Malnutrition status in Sri Lanka
Despite significant progress in socio-economic indicators in Sri Lanka over the last decade, Sri Lanka continues to face substantive challenges in addressing poor nutrition. Malnutrition in Sri Lanka is prevalent throughout the life-cycle, starting with 1 in 6 (16%) newborns being of Low Birth Weight (LBW). This trend continues amongst older children, as Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest rates of acute malnutrition (wasting) in children under five years of age – at 15 percent, the country is within the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) threshold for a “critical” situation. Stunting, though found at 17% in children below 5 years of age (considered an acceptable rate by the WHO), has not improved in the last 10 years, and continues to affect optimal physical and mental development. Micronutrient deficiencies, especially anaemia, are also pressing concerns. Overnutrition is rapidly emerging, with 45% of women of reproductive age overweight or obese. Severe regional disparities in malnutrition exist among former conflict-affected districts, estate sectors and certain farming areas. These trends may be linked to poor care practices and indicate the need for behavioural change interventions. Malnutrition, consisting of both over- and under-nutrition, is caused by several factors, including household food insecurity, inadequate care and feeding practices and poor household environment. Poverty and inability to afford a nutritious diet in Sri Lanka also contributes to sub-optimal nutrition outcomes.
Sri Lanka is a signatory to global and regional commitments to address the widespread issue of malnutrition. The country signed up to implement the World Health Assembly (WHA) targets to improve its nutritional status by 2025. To demonstrate the commitment towards scaling up nutrition actions at the highest level, in 2012 the Government of Sri Lanka joined the Scale Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement. Subsequently, the first Multisector Action Plan for Nutrition (MSAPN) 2012-2017 was developed, emphasizing the importance of a more comprehensive, sustainable and holistic response and multi-sector approach, re-affirming that malnutrition cannot be addressed effectively by the health sector alone. Civil Society and UN networks have been active in Sri Lanka and work closely with the Government to support the implementation of the MSAPN. In Sri Lanka, given rapid economic growth and the increasing role of the private sector in providing health and nutrition solutions, the establishment of the SUN Business Network (SBN) was identified as a high-impact opportunity and necessity.
The draft MSAPN 2018 – 2025 (which is being finalised) identified the role of the private sector in creating demand for nutritious products, increasing the availability of nutritious foods in the market, and acting as a partner in addressing the rapidly increasing levels of overweight/obesity and diet related non-communicable diseases.
Launch of SBN Sri Lanka
Based on intensive consultation with various private sector companies, and other government stakeholders, the Sri Lanka SBN kick off meeting was organized on 1st of March 2019 in Colombo. The meeting was attended by over 50 participants, with 26 individuals representing 20 prominent private sector companies that signed up as members of the network. The remaining participants represented Government partners, the UN and donor community.
The session was opened by Ms. Brenda Barton, the WFP Country Director who called for the Private Sector to come together and to use platforms such as the SBN to align their vision to help the country address its poor nutrition situation. Ms. Farzana Khan – the SBN coordinator- then presented on the role of the SBN and its strategic direction in Sri Lanka. Based on extensive consultations leading to the kick-off event, she shared potential key workstreams that the private sector could focus on.
#SriLanka has one of the highest rates (top 10 worst in the world) of moderate acute malnutrition – which is ‘wasting’ or thinness in children under 5 years of age. The @SUNBizNet provides a platform to reduce such shocking malnutrition statuses through businesses partnerships. pic.twitter.com/qMlWSuzy4O
— Brenda (@Brenda_Barton) March 1, 2019
Representatives from the Ministry of Health – Dr Renuka Jayatissa Head of Nutrition, Medical Research Institute and Dr. Rasanjali Hettiarachchi – Director, Nutrition Coordination Division presented the nutrition situation and the priority of the Ministry of Health to address poor nutrition issues. They called for a more collaborative approach between government and the private sector to address the issues, including their role in food fortification, and market linkages for nutritious crops and products.
Further, given the long-term considerations for SBN to be linked to the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FCCISL) of Sri Lanka, which works with SMEs across the country as well as spearheading the Asia Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA), Secretary General, Mr. Ajith D. Perera, presented the role FCCISL and potential contributions to the nutrition situation in Sri Lanka with FCCISL and the private sector. Mr Ajith also mentioned that for this year, their theme for the much-awaited Entrepreneur of the year awards will be based around Nutrition. He cited ‘Entrepreneurship for a Healthy Planet ‘as the theme stemming from advocacy to-date and prospective linkages through the SBN.
Ms Dilka Pieris, who represented the SUN Civil Society shared key learnings from the Network especially in regards to how the network was established in Sri Lanka, and the mechanisms that were undertaken that helped to ensure sustainability of their efforts.
Development of SBN Sri Lanka’s roadmap
Following these presentations, the audience was divided into 3 groups with a good mix of private sector, government, UN and donors. Each group discussed a pre-assigned key theme based on expressions of interest gathered in the lead up to the SBN kick-off meeting. The group work guided the development of a roadmap for SBN within 3 sub-topics:
1. Workplace nutrition
2. Demand creation for healthy food
3. Value addition (including food fortification)
The kick-off meeting helped to galvanize interest and discussions that were initiated in August 2018 by the SBN global team, and also helped to initiate communication between the private sector and government officials. Moving forward, a strategy for SBN will be finalised which will include its structure, meeting frequency, membership, roles and responsibility of each sub-group, the SBN Secretariat, resourcing (human and financial), as well as a detailed work plan as proposed by group members.
One of the key take aways from the kick-off meeting was the need for a good nutrition communication campaign and this may form a separate workstream. This was an outcome from all the groups and our government partners. There is significant demand for information and knowledge, given that private sector companies are willing to share this forward and it dovetails very well to the WFP CO planned SBCC campaign whereby good nutrition and the importance of a healthy and balanced diet will be promoted at a national level.
In summary, the key next steps are:
• Finalise the SBN Strategy based on the key themes and work plans
• Finalise the membership, and continue advocating for members’ contribution to the network
• Formalise the meetings and subgroup work plan
• Fund raising/resource mobilization to support the work plan developed by members
Article written by Farzana Khan and Anusara Singhkumarwong, WFP Sri Lanka