African nations can vastly improve their economic potential by ensuring that children are well nourished, says Sihle Mooi, South Africa country director at ForAfrika, the continent’s largest indigenous non-governmental organisation.
Good nutrition is essential for the academic performance that is required for young people to succeed in a modern knowledge economy, says Mooi, ahead of International Literacy Day on 8 September.
“The ability to read and fully understand a wide variety of texts is imperative for good performance, in school, in tertiary education and, later, in the world of work. Well-nourished children will perform better in school, and, particularly, in the context of International Literacy Day, they will more effectively learn to read with comprehension,” says Mooi.
There is an important proviso – the nutrition that a person receives in the first five years of their life is of greatest importance in the prevention of stunting, which is irreversible. Stunting is defined by the World Health Organization as the impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection and inadequate psychosocial stimulation.
Sadly, nearly 56-million children across Africa,18.6-million of them in Southern Africa, are stunted, according to a Southern African Development Community report released this year.
Nutrition is a chief focus of ForAfrika.
In 2021 the organisation reached around 2.9-million people in Angola, Mozambique, South Africa, South Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda through its work, which aims to save lives, alleviate suffering, ensure access to water and sanitation, improve health and nutrition, encourage education, increase food security, promote livelihoods, and develop resilience and stability through economic empowerment.
While ForAfrika’s nutrition programmes cover people of all ages, there is a focus on early childhood development (ECD). Children at schools or ECD centres on ForAfrika’s programmes receive a highly nutritious meal at least once a day. Fortified with essential minerals and vitamins, this bowl of food is designed to give a child 75% of their required daily intake of nutrients, says Mooi.
“Education for today’s world is premised on literacy, and on each person being able to effectively read with comprehension. A major focus for us is to ensure that children under five years of age are well nourished so that they can have a good chance at reaching their potential in life. When they succeed we all succeed,” he says.
ForAfrika has a footprint in all nine of South Africa’s provinces, including in some of the most remote and underserved areas. The organisation works with more than 2 000 ECD centres, and through this network it provides food, clean water and sanitation to approximately 100 000 children up to the age of four, daily.
The South African ECD nutrition programme so impressed ForAfrika’s Pacifique Mahirwe, who is the NGO’s projects coordinator in Rwanda, that he’s adopted it in the East African country.
“When you read reports of how this model has helped children in South Africa you cannot resist bringing it to our Nation of a Thousand Hills because the dream we have is to work together so that Africa can prosper, and this dream begins with the new generation,” Mahirwe says.
The Rwandan programme reaches approximately 2 000 children in two districts, and Mahirwe’s plan is to expand it to wherever ForAfrika has operations in Rwanda.
The Rwandan programme supports ECD centres by providing the resources they need to function effectively. Also, the parents of children in ForAfrika’s Rwandan ECD centres are encouraged to take part in establishing vegetable gardens that supply the centres, and are supported throughout that enterprise.
“A nurtured child will grow physically, mentally and can change the world. Without nutritious food there is diminished education and less of a chance at having a fulfilling life,” says Mahirwe. “Early childhood development remains one of the most powerful levers for accelerating education for all and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 1 – ending poverty in all its forms – because the first three years of being human is when cognitive development begins.”