LAGOS, Nigeria – Cadbury Nigeria is known best for the chocolate drinks and mint sweets that line grocery store shelves around the country – which made their nutrition project something of a surprise. Cadbury’s parent company, Mondelez International, launched the program to encourage healthier lifestyles for Nigerian youth at the end of June. The three-part effort will work with primary school children to increase their nutrition knowledge, push them to exercise and teach them gardening.
However, the project, part of Mondelez’s broader $50 million corporate responsibility effort across 10 countries, has raised some concerns about how a private sector corporation that profits off of non-nutritious products can responsibly encourage children to be healthier. Those concerns also now apply to Helen Keller International (HKI), a non-profit leader in fighting malnutrition, which is helping to implement the project in Nigeria, raising questions over whether a nutrition-focused group like HKI should be working with organizations known for making money from the production and sale of unhealthy foods.
In a country where undernutrition is worsening, childhood obesity has not really been at the top of the malnutrition agenda. Nigeria’s childhood obesity rate is actually quite low, at 1.5 percent, according to a national health survey in 2016-17.
Given growing global concerns about the rise of the double burden of malnutrition – countries contending with both undernutrition and overweight – experts in Nigeria have urged officials to put programs in place that help keep those rates down. And that’s where Mondelez came in.
“This is the first time in Nigeria that you have a project doing all three together combining nutrition education, gardening and also physical activity,” Olukemi Adeyoju, the program lead from HKI told News Deeply. “This is the first project that will be working in schools. It has never happened before.”
The pilot phase will include nine public primary schools in the Ikeja community in southwestern Nigeria, where the project will provide seeds and gardening training for students, parents and teachers, as well as educating food vendors on diversifying food choices for the children.
Nigeria is one among 10 countries including Argentina, Australia, Egypt, Russia, India, China, France, Ukraine and the U.S. who will be implementing the project over the next three years. Mondelez says the curriculum will be adapted to suit each country’s needs
Fredrick Mordi, Cadbury West Africa’s senior manager for corporate affairs, said they turned to HKI to manage the funds in Nigeria, “as they have the proven expertise.” Since 1999, HKI have run programs in thematic areas of blindness, poor health and malnutrition in nine states across the country.
Adeyoju says that HKI’s expertise and experience with malnutrition in Nigeria prompted their decision to partner on the project.
“We saw that this was a very good initiative to combat the causes of malnutrition and obesity among the children,” she said.
Cadbury’s role in promoting nutritional initiatives has raised some questions, though, particularly around whether the company is using the initiative to promote unhealthy products.
It is part of a broader debate taking place within the nutrition community about how to integrate private sector partners that make money off of non-nutritious products and ensure their participation does not actually undermine the mission of reducing malnutrition. With the Mondelez partnership, HKI is now in the spotlight.
Bridget Osakwe, the national network co-ordinator of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding, which works in the areas of conflict and food security, understands the ethical concerns but said HKI’s role in this project might actually end up being a good thing.
“From the HKI part of it, they should ensure that while Cadbury are looking at the profit side of their own business, they should be looking at the social welfare aspect of the project,” she said. “My interest is that Cadbury has agreed to bring out this money which is good, Helen Keller should on their own part know how to structure this program to the benefit of our children.”
Dr. Angela Attah, a national nutrition expert, said that there is also the need to be realistic about the situation. The private sector has the money to address these problems, where governments, civil society groups and non-governmental organizations do not.
“It is only right that if the issue can be handled across sectors then we can take advantage of the strengths of all groups involved including private sector stakeholders such as Cadbury who recognize their social responsibilities,” she said. “This could be an avenue not just to provide for the community through special projects like this, but also get to dialogue with them on improving the nutritional content of their products.”
She suggested that it could even lead to greater accountability for Cadbury and other companies in the future.