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Fruit for thought in Tanzania nutrition fight

The government is waging an uphill struggle against malnutrition, urging residents to eat more fruit.

Last Modified: 29 Oct 2013 10:08
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Tanzania faces the strange contradiction of high food production and high malnutrition [Chika Oduah/Al Jazeera]

Selemani Hussaini never thought much about eating fruit in the past.

The 46-year-old Tanzanian farmer mainly eats ugali, a thick maize-based porridge. Toss in a few cooked beans, tea or instant coffee and this completes a typical meal.

"This is how we are raised to eat," says Hussaini. "No one really talked about fruit."

Hussaini lives in Tanzania’s second-largest region, Morogoro.  He is part of the nearly 75 percent of the national population living in rural areas. Here, long-held food customs often neglect the value of fresh fruit consumption and local attitudes show evidence of a widespread lack of awareness on basic nutritional information.

"Due to traditional reasons, fruits were never considered as part of the main meal," says nutrition specialist Alex Nalitolela, 

He sees first hand how local perceptions about food have largely contributed to high levels of malnutrition. The chronic malnutrition has lead to a 42 percent stunting rate for children under five in a country of roughly 44 million people. Low-caloric diets and an insufficient intake of vitamins have prevented millions of children from ever reaching their normal height and weight levels.

Nalitolela works with Mwanzo Bora, a five-year regional nutrition project led by Africare and supported by the USAID’s Feed The Future initiative. The project, launched in 2011, addresses malnutrition by integrating nutrition and agricultural strategies. One of those strategies involves setting up Farmer Field Schools and demonstration garden plots to teach local communities about diet diversification and conduct trainings on home gardening to grow fruits and vegetables.

"Our aim is to make sure community members get a diverse food diet in their homes," Nalitolela says.

Mwanzo Bora has established 20 demonstration plots throughout the regions where it operates: Dodoma, Morogoro, Manyara and Zanzibar.

A major part of Mwanzo Bora’s strategy is changing local ideas and behaviours surrounding food. The project organizes peer support groups for neighbors to help each other incorporate the changes they are learning through Mwanzo Bora. So far, more than 6,000 people have been mobilised into these networks to support pro-nutrition behaviors, according to the latest report.

Local farmers participating in Mwanzo Bora had to learn to keep some of the fruits and vegetables from their new gardens for home consumption rather than completely selling them at the local market. Many of them, like Daria Amre, have adapted to this change by maintaining a larger farm to harvest produce for sale alongside a smaller home garden to keep the goods for the household.

Behind her mud brick home on the fertile slopes of the Uluguru Mountains, Amre grows lettuce, cabbage, spinach, leeks, potatoes and she eats the ripe fruits, such as jackfruit, from nearby trees. She says her three children, whose ages range from almost two to ten years old, do not experience as many illnesses since she incorporated the practical nutritional knowledge she has learned from Mwanzo Bora.

Promoting nutrition 

We have high food production and high malnutrition.

-Obey Assery, government official

It’s these types of success stories that the Tanzanian government is aiming to get more of. But the problem, according to one government official, is that for a long time, the crops farmers produced had little nutritional value and did not help diversify local diets. Ugali was what most Tanzanians were eating daily.

"You can find a large contradiction," says Obey Assery, a director in the office of the Prime Minister. "We have high food production and high malnutrition."

Assery is a spokesperson for the government’s nationwide agenda to address malnutrition.

"It’s more about social behavior change. That is our strategy," he explains, noting that local communities do not lack food, but lack knowledge.

The efforts are part of a robust national campaign, involving nine ministries, to integrate nutrition and prioritise economic development through agriculture. Agriculture accounts for more than 25 percent of the gross domestic product and the sector employs nearly 75 percent of the work force.

The government implemented two landmark initiatives, Kilimo Kwanza and the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania Centre (SAGCOT), to foster agricultural commercialisation and malnutrition reduction. Since its implementation in 2008, Kilimo Kwanza, which means "agriculture first" in Kiswahili, has paved the way for private sector investors to work with small-scale farmers on securing agriculture productivity and boosting profit yields. The 2011 SAGCOT strategy concentrates and evaluates development in the country’s food-producing regions.

A parliamentary group solely dedicated to nutrition advocacy is pushing policies to ensure cross-sector participation. For example, in May the government rolled out a food fortification program partially funded by the UK-government to mandate local food processing factories to comply with maize flour fortification regulations. The aim is to reduce micronutrient deficiencies.

Community-based engagement

But beyond the policies and government initiatives, nutritionists like Nalitolela say it comes down to the grassroots level-- teaching farmers, mothers, fathers and children how to eat right and change local perceptions about food, particularly fruit.

So far, urban residents seem to be more positive to accept the role of fruits on human health than rural people do

-Alex Nalitolela, nutritionist

Though he is optimistic, he says there is still a way to go, especially in the rural areas.

"So far, urban residents seem to be more positive to accept the role of fruits on human health than rural people do," he says.

He continues to recommend eating an orange a day, a mango a day, or even just a slice of papaya regularly. His recommendations are working for Hussaini, who admits that his eating habits have changed since engaging with Mwanzo Bora.

"I was not use to eating the fruits and vegetables but now I must eat it everyday," he says. 

On his one-hectare farm, he not only grows the staple, maize, but he also produces carrots. He says now his favorite fruits are avocado, banana and passion fruit. He points to his son and says he and wife are teaching their five children to enjoy eating fruits.

Follow Chika Oduah her on twitter @chikaoduah

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Al Jazeera
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