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Let’s plug the gaps: using data to prevent malnutrition in Africa

The mobile phone is transforming the way we live in Africa. Everyone has heard of MPesa, the money transfer system that allows mobile phone users to send and receive money at the tap of a few buttons. Most people are probably also aware of the huge potential for phones and the information available on them to help farmers track real time crop and commodity prices, and keep an eye on predicted changes in the weather.

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What is perhaps less well known is how the data we access on our mobile phones increasingly has the power to predict and prevent malnutrition and hunger. Across the continent, community health workers are using their mobile phones to record and respond quickly to cases of children with malnutrition. Mothers can get regular, up-to-the-minute information on how to improve their families’ nutrition; or video, audio or text tips on breastfeeding. And in the future, government and aid agency staff will be alerted by a ‘smart’ nutrition early warning system of potential food shortages.

Can technology really solve the problem of malnutrition that continues to affect one in five people in Africa? Maybe not by itself, but the technological advances are definitely helping and much, much, more could be done if data collection were improved and coordinated.

A region of mobile users

By 2025, Africa is expected to have 535 million unique mobile phone subscribers - nearly half of its population - and its subscriber base is expected to grow faster than in any other region. With this in mind, many people are seeking to harness the power of the mobile to bring benefits at community, national and international levels. Here are just a few of examples of recent innovations:

●      Internationally, programmes to gather data on nutrition have recently been developed, like the Global Dietary Database (GDD) and Global Individual Food Consumption Data Tool. Although one single system, synthesizing all the information we have globally on nutrition is still missing, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) is convening a taskforce of experts in nutrition and agriculture to look at how to use machine learning to spot early signs of crop failures, drought and other factors that could trigger food shortages. This Nutrition Early Warning System (NEWS) will become ‘smarter’ over time to enable ever more rapid, tailored interventions.

●      Mobile health platform, ChildCount, aims to improve child survival and health screening in communities. It was developed in 2011 by the Earth Institute at Columbia University as part of the Millennium Villages Project. Now operating in 14 villages across 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, community health workers use it to register expectant mothers, births and young children. They can enter information like arm circumference on their mobile phones. ChildCount then generates a diagnosis and treatment options. It also sends text alerts to both mothers and health workers when routine check-ups or immunisations are due, and can even be used to transfer the health workers’ wages.

●      In South Africa, more than 100,000 people signed up for a government-backed service called StartSmart within a week of its launch in 2013. Developed by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), StartSmart sends mothers information via their mobile phones on how to better nourish their babies and young children. The aim of StartSmart is to support a national campaign to increase awareness of malnutrition and help mothers with breastfeeding. There’s a mobile website, a popular local messaging app (Mxit) and an interactive platform. It’s a text-based service that provides engaging information on nutrition in various forms, including quizzes, and was launched in collaboration with the ministry of health.

Improving data gathering

There is a lot already going on, but if we are able to join up these individual efforts and fully realize the potential of data and technology to help prevent and reduce malnutrition and hunger on our continent, we will need to get serious about data quality and collection. At present, not enough good quality data is collected, and it is not easy enough to share and compare data across borders, or even between agencies in the same country.

A new report by the Malabo Montpellier Panel, Nourished: How Africa Can Build a Future Free from Hunger & Malnutrition, highlights several countries that have dramatically reduced malnutrition over the last 15 years. Innovation has played a huge part, but there are other factors at play, including policy co-ordination and investment. The report explains that data on various nutrition indicators is required - for example on food quality and safety - to help policymakers better understand the links between food systems and actual nutritional outcomes. And it is critical that we track the economic and social costs of malnutrition to ensure it remains a top policy priority on governments’ agendas.

All those involved in tackling and responding to the crisis of malnutrition in Africa, including governments, universities, and aid agencies, need to engage in and support efforts to ensure data gathering is joined up, comprehensive, thorough and consistent.

Currently, most governments and aid organizations use varying metrics and tracking systems to measure malnutrition. But if we really believe that prevention is better than cure, then we need to commit to sharing and learning from each other. Technology and data could transform the way we deal with these issues and catalyse a paradigm shift from reactive responses to food crises in Africa, to proactive efforts focused on prevention, and tailored to meet individual communities’ needs. 

The opinions represented in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of individual Malabo Montpellier Panel members and their organisations.