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Left to right: MP Eric Melillo, MP Scott Aitchison, Makueni County Governor Mutula Kilonzo Jr., MP Valerie Bradford, MP Iqwinder Gaheer

Makueni, Kenya – Four Canadian members of parliament visited health and nutrition programs in Makueni County at a time when the county is reeling from the adverse impacts of a prolonged drought and a cost-of-living crisis triggered by the war in Ukraine that have caused widespread hunger and malnutrition in many parts of Kenya and East Africa.

The delegation included Members of Parliament Eric Melillo (Kenora), Valerie Bradford (Kitchener–South Hespeler), Scott Aitchison (Parry Sound–Muskoka), and Iqwinder Gaheer (Missisauga–Malton).

“We have witnessed first-hand how the Government of Canada’s support is complementing the efforts of the Government of Makueni County to address malnutrition, particularly for women and children.

— Valerie Bradford, MP

The impact of the drought and the cost-of-living crisis threatens to worsen already dire malnutrition rates in Makueni. One out of 10 children are underweight and one in four children under the age of five are stunted, meaning they have low height-for-age resulting from chronic or recurrent undernutrition. Child malnutrition in Makueni may be attributed to several factors including poor maternal health and nutrition practices, frequent illness and inappropriate feeding and care practices, and widespread poverty which affects 60% of the population.

Women and girls are disproportionately impacted by malnutrition in the county, with 10.6% of women aged 14-49 underweight, higher than the national average of 8.9%. Two in five pregnant women in Makueni suffer from iron-deficiency anaemia, which is associated with an increased risk of low birthweight babies.

The health, human capital, and economic costs of malnutrition in the county are estimated at KSh 372 million, or US $3.6 million. Undernutrition costs the health sector in Makueni approximately KSh 126 million each year. Stunting alone is responsible for 557 cases of primary school grade repetition annually, which costs KSh 6.9 million to the education system and families.

Since 2016, the county government has made significant strides to address these problems, with support from the Government of Canada through a partnership with Nutrition International.

“We met development partners, community workers and everyday Kenyans, and have seen the role Canada can play in fostering impactful development policy and support.

— Scott Aitchison, MP

Over the last four years, Makueni increased its budget allocation to nutrition from KSh 331,000 in 2017/18 to KSh 22 million in 2021/22. There has been a marked improvement in deliveries attended by skilled birth attendants from below 70% in 2016 to 92% in 2022. Additionally, vitamin A coverage increased and now stands at over 75%. Schools are also playing a major role with 445 primary and secondary schools implementing nutrition education to boys and girls, as well as weekly iron and folic acid supplementation for girls.

“With its country nutrition action plan, the Government of Makueni County has taken concrete action to improve nutrition programs and policies to bolster the health and wellbeing of the population,” said Martha Nyagaya, Country Director, Nutrition International Kenya. “They have made real progress but there is more work to be done. We urge the Government of Makueni County to allocate even more budget to addressing malnutrition, especially to stem the adverse impact of widespread undernutrition due to the drought and the cost-of-living crisis, which threaten the significant gains that the county has made over the last four years.”

The Canadian parliamentarians visited sites where nutrition programs are being implemented, including a referral hospital, school and a community site and learned about the maternal, child and adolescent health and nutrition programs. They were also given the chance to observe mother-to-mother and father-to-father support groups, where parents can share their experiences and learn new information, including the importance of exclusive breastfeeding and infant and young child feeding practices.

“As the challenges of malnutrition continue to multiply, it is inspiring to see initiatives on the ground that are working to turn the tide,” said Results Canada Executive Director Chris Dendys. “Local ingenuity and vision, government leadership, support from Canada and Nutrition International, matched with the resilience and power of local communities and families are generating results – and hope.”

Governor of Makueni County Mutula Kilonzo Jr. welcomed the delegation and Canada’s history of support. He challenged communities to prioritize child nutrition and encouraged schools to include nutrition in their curriculum

“Already our children have been taught about nutrition, especially within the first 1,000 days,” said Mutula. “When Nutrition International leaves Makueni they will have made a lifetime mark on our people in matters of nutrition. In Makueni, we want to see the impact of this program, and hear the real testimonies from mothers and health volunteers across community health units.”

The partnership between Makueni County and Nutrition International is based on a catalytic matched funding mechanism for nutrition to accelerate progress towards nutrition targets and delivering impact on broader health, nutrition, and economic development outcomes. Nutrition International investments are structured to leverage additional resources from county budgets and support priority nutrition activities embedded in a five-year county action plan. The county action plan identifies multisectoral nutrition interventions in health, agriculture, education, WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), social protection, gender, and community development.