Malnutrition Thins out Growth and Costs Millions – Jay Naidoo in South Africa’s The Times

I have witnessed huge strides in our country since the end of apartheid, but for all the improvements made there is one glaring issue that holds us all back – malnutrition.

This hidden hunger blinds our children, affects their mental development and stunts their growth – blighting their future and our nation’s prospects. One in 10 South African children is affected.

And as the recession bites and more and more South Africans worry about how to feed their families, we face a sharp rise in malnutrition rates. Cheap food staples may fill stomachs, but they don’t provide the essential range of vitamins and minerals a person needs. This isn’t just a hunger story, though – it’s an economic one.

Malnutrition costs our nation hundreds of millions of rands each year, and if we are to emerge strong after the economic crisis, we must fight malnourishment now. But how? As South Africa faces its first recession in 17 years, public finances are in a weakened state and “every cent must be spent wisely and fruitfully”, warns President Jacob Zuma. Food fortification – the addition of essential vitamins and minerals to everyday foods – is one way, and it’s a bargain at just 1c a person a day. In 2003 our government took the decision to fortify maize and wheat flour, and the results have been spectacular. Our nation had a 30 percent drop in neural tube defects and a saving of more than R40 million in health costs on this problem alone.

We’ve already proved the benefits of food fortification and how little it costs. Tackling malnutrition is a wise use of resources – we just need to do more with a fresh approach – one in which the government and business work together. The facts are that if we reduce malnutrition by 1 percent, then we reduce poverty by 4 percent. But we’ve limited ourselves, accustomed to thinking that it’s solely the government’s role to tackle health and nutrition issues, yet it’s the private sector that delivers our daily bread. If we’re to solve malnutrition, we have to harness the ideas, creativity and technology that business can provide. Strong public-private partnerships extend the reach of micronutrient interventions and leave no one behind.

That is why the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) is launching the South African Alliance Against Malnutrition. It brings the government and business together to end malnutrition in this country, creating solutions that reach those most vulnerable in our society. By working with innovative food firms and encouraging them to add micronutrients to staples such as salt, rice and vegetable oil, we can deliver, on a mass scale, the vitamins and minerals people need. We know that the private sector is willing to take on the challenge and can deliver results. South Africa’s Chamber of Millers embraced flour fortification when it was introduced. They benefited and so did South Africans. A growing number of international companies have promised to support food fortification. Just last week in Amsterdam, Gain, the Dutch government and blue chip companies such as Unilever and DSM agreed to work together to cut malnutrition in Africa. They didn’t make the commitment out of kindness.

It made economic sense. As leaders from governments and business gathered this week in Cape Town for the World Economic Forum on Africa, food security and health must be closely linked to strategies to lift the economy out of recession and deliver on the hopes of South Africans for a better life. Nations can’t hope to compete on the world stage without taking into account the nutrition of their people. The road forward requires the best from business and government and the non-governmental organisation community. Malnutrition is a complex issue and many factors have a role to play, including education and social mores, but South Africa is lucky – our people and industry have the expertise; we just need to increase our efforts. Malnutrition has huge, long-term costs for the economy and society. If South Africa is to overcome the problem and prosper, then nutrition needs to be part of the mainstream political agenda, now. Jay Naidoo Published in the Business Report and in The Times, South Africa

Published 12 June 2009