Despite significant efforts to address it, malnutrition remains a major impediment to development around the world. According to the 2017 Global Nutrition Report, at least one in three people globally are malnourished. While notable progress has been made in reducing world hunger, two billion people are still not getting all the nutrients they need. Africa has the highest rate of undernourishment, with about 21% of the total population facing chronic food deprivation. The effects of malnutrition are long-lasting as well as severe and include impaired physical and cognitive development, which can prevent individuals, families, communities and countries from reaching their full potential.
To reduce malnutrition, reliable nutrition and health information is an absolute necessity. Nutrition information on such factors as dietary diversity is critical for monitoring humanitarian conditions, tracking progress against the sustainable development goals and informing interventions geared to meet nutrition targets. Such information also enhances accountability and the tracking of progress of work aiming to reduce malnutrition.
However, few nutritional databases are available in developing countries, where the information gaps are slowing down progress, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The problem of data gaps is exacerbated by the fact that standard ways to collect primary data are extremely costly, more so in remote regions where such data is particularly scarce. Furthermore, it is time-consuming as well as expensive to train enumerators and the information they collect is often unreliable.
The Global Nutrition Report of 2014 highlighted these challenges, noting that since acquiring such data is often expensive and laborious, information is scarce or non-existent in low-income countries. The report further highlighted that traditional monitoring systems such as paper-based data collection and manual data entry are time-consuming and prone to error. This hampers the ability to monitor the nutrition status of populations in real time, which makes it difficult to rapidly respond to nutritional crises.
New project seeks to empower households to record and share their dietary and health data for decision-making
The Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) are implementing a project on ‘Improving Dietary and Health Data for Decision-making in Agriculture and Nutrition Actions in Africa’ with funding from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). This project, launched on 1 Nov 2018, will be implemented in Kenya and one other country in East Africa over the next four years, to 2022.
The project will create a platform using information and communications technology (ICT) both to collect food consumption and health data directly from households and to disseminate practical information to these households. The aim is to record events accurately, cost-effectively and in near-real time by enabling households to collect and submit their own food consumption and child health data directly, which will eliminate delays and costs in using third-party enumerators.
Data will be collected by a mobile-phone platform that does not require users to be literate. Innovative reporting processes will capture types of data previously difficult or impractical to collect. This includes clinical signs and symptoms in children that can be used to assess levels of ill health. Incidences of diarrhoea and fever will be recorded by the mother or caregiver to give indications of a potential or actual disease that can have implications for nutritional status. Tools such as image capture and simplified data collection protocols will be used to ensure that the data collected by households are accurate.
Stakeholders welcome the new project at inception meeting
At this project’s inception workshop held on 1–2 November, Iain Wright, deputy director general for integrated sciences at ILRI, underscored the need for new approaches to collecting data on diet and health, particularly in Africa, where malnutrition remains such as problem. His remarks were echoed by Munhamo Chisvo, chief executive officer of FANRPAN, who further noted that information systems are a key component of government nutrition strategies and that the mobile platform will provide information that can be used as a form of technical assistance to governments.
It is expected that this ICT platform will reduce the burden that comparative surveys (e.g. paper-based consumption journals, socioeconomic profiling) place on households while improving the data available for tracking and improving interventions. Importantly, the application will also provide households with dashboards of information on their children’s nutrition status, which can improve their decision-making on nutrition and health matters and encourage related behaviour change.
‘This is enabling people in their homes to better track how they are feeding their families. This is a project to empower people in improving their nutrition. Household members will get quick and reliable feedback on their nutritional status. The project aims to enhance decision-making at all levels.’—Munhamo Chisvo, chief executive officer, FANRPAN
Present at the inception workshop were representatives from Kenya’s Ministry of Health, UNICEF and civil society organizations such as Action against Hunger, World Vision Kenya and Save the Children International. These stakeholders expressed support for the new project and shared lessons from various nutrition and health interventions being implemented across Kenya.
Betty Samburu, senior nutrition officer at the Kenya Ministry of Health, highlighted the growing interest in health and nutrition research in Kenya, which is underpinned by enactment of a Health Act passed in 2017, which led to establishment of a research committee in the country’s Ministry of Health. Samburu said that the project is timely because it will not only help meet global nutritional commitments but will also empower communities to become more nutrition sensitive and smart.
This project’s potential for beneficial impacts is great. Development and use of this application should greatly reduce the cost of data, thus allowing households, government agencies, aid organizations and researchers to efficiently track changes within and across households more often and more broadly than ever before. In remote areas, for example, the platform will eliminate the need for home visits by enumerators and technicians, which is one of the most expensive parts of collecting child health and nutrition data. The platform should complement existing surveillance and data collection systems used by government bodies. The project plans to build awareness of the platform and to develop local capacity to use it and the rich health and nutrition data it collects.
ILRI and FANRPAN have previously jointly implemented the Agriculture to Nutrition (ATONU) project in Tanzania and Ethiopia, which has significantly benefited the dietary diversity of women of childbearing age. This project to improve dietary and health data in Africa leverages the complementary expertise of FANRPAN, a policy research and advocacy institute, and ILRI, a research-for-development institute.