Children in a small Zambian village are taking part in a test. It’s not a written test, not a maths test - it’s a test to measure their height. One by one they line up against the wall of a house. A piece of string is stretched taut above their heads. The string marks the average, healthy height of a child their age. But no matter how tall the children stand, the fact of the matter is that many of them struggle to reach the string.
These children suffer from stunted growth primarily caused by a lack of a varied diet. And this problem affects up to 45% of children in Zambia and up to 2 billion people globally.
“We decided to do a test – a stunting test,” says Mwenya Kabwe Zyambo – Community Awareness Adviser. “We lined up the boys and girls and asked the community to explain what they were seeing. People from the community responded by saying ‘most of the children are below the line; they are stunted.’ The community was really surprised. And for me that was a ‘wow’ moment. I knew that was the beginning of change.”
This string test is just one aspect of SNV’s Sustainable Nutrition for All (SN4All) programme. The programme, which is implemented in partnership with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, promotes agro-biodiversity and dietary diversity within households in Zambia and Uganda.
As simple as the string exercise is, it gives parents and community members a strong visual indication that their children are stunted and brings the issue clearly to the attention of both men and women in the village. With health messaging typically given to women at the clinics, it is often the first time that men in the village are made aware that there is an issue in their community or even their own home. Awareness training plays an important role in educating the community of the importance of a balanced, nutritious diet, and can be the first step towards changing the community’s eating habits. It shows that stunting is indeed preventable.
“I used to think that stunted growth was the result of not feeding enough pap [maize porridge] to our children,” says Titus Nondo – father and smallholder farmer. “The awareness training showed me that my wife and I were not taking care of our children properly. I used to think that it was the sole responsibility of my wife to provide enough food for our children. But now I know that I need to grow nutritious food for my family, not only sell it at market.”
The SN4All programme trains ‘nutrition champions’ who trigger communities to realise the extent of malnutrition in their homes and in the community. Households draft production and consumption calendars of the foods they grow or eat throughout the year and their nutritional values. This helps the community to identify nutrition gaps throughout the different periods of the year, including deficiencies in the diets of young children and pregnant and lactating mothers. Working together, the community then develops solutions to improve dietary diversity that they can achieve on their own. The purpose of the triggering exercises is to drive the community to identify their own problems and their own solutions.
After the triggering initiatives, villagers form Nutrition Action Groups of five men and five women. Every member commits to adopt a minimum of 10 households each to monitor nutrition and support their transition to a more diverse diet.
In Uganda, where the programme also takes place, one of these ‘nutrition champions’ and supporter of a Nutrition Action Group is the husband and wife team of Ngobi and Betty Jackson. Ngobi is also a chairperson of his local school management organisation. The school operates a kitchen garden and uses it to educate not only the school children but the community at large on how they can grow, harvest and store diverse foods for year round consumption.
“I see so many children stunted in Uganda, I get perturbed,” says Ngobi. “But at the same time I know that their families and communities lack knowledge. They can learn from us at school. The students inform their parents, and we take them around to see the vegetables and how we are planting them. So I’m sure, with time, the communities around here will benefit from the programme.”
“I hope my grandchild will continue to grow,” says Betty. “If I feed her well, she will develop properly and reach her potential.”
The SN4All programme has already triggered 4,000 households in Zambia and 1,250 households in Uganda to eat a healthy, balanced diet.
This is an extract from our annual publication, SNV Connect 2016. Read the full magazine to find out how our work in Agriculture, Energy and Water, Sanitation & Hygiene is improving the lives of millions of people around the world! Also watch the video below to see the programme 'in action'.