The Child

So often it is said that all humans want the same thing: to secure a good life for their children. It is therefore worth considering how the African food system might look if viewed through the lens of The Child.

This can pose some provocative questions as Africa becomes increasingly urban, and at the receiving end of a free market food economy: Can the continent afford to allow powerful international companies who are known for aggressively marketing unhealthy food to children into our food systems?And can we ensure that as Africans we make the transition from striving to ensure our children have enough to eat, to ensuring that having abundant food makes children healthier and not simply unhealthy in new ways?

(Above: A selection of images from The Untouchables series which explores threats posed to children in today's world. By Erik Ravelo)

Traditionally hunger has been a greater threat than obesity, however, today more people in the world suffer from being overweight, than those who suffer from hunger. In the words of food activist, Raj Patel, ‘Stuffed is fast becoming a bigger killer than starved'. 

This means that and on average a child born in 2013 has a greater chance of suffering from the health impacts of having too much food rather than too little. Despite this alarming trend towards obesity, almost a billion people still go hungry, mostly in the developing world.

(Above: A feeding centre in Mogadishu caters to refugees streaming into the city to escape the drought devastating farmland in the countryside. They would rather risk being caught in the cross fire in the capital than face starvation in the countryside. Mogadishu, Somalia - By Robin Hammond)

A child exposed to chronic malnutrition in the first 1000 days of life starts school with a lower cognitive capacity than his or her immediate peers, attains a lower level of education, benefits less from state investments into tertiary training, and ultimately becomes less productive in the workplace (or even employable). According to the World Bank, these compounding losses arising from early childhood malnourishment can reduce an individual’s lifetime earning capacity by up to 10%. In the words of The Lancet (the world’s leading medical journal), adequate nutrition in the first 1000 days of life is “essential for formation of human capital, because undernourished children are more likely to become short adults, to have lower educational achievement, and to give birth to smaller infants. Under-nutrition is also associated with lower economic status in adulthood.

(Above: A child grows up in drought stricken region of Northern Kenya. By Robin Hammond)

Put another way, when a girl is under nourished in the first 1000 days of life, not only is her economic productivity as an adult affected, but by default so too is the economic productivity of the children she gives birth to. This knock-on effect on her children can be almost entirely mitigated - but this is dependent on adequate interventions between her birth and the birth of her children. Conversely, those who receive optimal nutrition – typically the wealthy and well educated – experience an invisible multiplier effect in their ability to stay ahead of their poorer counterparts.

In this inter-generational and almost entirely invisible way, nutritional inequality today, reinforces multi-generational cycles of social inequality. Under-nutrition and obesity not only drives an invisible wedge between children and widens the inequality gap, it also costs countries billions of dollars a year in unnecessary health care costs.

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