NIAMEY, Niger, 18 May 2007 - Two years after Niger's severe nutrition crisis, the sight of undernourished children is less common than it was, but chronic malnutrition still affects more than 50 percent of the country's young children. And 10 per cent of Niger's children suffer from acute malnutrition, even when the harvests are good.
To deal with this worrying situation, a large-scale effort is under way to address malnutrition at various stages in the lives of children under the age of five.
One of the key tools being used in that effort is the therapeutic food known as Plumpy'nut, which helped save thousands of lives during the crisis in 2005.
Thousands of lives saved
Like many therapeutic health centres across Niger, the UNICEF-supported clinic in Tillabery - an hour away from the capital, Niamey - gives Plumpy'nut to severely malnourished children. The high-protein, high-energy, peanut-based paste typically comes in foil wrappers or small plastic tubs, which are practical for children who can easily eat them.
"They call it the magical product," says Regional Humanitarian Advisor Jan Eijkenaar of the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO). "It helps children recover very quickly when they become malnourished. In Niger - which is amongst the poorest countries in the world - children can become malnourished very quickly, and this can help them recover."
Since 2005, the Société de Transformation Alimentaire (STA) factory in Niamey has been producing the lifesaving food. It is the only Plumpy'nut factory in West Africa, and production has grown to about 40 tonnes a month, attracting the interest of neighbouring countries.
With ECHO's financial support, last year UNICEF was able to purchase about 130 tonnes of the Plumpy'nut produced at the STA factory. This year, UNICEF continues to strongly support local production of the user-friendly food.
Looking towards long-term solutions
Part of the appeal for this winning formula is its accessibility.
"Plumpy'nut is an easy-to-use product - easy to use and easy to make," says STA Chief Executive Officer Fatchima Cissé. "It's a product that doesn't get contaminated because there's no water in it, so its conservation is relatively easy. And it answers perfectly to the needs of the malnourished child because it enables him or her to gain back significant weight each day."
Last year, the product was used to treat more than 63,000 malnourished children. Typically, it allows children to return to a healthy weight within three to four weeks.
"Plumpy'nut is really effective and useful for the treatment of severely malnourished children who can follow the treatment at home in ambulatory care, therefore allowing us to touch a lot of children at once," explains UNICEF Niger's Head of Nutrition, Noël Marie Zagré.
While Plumpy'nut has made a difference in many young lives in Niger, malnutrition remains a deeply rooted problem here and in other countries of the semi-arid, sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel. In the long term, the needs of the population must be met on a sustainable basis, notably through community-based food production, to effectively overcome the country's annual cycle of nutrition crises.
But today, as Niger looks towards these long-term solutions, Plumpy'nut is saving children's lives.