In Isiolo and Marsabit counties of northern Kenya, temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius are common, and rainfall is low. These are arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs). When it does rain, there are often floods, causing havoc and exposing communities to health dangers. Communities here are pastoralists, with most households dependant on livestock and few producing crops. Markets for trading livestock, and market information are limited, as is dietary diversity. Livelihoods are precarious and acute malnutrition, particularly of women, children, and the elderly is a perennial challenge with complex causes.
A new five-year USAID-funded project called NAWIRI – Nutrition in ASALs Within Integrated Resilience Institutions – aims to tackle this, building resilience in the region, including through development of local food systems. In Swahili, NAWIRI means "to appear nourished" or "to thrive". NAWIRI, awarded to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was launched in late February 2020 by the local USAID mission together with the county governments of Isiolo and Marsabit.
In NAWIRI, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) in Kenya joins a consortium of core implementing partners, including Concern Worldwide, International Business and Technical Consultants Inc. (IBTCI), Manoff Group, Tuffs University and Village Enterprise to deliver a multisectoral package of services to support local institutions sustainably reduce persistent acute malnutrition among vulnerable subpopulations of Isiolo and Marsabit counties.
Much has been done through collaborative efforts between these county government and the civil society in the fight against acute malnutrition. However, despite significant efforts and interventions aiming at reducing acute malnutrition over decades, the situation has not changed much due to the fact that interventions have not addressed some of the underlying drivers of poor nutrition like high rates of youth unemployment, underdeveloped food value chains, poor infrastructure (especially rural roads), and natural resource pressures to name a few.
Under NAWIRI, partners look to develop sustainable ways of reducing acute malnutrition, strengthening present systems and institutions to sustain change, while contributing to global learning. Consultative meetings conducted during NAWIRI’s launch drove home the point that malnutrition needs to be addressed not only by donors and external parties, but through a multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder approach, inclusive of local community efforts.
In Marsabit county, for example, the county government has already made significant efforts to increase the number of nutritionists from 6 in 2012 to 70 today.
USAID Mission director Mark Meassick remarked at NAWIRI’s launch: "The best solution is to use the USD 8.6 billion brought to you by the US government to invest in this region because malnutrition is caused by lack of access to finance, education and better health care; we must work together to determine what needs to change."
He went on to emphasise the need for NAWIRI to be community owned, community lead and managed by the community.
NAWIRI is looking to work differently by engaging different groups, including women, youth, community-based organisations, civil society more broadly, and the private sector, to find sustainable solutions to acute malnutrition in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid regions. This means greater mobilisation, greater commitment and collaboration, as well as taking on lessons learnt from previous decades.
GAIN is leading on developing and testing market-based innovations to boost availability of nutritious and diverse foods in the target counties. Beside lack of food and barriers to improving food quality, there are cultural issues preventing consumption of certain foods, such as chicken and fish, that must be tackled. Possession of livestock like goats, camel and cows is a sign of wealth, while chicken and fish are categorised as food for the poor. Sale of animals and animal products is not encouraged and similarly, vegetables are not consumed much as they are known to be animal feeds. Behaviour change techniques and awareness creation campaigns may be necessary to change mindsets.
GAIN will build on its expertise in developing and testing market-based innovations in the Kenyan food system (for example, through its longstanding Marketplace – Marketplace for Nutritious Foods – programming) to facilitate greater availability of nutritious and diverse foods in target markets.
Some significant efforts in place in the region by the Ministries of Agriculture and Trade include initiatives on the dairy value chain (including camel milk), poultry, aquaculture, honey, resin and gum, and vegetable production. However these initiatives do not apply commercial or business models, limiting their impact on sustainable livelihoods. This provides impetus for GAIN to deploy its Marketplace expertise, applying a model including networking, technical support, business planning, and access to financial grants to stimulate businesses to strengthen nutritious food value chains.
"We need to think about how we could change the micro economy of the sub-counties and work collaboratively with the different ministries and businesses to stimulate a commercialisation and business model to ensure consistent supply of nutritious food," said Leah Kaguara, Country Director for GAIN in Kenya, during NAWIRI’s launch. She further stated the importance of ensuring the community is on board, taking ownership of the various initiatives in order to strengthen the supply chain. Mr. Owuor from the Ministry of Trade insisted on the need for communities to stop looking at pastoralism as a cultural and traditional activity, and more as a business opportunity.
Through NAWIRI, there are new opportunities to improve the nutrition situation in Isiolo and Marsabit by 2025. In county government and in communities, people are hopeful that this will not end up being just another relief programme, but a lasting solution to malnutrition.