A change sweeps across West Africa
Jennifer S. Klopp, Vice President of Development and Communications
Helen Keller International
June 4, 2012, Dakar, Senegal – The West African countries of Togo, Benin and Niger have all recently followed in the footsteps of their neighbors - Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Senegal – and passed legislation that requires mandatory fortification of staple foods. Six of the eight West African Economic and Monetary Union (also known by its French acronym, UEMOA) member countries are now providing essential micronutrients to their citizens because of mandatory fortification.
Five years ago, Helen Keller International (HKI) embarked on the Fortify West Africa initiative to bring fortified cooking oil and wheat flour to all UEMOA countries. The recent successes in Togo, Benin, and Niger bring the region closer to the goal of reaching at least 70% of the population with essential micronutrients from fortified cooking oil and wheat flour.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies severely impact health and survival, especially for young children. In Benin, 60 to 80% of children less than five years-old suffer from vitamin A deficiency; 80% of children aged 6 to 59 months are deficient in iron; and 70% of pregnant women and 60% of lactating women in Benin are anemic. In Togo, 79 to 91% of children between the ages of 6 to 36 months, and more than 40% of women of reproductive age, suffer from anemia. In Niger, the prevalence of vitamin A deficiency is estimated at 41%, and 84% of children under five suffer from anemia.
Food fortification is a cost effective and sustainable approach to controlling vitamin and mineral deficiencies. When cooking ingredients such as oil and wheat flour are fortified with vitamins and minerals - including vitamin A to prevent blindness, iron to help a child’s physical and mental development, and folic acid to produce and maintain healthy cells - consumers receive the essential nutrients they need without having to change their behaviors.
In Benin and Togo, all four major cooking oil industries and two wheat flour milling industries have been trained in using proper equipment, securing quality vitamin and mineral premix, and conducting quality assurance procedures. Although the industries in these countries have been complying with regional standards since December 2009, the passage of mandatory legislation now requires that all importers must also comply with the mandate.
In addition to national leaders who advocated for fortification in each of these countries, several key partners were involved in the process. These include UNICEF, the Commission of the West Africa Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), the West African Health Organization (WAHO), Micronutrient Initiative (MI), the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Founded in 1915, Helen Keller International's (HKI) mission is to save the sight and lives of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. HKI combats the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition by establishing programs based on evidence and research in vision, health and nutrition. The organization is known for sustainability, reliability, efficiency, and the highest level of technical expertise in preventing blindness and reducing malnutrition. HKI is headquartered in New York City, and has programs in 21 countries in Africa and Asia as well as in the United States, addressing malnutrition (including vitamin A deficiency), cataract, trachoma, onchocerciasis (river blindness) and refractive error. HKI receives support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and other national and local governments as well as from private and corporate foundations and individuals.