USTAWI: Combatting hidden hunger in Africa

Posted on July 29, 2019

We often mistakenly assume that malnutrition is visible and manifests in physical appearance. However, there is a form of malnutrition that is not visible and occurs when a person is not getting enough vitamins and minerals from their food. For example, iron deficiency anaemia can be caused by not consuming enough iron-rich food. This type of malnutrition is referred to as hidden hunger. Ustawi is a mobile app that was developed to combat hidden hunger.

The recently published sustainable development goal report shows that no country is on track to meet the zero hunger targets. Over one-third of children suffering from chronic undernutrition live in sub-Saharan Africa. Chronic undernutrition, a form of hidden hunger, manifests when a child is short for their age and increases the risk of children dying from common infections. Determining what food is missing from the diet is challenging. Similarly, identifying local foods to meet these gaps can also be complex.

In 2016, an Australia Africa University Network (AAUN) research team, consisting of partners from the Western Sydney University (UWS) in Australia, University of Ibadan (UI) in Nigeria, University of Nairobi (UN) and University of Pretoria (UP) set out to develop an app which identifies gaps in the household diet. Using Ustawi, users complete a short survey to indicate the foods they have consumed in the last 24 hours. Ustawi then shows them which food groups are missing from their diet. They receive a list of locally grown crops and vegetables that can close these dietary gaps.

The research team held a workshop 22 – 26 April 2019 at Future Africa to discuss the results from the initial trials of the app as well as the second phase of the Ustawi project. The team leaders from WSU and UP met with the Vice Chancellors from both Universities to discuss the research outcomes and the way forward.

The workshop participants included from UP Sheryl Hendriks and Moraka Makhura, Department of Agriculture Economics, Extension and Rural Development, Elizabeth Mkandawire, UN Academic Impact Hub on SDG 2 and Nokuthula Vilakazi, Future Africa, from UWS Bahman Javadi and Athula Gininge, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics, from UI Folake Samuel, Department of Human Nutrition and from UN Angela Andago, Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Technology.

The app draws on expertise from nutrition science, policy research, social science and information technology to tackle some of the world’s most significant challenges. Ustawi, the Swahili word for well-being or wellness, is borrowed from the Kenyan national anthem, which aspires for plenty to be found within the borders of the country. The second phase of Ustawi aims to launch a social experiment that could accelerate progress on ending hunger and malnutrition.

- Author Elizabeth Mkandawire

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