A thin dusting of bright green shoots covers the sandy plains around Ouahigouya, in northwest Burkina Faso. Recent rains have broken a three-year drought, and vegetation in this arid region has come to life.
For some, the rains have come too late. UNICEF estimates that that 100,000 children under 5 are suffering from severe acute malnutrition in Burkina Faso while, according to World Food Programme estimates, close to 1.7 million people are at risk of going hungry.
Joint action targets women and children
Support is being rolled out in Burkina Faso as part of a European Union (EU)–UNICEF joint action for improving nutrition security in Africa. Funded by the EU, and in partnership with UNICEF, the Government of Burkina Faso and local NGOs, the project aims to improve nutrition security among women and young children. The approach is broad based and begins with education.
“Malnutrition is not really about lack of food,” explains Deputy Representative of UNICEF Burkina Faso Sylvana Nzirorera. “It’s about how much a mother knows about feeding a young child, and this is linked to the whole issue of educated mothers…That’s why UNICEF, while tackling the issue of malnutrition, takes it also through education, girls’ education, because this will make a big difference.”
Mothers, vendors, farmers
Through community-based local NGOs, mothers are being taught to move away from total reliance on staple grains such as millet, and to introduce and incorporate vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables into their daily diets.
Cecile Beloum Ouedraogo is the President of Appui Moral, Matériel et Intellectuel à l’Enfant (AMMIE), an NGO working to educate mothers in how best to feed their children. She and her team go from village to village holding nutrition classes. Cooking demonstrations then teach mothers how to fortify their families’ meals with vitamin-rich ingredients.
Ms. Beloum Ouedraogo reports, “We have seen very positive results. Thanks to nutritional education, testing and diagnosing, classes for mothers, we have seen the rate of malnutrition drop in the area we work.”
Monday is market day in Ouahigouya. Here, Ms. Beloum Ouedraogo and her team have been teaching fruit and vegetable sellers the nutritional value of their wares so that they can then pass it on to their customers. Farmers are encouraged to plant fruit and vegetables instead of relying only on less nutritious staple grains. They’re taught techniques and are assisted financially in developing their plots and wells. They consume the produce themselves, and are also able to sell the surplus at local markets.
Another part of the project is to ensure a nutritious start in life. Traditionally, mothers in Burkina Faso don’t breastfeed exclusively, often substituting gravy or even water for breast milk. Many babies become malnourished, and some die.
To highlight the nutritious value of breast milk, local theatre groups visit rural villages and perform plays that encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life. Performances are followed by a question-and-answer session to reinforce the message.
Mamounata Kabore is one of the mothers watching, but she already knows the message. Nine-month-old Oumarou still breastfeeds and has only recently been introduced to other types of food. Exclusive breastfeeding is slowly taking root, and babies are better nourished and healthier.
“Before, kids were sick a lot,” says Ms. Kabore. “The kids were catching infections from the mothers feeding them incorrectly. Sometimes they would even die from it. Today with women practising exclusive breastfeeding, the children are healthy, and they don't get sick as much. That’s why all the women in this village breastfeed their children until they are 6 months old.”
More than 14,500 villages will benefit from the project, reaching an estimated 75,000 pregnant women, 145,000 children under the age of 2 and 145,000 breastfeeding mothers.
Towards nutritional independence
Head of the European Union Delegation to Burkina Faso Alain Holleville has taken a personal interest in the rollout and success of the project. “This project, which is integrated within a group of projects that we are funding in Burkina Faso in the field of food security, is specifically focused on nutrition with the pedagogical aim to emphasize that nutrition issues have to be understood in a multisectoral approach,” he explains. “That means to integrate production, quality, food diet, education. So in one word, it must become a ‘hub’ of issues, which is a very new way of approaching things, compared to what has been in place in the field of food security over the last few years.”
The project will, it is hoped, revolutionize local food production and local diet in Burkina Faso, moving the country away from recurrent nutritional crisis to nutritional independence.