Nutrition programmes should shift from treatment to prevention to meet African needs

date: 29 January 2014

Somaliland

Nutrition programmes by foreign donors in Africa are generally focused on treatment and technical solutions, like vitamin and mineral supplementation. But African researchers and policy makers ask for community-based interventions to prevent, rather than only remedy, nutritional problems. They also want Africa to take charge of research priorities to beat malnutrition and hunger. These are the findings of the two-year EU-funded SUNRAY (‘Sustainable nutrition research for Africa in the years to come’) project, published this week in PLOS MedicineNo label found for: as_externallink.alttagNo label found for: as_externallink.alttag.

“In Benin, for example, international agencies implement programmes intended to solve acute malnutrition. However, the real malnutrition problem in the country is chronic malnourishment,” said Dr. Eunice Nago Koukoubou of the Université d'Abomey-Calavi in Benin. According to demographic and health surveys in this West-African country, the prevalence of stunting among children aged less than 5 years increased from 25% (1990) to 45% (2011). Nearly one out of three of these children suffered from the severe form. While malnutrition rates are in decline globally, most African countries lag behind.

African researchers also warn that the current nutrition research agenda is driven from outside Africa. They call for additional efforts to promote cross-African networking of researchers, as well as interactions between researchers and policymakers.

“Africa needs to take charge of research priorities if it is to beat hunger and malnutrition. African research is mostly descriptive and generates too little new evidence. Most of it is driven by a donor-defined agenda and performed in collaboration with researchers from developed countries, while collaboration within Africa remains very poor,” added Nago Koukoubou.

Prof. Patrick Kolsteren of the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp, coordinator of the SUNRAY project, said:

“If donor countries and organisations, including the European Union, want to beat food insecurity and malnutrition, they need to change their approach.”

“We need to shake up nutritional research in Africa and turn it upside down. Currently, researchers from developed countries search African partners for joint research based on funding and research priorities defined outside Africa. Instead, the research agenda should be based on needs identified within the continent. Calls for research proposals of donors should match this agenda,” said Prof. Kolsteren.

The SUNRAY project

The SUNRAY project has organised three regional workshops with African nutrition researchers and policy makers. They identified community-based interventions, behavioural strategies and food security interventions to improve nutrition status as priority areas for research.

In addition, the research identified four priority actions to foster African-driven nutrition research: improving governance of research; increasing capacity development, information and communication; and aligning research funding with African priorities.

To change the face of nutritional research in Africa, the SUNRAY project proposes an African-led systematic approach or “knowledge hub”, which assesses and capitalizes on existing knowledge and effective solutions for major nutrition problems of Africa. This hub will also help to foster relationships between researchers and policy makers, and it would incorporate mechanisms to ensure optimal uptake and use of nutrition research findings for policy development, implementation and programming.

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Source: Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp
© Image: ITM_CLachat