Shortage of nutrition experts hampers fight against hunger

A serious shortage of skilled nutrition professionals exists in Africa in general, and the Central African region, in particular – thus, governments and higher education authorities should drive policies that will strengthen human resource development in this field.

“The fight against malnutrition in Africa is constrained by the lack of human resources in several countries, thus the need exists to train more professionals at university level,” said Professor Julius Oben, a researcher and professor of nutritional biochemistry at the University of Yaoundé 1 in Cameroon.

This was during a presentation by the professor and other researchers of findings on the nutritional quality of red palm oil over olive oil at the Oben Foundation in Yaoundé, a nutritional research training centre, earlier in May.

They highlighted the importance of nutrition and well-being in academic and other work-life, noting that higher education institutions specialising in research and the training of nutritional professionals in Africa will significantly help in the fight against malnutrition and hunger.

Academic excellence in universities requires the wellness and healthy lifestyle of both students and lecturers, thus the need to also incorporate such training in various universities, Oben noted.

Oben, who is also the lead coordinator of the J&A Oben Foundation, a dietetics research centre that focuses on evidence-based nutrition research aimed at improving the quality of human life, said such training centres help to improve the visibility of nutrition by using concrete facts and figures.

The foundation, which is the first of its kind in Cameroon, provides high-quality, evidence-based technical assistance to national and regional organisations and institutions working in the fields of agriculture, nutrition and social welfare.

Fighting malnutrition

The importance of innovation was emphasised at the event.

“Researchers must get down to work and be innovative with new discoveries. That is an important thing to do. This helps to advance scholarship and make research as efficient and effective as possible,” Oben said.

According to the Cameroon country representative of Helen Keller International, Dr Ismael Teta, there is a need for African governments to adopt a national policy in the fight against malnutrition, create a line for this fight in the state budget, convince decentralised authorities to include the fight against malnutrition in their action plans and, finally, accompany the ambassadors of nutrition in their work of advocacy.

“The policy to fight against malnutrition can only be successful if there are adequate human resources to drive this goal, thus the need for more training,” Teta said.

The researchers emphasised the need to promote wellness and nutrition visibility in Cameroon, in particular, and Africa, in general, through information on topics like the basics of nutrition, the definition of terms, the collection and interpretation of nutrition data, infant and child feeding, maternal health and feeding, and so forth.

Lack of human resources

According to the journal article, ‘Capacity-building for a strong public health nutrition workforce in low-resource countries’, achieving national coverage of essential nutrition interventions are constrained by the lack of human resources in nutrition in several countries, especially in Africa and other third-world countries.

The article notes that malnutrition is rooted in poverty and food insecurity. Nevertheless, even when these issues are addressed through money and food transfers, “adding a nutrition education component targeting the poorest population can increase the positive impact of an intervention on the chronic malnutrition of children”.

“Such efforts, however, are hampered by a shortage in numbers, skills and geographical coverage of nutrition workers in low- and middle-income countries.”

The recommended density of nutritionists per five million population, based on the World Health Organization’s Manila report, is 100-500 at bachelor degree or licence level qualifications, 10-50 at masters level and 5-25 at doctorate level.

For West Africa alone, the estimated need is 700 nutrition graduates per five million population, while the current output is about 250.

According to Cameroon researchers, the government and the private sector must work together to ensure such specialised training.

“We understand the government cannot do it alone. But it has to ensure an enabling environment for investments by the private sector in this domain,” Oben said.

Returning to the new research on the nutritional value of palm oil, Oben says: “The raw palm oil contains zero cholesterol and is very rich in vitamin E as compared to olive or bleached oil.”

He encouraged the higher education community to read widely to improve their knowledge, especially about topics that concern their health and well-being.

“The disturbing issue is that people don’t take time to read and improve knowledge. Learning is a continuous process. But we also have to be careful on the things we read about our health and well-being because not everything on the internet is true,” he cautions.