The COVID-19 pandemic crippled livelihoods in many households across Nigeria, and left in its wake children suffering from hunger and malnutrition across several communities. However, an intervention by Dukpa community in Gwagwalada Area Council of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) for its large number of orphans and vulnerable children is helping to save them from hunger and malnutrition.
Daily Trust on Sunday reports that this has not only helped in preventing hunger and undernutrition among the orphans and vulnerable children there, but also supported the treatment of children already suffering from malnutrition in the community.
Beneficiaries of the initiative and other residents of the community said it helped improve access to nutritious food, end hunger and tackle malnutrition among them.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), malnutrition refers to deficiencies or excesses in nutrient intake, imbalance of essential nutrients or impaired nutrient utilization.
“The double burden of malnutrition consists of both undernutrition and overweight and obesity, as well as diet-related noncommunicable diseases. Undernutrition manifests in four broad forms: Wasting, stunting, underweight and micronutrient deficiencies,” it said.
Nutrition experts have warned that if COVID’s impacts on nutrition are left unchecked, the health and wellbeing of populations are often at risk or compromised.
They say malnutrition in children is harmful and the damage to physical and cognitive development during the first two years of a child’s life is largely irreversible.
Effects of malnutrition on children
According to medical experts, malnutrition makes children nine times more likely to die from common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria.
Dr Emmanuel Sokpo, Country Director, Network for Health Equity and Development (NHED), said children with Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) were nine times more likely to die than well nourished children, more likely to be sick and have reduced cognitive ability, with more than 10 per cent of household earnings lost due to poor productivity and increased health costs.
He added that high rates of malnutrition posed significant public health and development challenges in the country.
“Stunting, in addition to an increased risk of death is also linked to poor cognitive development, a lowered performance in education and low productivity in adulthood – all contributing to economic losses estimated to account for as much as 11 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GOP),” he said.
COVID-19 and Malnutrition
Nutrition experts under the Advocacy for the Prevention and Treatment of Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) Project in Nigeria said: “Severe acute malnutrition (SAM) is a life-threatening condition affecting millions of Nigerian children every year.
“Sadly, only 20 percent of these children have access to the life-saving treatment they require. The COVID- 19 pandemic and measures put in place to mitigate its spread has compounded this situation,” they added.
“Despite evidence on the high impact and effectiveness of nutrition interventions, investments by the government of Nigeria across all levels have been suboptimal.”
They said this meant that government across all levels did not implement strategic priority programmes at the scale required to achieve significant success in combating malnutrition. “Sustained funding of the programs is also an issue as varying sums get allocated often arbitrarily each year. These funds get released late in the year or not at all,” they said.
Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, said while therapeutic foods currently used in treatment of malnutrition were included in the essential medicine lists, they were procured from outside the country, thereby affecting availability and accessibility due to increased demand.
Impact of COVID-19 on nutrition in Dukpa community
The Waziri (Deputy Chief) of Dukpa community, Ibrahim Akoro Dukpa, who is also the Acting Chief of the community, said: “COVID-19 caused a lot of poverty in the several hundreds-year-old community. Residents of the community are of the Gbari ethnic group as well as other ethnic groups such as Tiv and Hausa living among them.
He said as a result of the pandemic, people were always coming to him to complain of lack of food and begging for assistance to feed their families.
Dukpa added that the orphans and vulnerable children in the community and their caregivers were in dire need, noting that insecurity and diseases were the major drivers of their large number in the community.
The Waziri said over 50 women had lost their husbands in the community and their children vulnerable.
“There are killings in the community. Even yesterday, one elderly man was killed on the way to the farm. They collected his motorcycle; his wife was injured and we don’t know if she will survive. With such attacks, widows are increasing every day.”
How the community responded to malnutrition among orphans and vulnerable children
The Waziri said while the pandemic affected everyone in the community, the need to intervene for the large number of orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs) in the community was underscored by the high rate of hunger and malnutrition in their midst, with many falling ill among them.
He added that the orphans and vulnerable children in the community targeted for the intervention comprised children less than 18 years old who have lost either one or both parents, children abandoned because of their health status, children whose parents have both lost jobs, businesses and other sources of livelihood.
The Waziri added that many children also became vulnerable because their parents could not access their farms for fear of attacks.
He said the community responded by donating two hectares of lands wholly dedicated to growing crops to tackle hunger and malnutrition in orphans and vulnerable children in the community.
He added that Jomurota Community Care Initiative, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Gwagwalada, with the support of the Institute of Human Virology Nigeria (IHVN) had earlier sensitized the community on the need for solutions for vulnerable children.
According to him, the community then came up with the idea of donating lands and communal farming for orphans and vulnerable children.
“So, we decided to donate lands specifically for orphans and vulnerable children. After farming activities, we gather the crops and share to them and their caregivers.”
The Waziri also noted that aside distributing the harvested crops to vulnerable children, the community also came up with the strategy of selling part of each harvest, and using it to buy other foods to ensure adequate nutrition for the children.
He said that a locally produced Ready to Use Therapeutic Food is also produced from the crops and used to support treatment of those diagnosed of Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) by health facilities.
The community also made an arrangement for the two farms to be managed via communal efforts. He said residents in the community joined in tending to the farm from tilling, planting to harvesting the crops.
According to him, about 20 people in the community currently work on the farm.
When our reporter visited the farmlands, she observed that rice was planted on one farm which is close to the community, while maize is grown on the other one farther away from the community. The road to the second farm is also very bad.
The reporter met people working on the farms. They said communal efforts eased work on the farms and ensured larger yields.
Impact of the intervention on nutrition of vulnerable children in the community
More than 30 families with orphans and vulnerable children in the community have benefited from the programme, according to Waziri.
“Last year, groundnut was planted on the farm. When we harvested it, the women mixed it with soya beans, a little groundnut, crayfish and other things and it helped all malnourished children in the community who took it.
“There is a woman in the Paediatric Unit of a hospital in Gwagwalada at the moment. The baby was so malnourished and sick. When we gave her the special meal for two weeks, her condition improved and we are hoping she will be discharged soon,” he added.
Grace Tyokorsu, a widow in the community, said the initiative had helped her children to eat nutritious food.
“If you see my children now, all of them are very healthy. No sickness any more. They are no more emaciated. They are fine,” she said.
She added that women in the community had been enlightened on how to do some things that would ensure adequate nutrition for children.
Aondoyima Comfort, another widow in the community and vulnerable child caregiver, said COVID-19 affected her income as a private school teacher.
“I was teaching in a private school but because of COVID-19, schools were closed for months in 2020 and I wasn’t paid salary. I couldn’t fend for my child. So, the produce from the farm kept us from going hungry. It also helped me not to be giving one particular food to my child,” she said.
“I also work on the farm along with mothers and caregivers of vulnerable children. We plant and harvest. When we finish, we gather and sell, or distribute among ourselves,” she added.
The nutrition powder produced from the farm has also been helping households affected by malnutrition in the community.
A woman who craved anonymity said the initiative by the community helped restore some of her children suffering from malnutrition at the height of the pandemic to health. She has since joined the communal efforts in managing the farm.
Narrating how the NGO worked with the community, Executive Director of Jomurota Community Care Initiative, Talatu Shanwa, said the donation of the lands and farming activities on it came as a result of impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
She said: “The approach of donating lands by the community was significant because nothing came out of government’s palliative to cushion the effects of the pandemic in the community. We even compiled a list of those in need of intervention but nothing came out of it.
“So, we sensitized the community and women now have gardens in their various backyards where they plant vegetables to prepare nutritious foods for their children. We bought seedlings for them and asked them to grow crops that benefit their family and it helped a lot of them,” she added.
She commended Dukpa community for the intervention geared towards food sufficiency and tackling malnutrition.
Shanwa said Dukpa community did not only buy into the idea of community efforts in helping orphans and vulnerable children, but also went the full length of donating lands, specifically for them and also came up with more innovations that began to prevent hunger and also save the lives of affected vulnerable children.
“The community donated the lands, tended it communally and have sustained it with many children benefiting so far,” she said.
“In some communities, when ideas and initiatives are sold to them, they don’t cooperate. I am happy with them because they keyed into it and it has saved lives of orphans and vulnerable children in the community.
“Because of kidnapping and other violent attacks in the community, people are afraid of going to far places to cultivate. So, the first land for orphans and vulnerable children is close to the community, while the second one is not too far so that the caregivers can farm there without fear of attacks,” she said.
She said the local nutrition powder which the women produce from crops from the farms contains soya beans, groundnut, crayfish, moringa and ginger (ginger gives the meal great aroma).
“The powder has helped malnourished orphans and vulnerable children. We have many of them in the community. When you looked round the community, you would have seen that some of the children are not looking healthy.
“So, we taught women in the community how to prepare the powder. We do it practically through food demonstrations for our caregivers,” Shanwa added.
Senior Programme Officer for Orphans and Vulnerable Children of IHVN Laurencia Dashe, said the orphans and vulnerable children (OVC) programme was part of the HIV treatment component of the organization funded by the United States ’s government PEPFAR programme.
She said a lot of vulnerable children suffering from malnutrition were identified under the intervention in Dukpa community through Jomurota Community Care Initiative.
“Before the pandemic, there had been a lot of misunderstanding about malnutrition in the community. Some of them viewed it as witchcraft attack and resorted to alternative treatments instead of going to the hospital,” she said.
“So, we started teaching them how to measure these children, compared with their growth, their age and then refer them to health facilities. We recorded a lot of malnutrition cases there and supplied them food supplements called ‘action meal.’’
The expert, whose work covers community medicine under HIV prevention and care, said the OVC programme believed that a lot of children were orphaned as a result of HIV and those of them that were positive needed a lot of intervention, care, treatment and support to do well.
She, however, said that over the last two years, funding for malnutrition has reduced. So, the programme started enlightening communities that local available resources are important in tackling malnutrition.
She said: ‘Dukpa community bought into it to develop the strategy of the farmlands and communal farming that is now helping orphans and vulnerable children there.”
“The orphans and vulnerable children’s programme is aimed at enrolling children that are less than 18 years old, and that are affected or infected by HIV,” she added.
She explained that nutrition was a key component of orphans and vulnerable children programming. “It is also critical to child development be it mentally, physically, health and wellbeing.”
“The programme was also supporting communities with food supplementation but it is not sustainable. So, funders say no more giving, you have to teach them how to earn it by themselves.”
She said orphans and vulnerable children under the programme included children that were HIV positive, children that had dropped out of school completely as a result of sickness, children that had lost one or both parents, children hawking in the streets, children living in the street under no adult care, and children less than seven years old, for instance taking care of their other siblings.
“There are some households that actually have children that are HIV positive or have lost one or both parents, but they are not vulnerable because all their needs are met nutritionally, they can cater for themselves or have an adult that is taking care of them. Such households are not vulnerable.”
Challenges of the initiative and way forward
The initiative is not without challenges. The residents lamented that farming on the lands still needs a lot of things such as modern farming tools and seeds to ensure better harvests and maximum benefits for the orphans and vulnerable children.
The Waziri of Dukpa said everything about the land was through community efforts and they still need “improved seeds, fertilizer, herbicides and a tractor.”
He said this would help in ensuring bumper harvest from the farm.
The youth leader of the community, Danjuma Musa, said: “We are using our manpower which is not enough to take care of the farms. We need good variety of seeds. Farming without good seed variety does not yield good harvests. For instance, if you plant maize that breeze blows away, it is not helpful. We need seeds you can plant and harvest within two months.”
A son of the late chief of the community, Sani Umar, said the donation of land to orphans and vulnerable children was done under his late father, Umar Danzaggi.
“My father had said that the community does not have anything but can donate land to support orphans and vulnerable children,” he said.
“When we harvest from the farm, we distribute it to them. But it is still not enough. The community will appreciate government’s support on the initiative so that more orphans and vulnerable children will be fed.”
The Senior Programme Officer of IHVN Orphans and Vulnerable Children Programme, Dashe, however said the institute would not be able to address the challenge the community had been facing with seeds, fertilizer and pesticides on the farm.
She said generally, Orphans and Vulnerable Children Programme was coordinated by the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and had a children department that provided support.
This piece is with support from the Solutions Journalism Network, and Nigeria Health Watch