By Abby Higgins
When Esther Kariuki was a young college graduate, she’d walk through Nairobi’s neighbouring towns seeking out women’s groups with whom she could discuss nutrition. She’d ask them what they ate and how they prepared it, paying special attention to mothers and pregnant women.
At the time, nutrition was still a relatively foreign concept in Kenya.
“I knew I wanted to work in communities and I fell into it by chance,” Esther says. “But I immediately took a liking to it.”Esther would spend the next years travelling to some of the most remote corners of Kenya seeking out women she could help. She even travelled as far as Turkana, the remote corner of Kenya near the Ethiopian border.
“Just a small adjustment for a rural woman can be the difference between life and death,” Esther says of the women she met in Turkana.Today, Esther works for Micronutrient Initiative Kenya (MI-Kenya), which supports the Kenyan government on its National Nutrition Action Plan for mothers and children and helps the government to reach more than 3 million children with vitamin supplements. MI-Kenya is supported by USAID, among other donors.
Esther is trying to help eradicate what is often called “hidden hunger”—when people are getting enough food, but not enough nutrient-rich foods like meats and vegetables. She says Kenyan diets are often rich in carbohydrates, but lacking in the meat and brightly coloured vegetables that provide things like vitamin A, folic acid, and zinc—which is particularly critical for children and pregnant women.
“It’s easy for people to have enough maize flour, but there’s a lack of ability to afford a variety of fruits and vegetables,” says Esther.
“I’m no different from the Turkana women,” she says. “My luck was that I gave birth in a good hospital that could act quickly. A woman who gave birth at home would have surely died.”
Because of the work of people and organisations like Esther and MI-Kenya, the chances of women dying due to micronutrient deficiencies in Kenya is decreasing.
They are training health care workers to distribute supplements from local health clinics and are running radio and television campaigns about the importance of proper nutrition. They’re also emphasising the importance of engaging men in women’s health.“The person you need to influence is the husband. They’re the ones who finance them, who give them permission, who support them. We had to find ways of engaging the men,” Esther says.
“You realise how very simple messages and basic nutrition can make a huge difference in an individual’s life for years to come.”