Paratus Namibia Holdings (PNH) was founded as Nimbus Infrastructure Limited (“Nimbus”), Namibia’s first Capital Pool Company listed on the Namibian Stock Exchange (“NSX”).

Although targeting an initial capital raising of N$300 million, Nimbus nonetheless managed to secure funding to the value of N$98 million through its CPC listing. With a mandate to invest in ICT infrastructure in sub-Sahara Africa, it concluded management agreements with financial partner Cirrus and technology partner, Paratus Telecommunications (Pty) Ltd (“Paratus Namibia”).

Paratus Namibia Managing Director, Andrew Hall

Its first investment was placed in Paratus Namibia, a fully licensed communications operator in Namibia under regulation of the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (CRAN). Nimbus has since been able to increase its capital asset base to close to N$500 million over the past two years.

In order to streamline further investment and to avoid duplicating potential ICT projects in the market between Nimbus and Paratus Namibia, it was decided to consolidate the operations.

Publishing various circulars to shareholders, Nimbus took up a 100% shareholding stake in Paratus Namibia in 2019 and proceeded to apply to have its name changed to Paratus Namibia Holdings with a consolidated board structure to ensure streamlined operations between the capital holdings and the operational arm of the business.

This transaction was approved by the Competitions Commission as well as CRAN, following all the relevant regulatory approvals as well as the necessary requirements in terms of corporate governance structures.

Paratus Namibia has evolved as a fully comprehensive communications operator in Namibia and operates as the head office of the Paratus Group in Africa. Paratus has established a pan-African footprint with operations in six African countries, being: Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia.

The group has achieved many successes over the years of which more recently includes the building of the Trans-Kalahari Fibre (TKF) project, which connects from the West Africa Cable System (WACS) eastward through Namibia to Botswana and onward to Johannesburg. The TKF also extends northward through Zambia to connect to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, which made Paratus the first operator to connect the west and east coast of Africa under one Autonomous System Number (ASN).

This means that Paratus is now “exporting” internet capacity to landlocked countries such as Zambia, Botswana, the DRC with more countries to be targeted, and through its extensive African network, Paratus is well-positioned to expand the network even further into emerging ICT territories.

PNH as a fully-listed entity on the NSX, is therefore now the 100% shareholder of Paratus Namibia thereby becoming a public company. PNH is ready to invest in the future of the ICT environment in Namibia. The public is therefore invited and welcome to acquire shares in Paratus Namibia Holdings by speaking to a local stockbroker registered with the NSX. The future is bright, and the opportunities are endless.