The Surprising Cause of Stunting in Tanzania

Tanzania 2013

By Jennifer James

September 30, 2013

Also published at Impatient Optimists

In the developed world most people have no idea what stunting is. It is a health problem we do not have to worry about because access to nutritious and fortified foods is abundant in our supermarkets and restaurants and ultimately our kitchens. For us, the stark opposite of stunting for our children is our major dilemma. In developing countries, however, stunting is an everyday part of life for many.

In Tanzania, forty-four percent of all children are stunted according to numbers released by the World Bank. Feed the Future says the number is slightly lower at 42 percent. This number is “highly unacceptable” says Obey N. Assery, the Director of the Department of Coordination of Government Business. Stunting occurs, of course, when children do not receive adequate nutrition for proper growth. Surprisingly, adequate nutrition for children begins in the womb during the first 1000 days before birth through a child's second birthday. That means mothers play a pivotal role in ensuring the proper growth of their children even before they are born which makes decreasing the stunting rate in Tanzania more difficult to manage.

The reason nearly half of Tanzanian children are stunted may surprise you. It’s not that Tanzanians do not have enough food. According to Assery, it’s due to a lack of knowledge.

“It’s not that they are lacking protein. It’s not that they are lacking vegetables, or that they are lacking grains," said Assery. “I think you can also see the issue of gender in malnutrition. Most of the producers along the corridor (the area in Tanzania where most agriculture occurs) are women smallholders. These are the people who are doing most of the production. To me, they are not getting time to feed themselves even when they are pregnant. They are also not getting time to adequately feed their children.”

What Tanzania Is Doing About the Stunting Crisis

Readily accepting that the stunting rate is too high, even among countries that are its income peers, the Tanzanian government has put together a national and district framework to curb malnutrition in its children and mothers. Coordination on the national level has begun, according to Assery, which has resulted in the recruitment of 100 nutrition officers who will be deployed throughout the country educating Tanzanians about eating a balanced diet—as opposed to only eating ugali, a thick cake-like staple food made with maize that is eaten traditionally by millions in eastern Africa. These nutrition officers will also work alongside health extension workers to educate the populace about proper nutrition.

“All of them are there to ensure they get the same message,” noted Assery. “It’s more about social behavior change. That is our strategy. We see it is a lack of knowledge really rather that not having enough foods in the localities.”  

For nearly two years the frameworks have been built and stakeholders have been engaged for a national program rollout.  Nutrition officers will be on the ground in the next few months, according to projections mentioned by Assery. While the Tanzanian government previously thought malnutrition was a health issue they now believe it is caused by a lack of knowledge.

“It is a cultural challenge,” said Geoffrey Kirenga, CEO of the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania. “You will go to communities where food is available, but it is not given to the children. These foods are there, but you will find women are making maize porridge and giving it to children. Food is available in the communities. It is a question of knowledge.”

Reporting was made possible through a fellowship from the International Reporting Project. 

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