Thinking innovatively around addressing a looming malnutrition crisis in South Africa

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa is likely to see a spike in acute malnutrition in the next few months. It can impact how children grow and develop and therefore have lifelong consequences. Photo: Andre Malan for Cotlands, 2018

In the past week, South Africa has seen exponential growth in the number of COVID-19 cases across the country. Whether this indicates that we are reaching “the peak” remains to be seen but what is clear is that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. What is also clear is that with many households losing their sources of income as a result of the pandemic and its associated lockdown, our country is at the cusp of a malnutrition crisis. Already pre-pandemic, 27% of children in SA suffered from stunted growth and development from chronic malnutrition, malnutrition contributed, as an underlying factor, in at least two-thirds of child deaths in South Africa, ¼ of pregnant women reported going hungry and 25% of households lived below the food poverty line. For the poorest 40% of the population, there is no nutritional reserve and this economic shock will push many over the line into acute malnutrition.  Worsening nutrition will increase the number of low birth weight babies, and increase susceptibility to infections, firstly to Covid-19 and then of childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea and measles. This could result in secondary epidemics, especially if the health services are already overwhelmed by Covid-19.  Now with food prices up by 30% and the economy in a downward spin, it’s become more important than ever to think innovatively and to be efficient in our food relief responses.

The government has taken the nutritional threats to the country seriously and has temporarily increased the child support grant (CSG), however, there are still many poor families who don’t receive any form of social assistance. These include many South Africans who do not have identity documents and foreign nationals who are not permanent residents. The CSG is also not available to pregnant women (a critical time of heightened nutritional need), and with many government institutions only recently re-opening post the hard lockdown, there are the inevitable delays in registration and access to grants for new mothers. The distribution of food parcels in response to the above has also proven itself to be fraught with difficulty. Distributing food parcels is expensive, logistically complicated and risky, both for COVID-19 transmission and corruption.

It is clear that to address the needs of the vulnerable in our society we need to think out of the box. Over the past three months, we’ve tried to do just that. In partnership with the DG Murray Trust, local NGOs and working with Flash and Kazang, two technology companies that provide the technology backbone for payment services in the township economy, as of 7 July 2020 we have distributed over 12 000 digital food vouchers to pregnant & new moms and other vulnerable people across all 9 provinces. These vouchers are redeemable for any goods sold in Spaza shops and general dealers but are strongly associated with communication of the ten ‘best buys’ of affordable nutritious foods.

Vouchers sent via cellphone provide a way to provide social relief of distress without the costs and risks associated with the distribution of food parcels. In addition, by partnering with local NGOs working in the targeted communities to identify beneficiary lists, rather than relying on centralized databases that in a time of national crises are far too slow and tend to exclude the most vulnerable, one ensures that the digital food vouchers reach those who need them the most. This model is simple, robust and could provide a ready channel for supporting vulnerable people not protected by existing social security nets. What’s more, this approach is a pro-poor redistributive strategy, preferentially distributing vouchers redeemable at Spaza shops and local general dealers (of which there are at least over 220,000 scattered across every town and village in South Africa)  and as a result re-injecting much-needed money into the local economy.

With the end of COVID-19 nowhere in sight, we will have to be innovative with our solutions and digital vouchers are a ready solution that has been tested and found to work. This model presents a cost-effective & efficient means of channelling the Department of Social Development’s food parcel distribution programme, efficiency and cost-effectiveness being ever more critical as we approach the eye of the COVID19 storm.

This op-ed was first published on 16 July 2020 in the Cape Argus. View it here. The topic of stunting and malnutrition has been covered by the Mail & Guardian.

Duduzile Mkhize is the Communications Specialist at the Grow Great Campaign.

There are many options to donate towards food drives at the moment. DGMT works with the Grow Great Campaign to send out digital food vouchers to families identified by NGOs via cellphone. If you want to donate a R200 food voucher (which they can claim at Spaza shops), or learn more about the voucher drive, click here.

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