By Paloma Fernandes, Chief Executive Officer of the Cereal Millers Association
Malnutrition, in all its forms, remains a significant challenge in Kenya, with devastating consequences for public health, economic development, and social well-being. According to the Global Nutrition Report 2020, nearly one in three Kenyan children under five suffer from stunting, a form of chronic undernutrition that leads to irreversible physical and cognitive damage. Additionally, deficiencies in micronutrients including iron, zinc, vitamin A, and folic acid are widespread across all age groups; as a result, Kenya loses 374 Billion shillings annually due to malnutrition, equivalent to 6.9% of GDP (Cost of Hunger in Africa (COHA) 2019). Inflation and economic disruptions resulting from the pandemic, conflict in Ukraine, and climate change have only exacerbated the malnutrition crisis in Kenya in recent years.
However, amidst this crisis, we have a valuable tool to address malnutrition at scale: fortified flour. As discussed at the 4th National Nutrition Symposium, ensuring that this tool can benefit all Kenyans will require intensified collective efforts towards enhancing the nutritional status in the country.
Fortification is the process of adding essential vitamins and minerals to staple foods, such as flour and edible oil, to improve their nutritional content without changing their taste or appearance. This is particularly important when one considers the need for the food industry to market products that are already widely accepted by consumers across Kenya. Fortified flour can serve as a vehicle to deliver vital nutrients to vulnerable populations, including young children, pregnant and lactating women, and adults, in a cost-effective and sustainable manner. This can significantly impact reducing the burden of malnutrition, improving overall health outcomes, and contributing to economic growth.
Maize and wheat flour are widely consumed in Kenya, making them ideal vehicles for fortification. By fortifying these flours with key nutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamin A, and folic acid, the nutritional value of these staples can be significantly enhanced. For example, iron and folic acid fortification can help prevent anaemia, a condition affecting many Kenyan women and children. Vitamin A fortification can improve vision and immune function, while zinc fortification can boost growth and development. These nutrients are crucial for overall health and well-being, and fortifying maize and wheat flour can help address the gaps in their consumption.
In addition to its health benefits, flour fortification has proven to be a cost-effective intervention. Studies have shown that fortification is a highly efficient strategy, with a high return on investment in terms of improved health outcomes and reduced healthcare costs. The cost of fortification is relatively low, typically ranging from 0.01% to 0.15% of the cost of the food product, and the impact on improving nutrition is substantial. Moreover, fortification can be easily integrated into existing food systems and supply chains, making it a feasible solution for tackling malnutrition in Kenya, driven by both the public and private sectors.
Food fortification in Kenya is a valuable public health strategy to help fill nutrient gaps in diets and control micronutrient deficiencies. The Government of Kenya adopted food fortification as an efficient, long-term means of facilitating adequate micronutrient intake. But some of those targets have fallen short due to the imbalance between supply and demand, hence the need for private sector players to step in. In 2005, the Kenya National Food Fortification Alliance (KNFFA) was formed to guide the process of planning, implementation, and accountability of fortification initiatives in the country. This allows for private sector to have guided coordination with state actors, and ensure advocacy is done adequately by policymakers for greater attention to fortification.
However early strategies to collaborate with the industry have focused mainly on larger companies, primarily because this group typically has been observed to have efficient infrastructure while also allowing for the opportunity to impact the fortification status of a large portion of the retail market. There’s a need for a much more comprehensive range of industry actors to provide products in developing countries.
To address that need, the Cereal Millers Association (CMA), in conjunction with TechnoServe and the Government of Kenya, will be hosting the first Millers CEO Forum in June, emphasizing the importance of a multi-sectoral approach to tackling malnutrition, involving the government, private sector, civil society, and communities. The rising need to feed a growing nation has led to considerable expansion and the establishment of consolidated food production companies including different private millers. CMA and its members have provided adequately fortified and nutritious foods to address this growing demand.
While the fortification of maize and wheat flour holds immense promise, it is not a standalone solution. It should be implemented as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes other interventions such as the promotion of breastfeeding, diversified diets, improved sanitation and hygiene, and nutrition education. A multi-faceted approach that addresses the underlying causes of malnutrition is essential for sustained impact.
Furthermore, it is crucial to ensure that fortified flour is accessible and affordable to all populations, especially those who are vulnerable and marginalized. This requires strong partnerships between the government, private sector, and civil society to prioritize the nutritional needs of the most vulnerable populations and ensure that fortified flour is widely available and affordable.