Food for the masses
Jay Naidoo, chairman of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain), says it an indictment of a middle-income country such as South Africa that one third of its children are malnourished.
This week Naidoo attended the 10th anniversary celebrations of Gain, a Geneva-based international organisation that mobilises public-private partnerships to implement large-scale innovative and sustainable market-based nutrition solutions.
Marc van Ameringen, the executive director of Gain, told board members: “So far, we are reaching more than 610 million people daily with improved nutrition, and our overall target is to reach one billion. We have developed more than 50 partnerships, and raised $400 million to deliver programmes.”
Naidoo, the first general secretary of Cosatu and a former cabinet minister, became the first chairman of Gain in 2003.
He said Gain was the brainchild of former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and Bill Gates, who now heads the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which gives vast amounts to charities.
“Ultimately I saw malnutrition was a connector between various other development challenges such as food security, climate change, agriculture, women’s incomes and public health,” Naidoo said in an interview.
“Our challenge in sub-Saharan Africa is enormous. We know that a third of our children (in South Africa) are malnourished.
“It is an indictment on us as a country. We are not in a position where we have a lack of resources. We invest a huge proportion of our resources into health and education.”
The first 1 000 days of a child’s life were the most crucial, he said.
“You miss that window and the problem is irreversible. Children are stunted, physically stunted or not the right height.”
Nutrition was also vital to the effectiveness of campaigns against HIV and Aids.
“There is empirical evidence that people who are very sick and on ARVs have side effects. Nutrition is a key component,” said Naidoo, who praised the administration under President Jacob Zuma for providing antiretroviral drugs to 1.5 million HIV-positive people.
“Providing ARVs without adequate nutrition is in the medium and long terms going to be extremely negative for us,” said Naidoo.
“There has to be a component in dealing with their nutritional needs.” One of Gain’s first successful campaigns was with the South African health department for “the mass fortification of maize flour and wheat flour with folic acid, vitamin A and iron”.
Naidoo said the campaign caused a significant drop in neural birth defects by making it compulsory for suppliers to add minute quantities of folic acid to flour.
“For mothers, after six months of breastfeeding, nothing could be better than having nutrient-dense products. Rich people can easily buy the products. But we have to create appropriate products for people at the bottom of the pyramid,” Naidoo said.
He sounded a warning against over-reliance on breastfeeding to the exclusion of any supplementary or complementary nutrition.
“In a sense, when we take a view against complementary products for children between six and 24 months we are discriminating against poor people,” said Naidoo, who added that “Gain is interested in products for people who live on less than $10 (R83)a day”.
“We need to have tough discussion with the government around what the right regulations and laws are, in particular in South Africa. We have to get it right in South Africa because it is often a model for the region.
“There have to be regulations for the way complementary foods produced by the private sector are made available in the marketplace along with a commitment by government and companies to promote breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life We need appropriate legislation.”
He was critical of a part of civil society that saw no role for the private sector in providing food for under-nourished children.
“The reality is the vast majority of poor people will buy food from a market place or from some entrepreneur. It might be a small miller or it might be Unilever or Procter and Gamble,” said Naidoo, noting that his organisation was concerned about “how you make them more efficient to produce foods that are nutritious, affordable and accessible”. – Daily News Foreign Service