Tanzania: Fruit for thought in Tanzania nutrition fight (Al Jazeera)

| November 11, 2013

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Selemani Hussaini did not think very often about eating fruit. For the 46-year old Tanzanian farmer, a typical meal would consist of ugali, a thick maize-based porridge, with cooked beans and a cup of African tea or instant coffee.

Mr. Hussaini says, “This is how we are raised to eat. No one really talked about fruit.” In Tanzania, traditional food customs often neglect the value of fresh fruit and show a lack of awareness of basic nutrition.

Mr. Hussaini lives in the east central region of Morogoro, about 150 kilometres from the Indian Ocean. Like nearly 75 per cent of Tanzanians, he lives in a rural area.

Traditional diets have contributed to high levels of malnutrition. Forty-two per cent of Tanzanian children under five years of age have stunted growth because of diets with low levels of calories and vitamins.

Alex Nalitolela is a nutrition specialist who is working to change local perceptions of food through a regional nutrition project called Mwanzo Bora [Swahili for “Good start”]. Led by Africare and with funding from USAID, the project addresses malnutrition by integrating nutritional and agricultural strategies.

The project has developed Farmer Field Schools and twenty demonstration garden plots in four Tanzanian regions. Trainings are conducted on how to grow fruit and vegetables and how to diversify diets.

Mwanzo Bora’s strategy is designed to change local ideas and behaviours about food. The project encourages local farmers to consume some of the fruit and vegetables from the new gardens at home, rather than selling them all. It organizes community groups in which neighbours can help each other learn about changes to traditional diets. More than 6,000 people are involved in the groups.

Daria Amre is a project participant who grows lettuce, cabbage, spinach, leeks and potatoes, and eats fruits such as jackfruit from nearby trees. She says her three children do not fall sick as often since she started using the practical nutritional knowledge she has learned.

Tanzania is implementing a national campaign to integrate nutrition and economic development through agriculture. Currently, agriculture accounts for more than 25 per cent of the Tanzanian economy and the agricultural sector employs nearly 75 per cent of the working population.

Obey Assery is a director in the office of the Prime Minister, and a spokesperson for the government’s nationwide agenda to address malnutrition. He says, “You can find a large contradiction. We have high food production [but also] high malnutrition.”

Nutritionists like Mr. Nalitolela say that, beyond policies and government initiatives, it comes down to the grassroots. Farmers, mothers, fathers and children need to know how to eat right, and local perceptions about food, particularly fruit, need to change.

Mr. Nalitolela says, “So far, urban residents seem to be more positive to accept the role of fruits on human health than [do] rural people.” He recommends eating an orange a day, a mango a day, or even just a slice of papaya regularly.

Mr. Hussaini has taken his recommendations to heart, and his eating habits have changed since engaging with Mwanzo Bora. He says, “I was not used to eating the fruits and vegetables but now I … eat [them] every day.”