This is a guest blog written by Jane Napais Lankisa, a Youth Leader for Nutrition*. She is a trained nutritionist from Kenyatta University, Kenya who now works as a Nutritionist at Feed the Children, inspiring caregivers to adopt positive health behaviours. She is a committed youth advocate and team lead for the FEED Nutrition Advocacy Unit, advocating for adolescent girls’ nutrition. Jane is particularly passionate about adolescent girls’ nutrition and the links between nutrition, gender inequality, and child marriage.

*RESULTS is a partner of the Youth Leaders for Nutrition programme which was launched in 2018 by the SUN Civil Society Network.  

Good nutrition is the cornerstone to human development, lifelong health, and wellbeing. The World Bank reports that every dollar invested in nutrition-specific interventions (i.e. for the prevention and treatment of malnutrition) yields between $4 and $35 in economic returns, making investments in nutrition one of the best value-for-money development actions. The priority group for nutrition include children under five, adolescents, women of reproductive age, and the elderly. In most developing countries, nutrition initiatives have been focusing on children and women, thus neglecting adolescents.

Adolescence is the second window of opportunity to end the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. This stage is characterised by rapid physical, cognitive and psychosocial growth. There are 1.3 billion adolescents in the world today, more than ever before, making up 16 per cent of the world’s population. Nevertheless, this age group is classified as most vulnerable to malnutrition according to the WHO.

Kenya joined the rest of the world in the war against malnutrition in all its forms and is reported to be on course to meet four of the WHO Global Nutrition Targets by 2025. It is in this light that the Scaling Up Adolescent Nutrition campaign in Kenya was established under the stewardship of the SUN Civil Society Network (CSN) Youth Leaders for Nutrition programme. This project, formed in 2018, aims to enhance nutrition knowledge and practice among adolescents in and out of school and promote optimal nutrition for pregnant adolescents with the focus on reducing the risk of stunting for the unborn child among adolescent girls. Investing in adolescent nutrition brings triple dividends: better health for adolescents now, for their future adult lives, and for the lives of their children. In particular, adolescent nutrition education is vital to inform nutrition behaviour changes among this age group. It creates awareness of healthy eating lifestyles, promotes food diversity as they can learn about a variety of food groups, and enlightens them on the importance of nutrition in physical activities like sports. 

Woman standing up doing a presentation
Adolescent nutrition advocacy by Jane Napais during a Nutrition Multisectoral Forum meeting.

Achievement of better nutrition among adolescents, especially through education, rests squarely on the multifaceted approach of this initiative. With the UK Government now rolling out its new International Development strategy (IDS), the UK should join this effort, and use the locally available agencies here in Kenya to provide expertise towards the end of malnutrition in adolescents. For instance, the UK should support initiatives providing adequate adolescent nutrition literature materials as a step toward achieving this goal. It is said that knowledge is power, and these materials will be a step towards attaining nutrition awareness, promoting healthy diets, and managing malnutrition among this cohort. Financial assistance through UK aid is vital to facilitate adolescent nutrition awareness, acquisition of adolescent nutrition literature materials, and promotion of research on the existing data gap about adolescents to decision-makers, to help them better understand and address the state of adolescent nutrition.

The IDS is a central part of coherent UK foreign policy, and aims to provide women and girls with the freedom they need to succeed, unlocking their future potential, educating girls, supporting their empowerment, and protecting them against violence. Health and nutrition are also important pillars in unlocking the full potential of women and girls and should therefore be clearly addressed within the IDS as a means of providing humanitarian assistance. Supporting countries’ Nutrition Action Plans will enhance a sense of ownership of the plan by their respective governments. These action plans serve as a roadmap for coordinated implementation of nutrition interventions by the government and nutrition stakeholders across the development sector for maximum impact.  

The cost of malnutrition is high. The World Bank estimates that all forms of malnutrition cost the global economy $3.5 trillion per year, yet funding for nutrition remains low. Malnutrition remains an economic burden to most low- and middle-income countries. Priority should be given to health and nutrition actions to fast-track projected development and empowerment. The new IDS should address the need to scale up the delivery of low cost, high-impact nutrition interventions, prioritising women, adolescent girls, and children in developing countries.

group of people sat in rows with someone at the front
Nutrition education session on food groups among adolescents in Lenkishon primary school, Kajiado county, Kenya.

The UK Government should mainstream gender equality in all aspects of the IDS to promote women and girls’ empowerment. When women and girls are empowered to claim their rights, it leads to improved health and nutrition for themselves and a better quality of life for their families and communities. I would like to see a robust plan from the UK to address how the new IDS will help fight malnutrition and promote optimal nutrition among adolescents and young people. It is also important to note that male involvement is key, as they play a crucial role in household food security and decision-making, especially where households are headed by men. It is essential to bring them on board in the dissemination of nutrition education so that they can also support informed food choices for their families and communities.

It is my plea that nutrition interventions such as adolescents’ access to sexual reproductive health services, micronutrient supplementation, nutrition intervention for pregnant adolescents and interventions to improve vaccine uptake among adolescents are given top priority by the UK Government in its international development work. Adolescents are the missing link in the fight against malnutrition, and most programmes being rolled out are either for children or adults, and no special attention is paid to this age group in the IDS.

I also recommend that the UK Government supports youth-led programmes like the SUN CSN Youth Leaders for Nutrition programme through funding and expertise, in their quest to end malnutrition through their various nutrition advocacy projects in SUN CSN countries.