12 Aug 2020

Q&A with Zero Hunger youth leader, Gasana Ingabire

Gasana Ingabire Zero Hunger Intern at CARE

To mark International Youth Day 2020, Gasana Ingabire, Zero Hunger intern at CARE, discusses what the 2020 Global Nutrition Report means to her as a young Rwandan with ambitions to transform the state of nutrition in her country.

You’re a Zero Hunger intern at CARE. How did growing up in Rwanda influence your interest in nutrition and ending hunger?

Growing up, we rarely consumed fruits and our vegetable intake was limited mostly to the one we grew in our backyard – ‘imbwija’. Though my parents were educated and understood the importance of a nutritious diet, fruits and vegetables were always too expensive. Even now, as an undergraduate student at Michigan State University, I experience similar struggles. As a nutritional science major, I understand the importance of a healthy diet, but I cannot afford to eat vegetables, fruits and other fresh foods regularly.

Growing up as a young woman in Rwanda, I was privileged. I was empowered to live out my dreams and explore careers in a variety of sectors, from politics to engineering. However, this privilege was not universal. During high school, I volunteered to teach and play with children and fellow teens residing in the Burundian refugee camp in eastern Rwanda. I witnessed children, my age and younger, who were suffering from severe forms of poverty and hunger. Their hopes and dreams were slowly fading away as a result.

You mention that you were encouraged to explore careers in politics and engineering. Why did you decide to study nutrition?

I knew that I had to do something about the severe poverty and hunger I had witnessed. So, while choosing my career path, I decided to focus on nutrition. Unhealthy diets and poverty are the leading cause of many diseases. I understood at a young age that health goes beyond the physical functioning of the body to include the socio-economic circumstances, such as wealth and gender. After winning a scholarship, I enrolled at Michigan State University to follow my dream.

As part of your induction at CARE, you were tasked with reading the 2020 Global Nutrition Report. What are your top takeaways?

All over the world people are affected by malnutrition, yet it affects people differently. While reading the 2020 GNR, it became clear that part of the problem is a lack of disaggregated data to support targeted interventions for the most vulnerable groups. Other issues that stood out to me were the lack of access to affordable healthy options, inadequate nutrition education, and the absence of agency among vulnerable groups. The 2020 GNR also highlighted the importance of listening to vulnerable groups. This reminded me of two nutrition programmes in Rwanda, which had vastly differing results.

Nutrition supplements in Rwanda

Ongera Intungamubiri is a nutritional supplement introduced in Rwanda to tackle stunting in children. Credit: net photo.

The first programme distributed sachets called Ongera Intungamubiri to families with children under the age of five. The sachets contained 15 vitamins and minerals and were meant to be sprinkled on food, like seasoning. As magical as the sachets were, families were not accustomed to using seasonings in this way and didn’t understand the value of the sachets, often throwing them away.

The second programme distributed fortified porridge to pregnant women and mothers with children under five living below the poverty line. Porridge is the main breakfast meal for many Rwandans, so it was not something new to them. These examples demonstrate the importance of listening and appreciating the context within which we are working to avoid intervening in ways that aren’t understood or approved of by people receiving nutrition services.

Rwanda’s Country Nutrition Profile shows that the country is making progress to address child malnutrition. What about obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases in adults?

More and more people in Rwanda, especially young people, are eating junk food. As a young adult, and with the rise of globalisation, I see why these issues may be rising. This is because they don’t have access to affordable healthy options or proper nutrition education. Growing up, I didn’t study much about healthy diets and how crucial they are for our overall health. Before reading the 2020 GNR, I underestimated the rate of non-communicable diseases in low-income countries, so I was really surprised to learn that three in four people with diabetes are in low or middle-low income countries.

CARE has described you as a ‘rising star’. As a young leader in the field of nutrition, what would your recommendations be to governments and policymakers around the world?

Nutritious food needs to be made available and affordable for all. To prevent health problems and reduce growing nutrition inequalities, we must ensure good nutrition for young people today. The importance of nutrition for the health of both people and the economy must be incorporated into school curriculums to increase awareness. Governments should also restrict access to ultra-processed foods and marketing of these products.

What would you say to someone if they told you investing in nutrition is a waste of money?

Hunger doesn’t discriminate, and every one of us needs a healthy diet to thrive. A healthy diet shouldn’t be a privilege, it is a human right. By improving nutrition, stunting would decrease and all the money that goes into addressing stunting could be diverted to other things to benefit society. Decreases in stunting would also result in having a better educated and equipped workforce in low-income countries. If nutrition improves, the amount of money governments invest in treating non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, would be reduced and could be invested in other essential services such as education and infrastructure. It’s hard to see how anyone could ever argue against investing in nutrition.

In today’s world, it is important to recognise that as much as breathing is a human right, so is having access to healthy food. If we work together, we can realise this right. I still hold out hope in my dreams. And by investing in nutrition and listening to the voices of the most marginalised, we can make sure the dreams of those less fortunate are realised too.

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not represent the official position of the Global Nutrition Report or associated individuals, institutions and organisations, unless explicitly stated.

Image credit: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

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