#UPGraduation2020: Hunger remains one of the world’s biggest challenges, our students are working on solving it

Posted on March 31, 2020

A child dies from hunger every 10 seconds. Approximately nine million people die of hunger each year, killing more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Not having food is not the only cause of hunger. Inadequate policies, high costs of healthy eating, lack of access to nutritious food and gender inequality are some of the challenges that contribute to hunger and malnutrition.

Fourteen of our graduating students set out to investigate some of these problems in their research projects. With a record number of 290 graduates, 27 graduated with doctoral degrees, 51 with master’s, 48 with honours and 164 bachelor’s degrees from the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.

Sometimes government policies are not aligned with the needs of the people and fail to deliver adequate solutions for ending hunger and malnutrition. Dr Angela McIntyre found that rural South African communities rarely participate or have a say in the development of food and nutrition policies. As a result, the policies do not consider the challenges faced by rural communities in accessing nutritious food. They also do not build on the existing capabilities of these rural communities. She suggests that South Africa may require more inclusive and participatory policy processes.

Healthy food is becoming increasingly expensive. Dr Hester Vermeulen found that knowledge on healthy eating and the cost of healthy diets in South Africa could limit most citizen’s access to nutritious food. She identified tools for the South African government to use to monitor the cost of healthy diets.

Vitamin A deficiency is a prevalent problem of public health significance in sub-Saharan African countries. In her research, Rose Otema Baah fortified maize flour with orange-fleshed sweet potato flour. This type of sweet potato is rich in vitamin A. She used the enriched flour to produce pasta which could meet at least half of the daily vitamin A requirements of different people ranging from children to women who are breastfeeding.

In her study of three Sub-Saharan countries, Dr Priscilla Hamukwala looked at how to increase the number of people who grow biofortified crops. Biofortification is the breeding of crops to increase nutritional value. For example, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. Dr Hamukwala, proposed approaches to overcome the inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals by using biofortification as a public health intervention. She suggested that women should be targeted in the promotion of biofortification because they can influence the diets of families. 

Dr Gebremeskel Berhane Tesfay found that empowering women has a positive impact on both boys and girls’ diets. Contrary to popular belief, boys are not given preferential treatment in terms of food allocation. He also found that although climate change affects school absenteeism, it affects both boys and girls school attendance equally.

Although the picture of hunger may look grim, our students are taking up the challenge. Their research deals with the underlying causes of hunger and malnutrition. The evidence they generate, the tools and the recommendations they offer have the potential to end hunger. We congratulate all these students on their graduation and the significant contributions they are making to some of the world’s biggest challenges.

- Author Elizabeth Mkandawire

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