Is malnutrition the link between slow economic development and poverty?


By Dr David Githang’a , 17 July 2020

A story (DN 22 April 2020) left me alarmed and greatly disappointed. In brief, it stated that Treasury had stopped plans of a lucrative maize deal that was in the offing.  Lack of ‘securitization’ of maize in Kenya partly led to this recurrence of unconscionable profiteering.   

Maize accounts for over half of the smallholders’ land devoted to food crops and nearly all small holders grow some variety of maize to eat and market. My recent research work in Makueni County revealed that poverty was the nexus between aflatoxin exposure and malnutrition. We know that poor nutrition shadows over half of children’s deaths globally.  

It is common knowledge that aflatoxin effects are most exaggerated in children, women, the immunocompromised and the poor. Even though Africa has the highest proportion of arable land, it has the highest proportion of starving people amongst the 5 continents. The cumulative and nonreversible hidden hunger leaves 40% of children stunted in Sub Saharan Africa with Kenya having 26% of its children under 5 years being stunted. 

The world is now focused on nutrition-driven poor immunity, cognitive development, physical growth, reproductive performance and work productivity concern rather than the traditional protein –energy deficiency and micronutrient deficiencies that cause anaemia and goiter (Underwood et al 1999). Hidden hunger in early life leads to stunting, lower cognitive abilities, lethargy, poor attention, greater severity and rates of infections.  Sub-optimum educational progress, physical work capacity and life expectancy result in reduced individual lifetime productivity. That people are the primary unit of development is often forgotten.  

The stated newspaper article points out our focus on hunger (quantity) than nutrition (quality and nutritional balance) besides highlighting our insatiable desire to make a quick buck.  We have the knowledge and technology to enable us revamp large scale maize farming that can stabilize maize prices, ensure ‘aflatoxin-safe’ grain while discouraging immoral grain trading that is a national threat; hence the need to securitize maize now!  When wrong behavior is rewarded, most people will do what is easy instead of what is right. 

Some have argued that poverty creates malnutrition and vice versa but this I would consider to be an academic argument.  We need to move our population from dependence on a single cereal by all available means that include proactively promoting, enabling and rewarding dietary diversity. Food based approaches to nutrition require long term commitments.  On the positive side, they are sustainable since they are part of the development process that leads to long term economic growth.  The intricate connection between social, cultural, political and environmental factors with food security at household level is beyond the scope of Wanjiku.  Other additional health determinants include safe water, green energy, ecological food production models and getting rid of ‘toilet nomadism’.  Underwriting the human capital upfront is cheaper compared to delayed interventions through treatment of diseases and economic subsidies.   

Dr David Githang’a is a consultant Paediatric cardiologist and public health specialist. He has special interest in aflatoxins and their effects on the health of populations. 

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Rootooba’s standpoint.