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Initiative to tackle malnutrition in Africa

The European Commission has given the green light to an ambitious research project called SUNRAY: the acronym for 'Sustainable Nutrition Research for Africa in the Years to come'. The project will be implemented by a consortium of four African and five European institutions coordinated by the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp. Over a period of two years, about a million Euros will be invested to rethink the research agenda for nutrition in Africa.

This is an opportune moment for investing in nutrition research. Malnutrition rates remain high, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where only nine out of 46 countries are on track to achieve the first Millennium Development Goal target (a 50% reduction in underweight among children less than five years old). Undernutrition is only part of the problem; obesity and other diet related chronic diseases are increasing as lifestyles change so there is a double burden of malnutrition.

Despite the huge cost of malnutrition in terms of early death, reduced quality of life and lower gross national product investment in nutrition has been inadequate. In addition, new nutritional challenges are emerging, due to changes in climate, demography and international markets. The SUNRAY-project intends to identify new and innovative ways to address the problem of malnutrition. The research agenda and priorities will be defined primarily by African researchers. Other institutions and individuals with an interest in nutrition and related fields in Africa will also be consulted. African partners will take ownership of the research agenda to ensure that it is sustainable. The research will be integrated with initiatives in other sectors such as agriculture, health, education, social protection and rural development, to address the root causes of malnutrition and to avoid 'technical fixes' . The project will link research with policy and action, and involve a broad range of stakeholders, including politicians, government staff, health professionals, nutritionists, consumer and public health organisations, agro and food industry, policy makers, non-governmental organisations, civil society, United Nations (UN) organisations and donors.

Setting the research agenda

The researchers will map the current nutrition research in sub-Saharan Africa (and its funders), and identify the barriers, constraints, opportunities and unmet needs. Up to now, high-income countries have dominated nutrition research, which has led to a concentration on nutrition problems such as obesity and much less emphasis on undernutrition and the nutritional problems faced by Africans.

The scientists will identify not only the current needs, but also emerging research challenges for the nutrition community, due to future changes in climate, biodiversity, demography, urbanisation, water availability, economy, politics, agriculture, international markets, socio economic dynamics and conflict.

In three international workshops the project partners will try to build a consensus among stakeholders on common research and policy priorities.

The project will produce a roadmap for future research that will outline a strategy to be taken forward in years to come.

Policy-makers at the highest level need to be persuaded that investment in nutrition is essential. The image of the starving child is no longer enough to provoke action. The SUNRAY project intends to replace that appeal to emotions by facts and figures, and to promote research that produces clear findings so that action becomes imperative.


Contact: Patrick Kolsteren
Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp

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