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Beyond raw produce: without its food producers, Zimbabwe would face a major health crisis

25 Feb 2022 at 07:34hrs | Views
It's almost become a cliche when discussing Zimbabwe's economic difficulties over the past two decades to lament the fact that it was once the "breadbasket of Africa". This is typically contrasted with the harsh on-the-ground reality the country currently faces. According to figures from Unicef, nearly one in three Zimbabwean children under five is suffering from malnutrition - a situation exacerbated by drought and the economic devastation of COVID-19.

But it's worth noting that the situation could be even worse were it not for the efforts of the country's food producers. Without their commitment to fortifying a range of food products with vitamins and minerals, the country wouldn't just be facing issues related to hunger but a whole host of other nutrition-related diseases and conditions.

Those conditions would, in turn, have a profoundly negative impact on a healthcare system that is already struggling as well as on a struggling economy.  

A significant turnaround

Today, most basic staples (depending on the brand) in Zimbabwe have at least some level of fortification. In large part, that's thanks to government regulation. Salt, for example, has been required to include iodine for some time as a way of staving off thyroid problems and some forms of mental illness. And, since 2016, vegetable oils, wheat flour, maize and milled maize products, and sugar have all required fortification.

Fortifying sugar might seem like an odd choice to anyone from a highly developed country where governments often tax sugar in order to try and discourage its consumption. But amongst low-income earners in emerging markets especially, sugar is a crucial source of calories. Tongaat Hullett, for example, fortifies its sugar with Vitamin A premix (bought from Millhouse) and this reached more than five million people in 2021.
Among the additives required for fortification are iron, iodine, zinc, and vitamins A and D. Getting high enough levels of these vitamins and minerals is crucial to staving off a range of conditions from anaemia and rickets to stunted growth and impaired immune systems.

But it hasn't always been this way. In 2010, before the food regulations came into play, some 33% of Zimbabwean children suffered from stunted growth. The situation was still pretty dire in 2015, when I started working with The Ministry of Health and Child Care on food fortification. By 2018, that number had dropped to 26% and today 23.5% of children under five are affected. That means Zimbabwe is on course to meet the acceptable global threshold of 20%, despite the economic impact of the pandemic.

Its levels of childhood wasting – when a child is too thin for their height – are also well below the African average and childhood obesity levels (sometimes also a symptom of malnutrition) sit at just 2.5%.

Room for improvement

There is, of course, still room for improvement. Some manufacturers have failed to meet the government's standards for food fortification. A few have blamed this on the intermittent supply of foreign currency, exacerbated by the fact that most of the food fortificants come from outside the country. Even so, the government has had to threaten to remove unfortified items from shelves to try and push compliance.

Consumer education has also been an issue at times. Many people may not be aware of why food fortification is so important or how to ensure that the food they buy is properly fortified. While government regulation is important, an educated population can empower themselves to ensure they're getting the foodstuffs they should be.

Ensuring that nutrition levels for all Zimbabweans continue to improve will take a concerted effort from the government, manufacturers, and consumers alike. While the government should be doing everything in its power to ease the import of fortificants and encourage their domestic production, manufacturers should ensure that they establish relationships with food fortification companies that understand the country's unique conditions and are able to work around them. Both also have a role to play in educating consumers, who can then pressure those within the industry who aren't fortifying to do so.

Fortifying for the future

Ultimately, fortification shouldn't just be viewed as an obligation or a way of addressing immediate nutritional needs. Instead, it should be viewed as an investment in the future. When things improve in Zimbabwe, as I believe they must, its young people should be in the best possible position to ensure that they can grab all the opportunities available to them. Food fortification is fundamental to them being able to do so.

Source - Andre Redinger, Founder of Millhouse International
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