Tisungeni Zimpita, an award-winning malnutrition advocate, says local activists need more information on exactly how much money they should be asking their national governments for in order to reach international nutrition goals.
Zimpita was named a 2017 Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement Nutrition Champion Award winner for her work in Malawi organizing civil society groups to develop consistent demands around nutrition and then achieve them. She has also worked with policymakers to keep nutrition on the agenda. The more specific, country-level information advocates have, the stronger their demands are, she said.
That experience helped her to prepare for her current role as the advocacy communications and partnership office for the African Development Bank’s African Leaders for Nutrition effort.
Zimpita was one of several nutrition champions who attended last month’s EAT Stockholm Food Forum to discuss how to create healthy, sustainable diets over the long term. She spoke to Malnutrition Deeply about what she has learned, both from the forum and her work in Malawi.
Malnutrition Deeply: What stood out for you from the EAT Food Forum?
Tisungeni Zimpita: We always talk about, within the nutrition community, the need to break the silos. Start to talk with people outside of nutrition because nutrition is something that cuts across in a lot of sectors. This was a chance to do that. There was a lot of talk about nutrition working within the private sector. It was a chance to see how the different pieces actually fit together.
Malnutrition Deeply: Was there anything that surprised you?
Zimpita: I think, especially with my position right now within the African Development Bank, we’re talking about the “High 5s,” which are basically the strategic direction that the African Development Bank is going to take moving forward. One of them is Feed Africa. There are lots of them, but the Feed Africa one looks at the value chain of food from production up until the point where it is eaten. My focus has always been on children under 5. What are the interventions that are there for them to actually thrive? It was more of getting an understanding of that within the value chain, and just how nutrition actually fits and how we need to put those components together.
Malnutrition Deeply: Can you give us some background on your work and what took you to Stockholm?
Zimpita: I joined the SUN Movement in 2013 in Malawi. My very first task was to bring the different types of organizations together and actually form an advocacy alliance. It had never been done before, especially in nutrition.
At the time that I joined, I think we only had about 20 organizations who were primarily international organizations. That grew in numbers by 2017. We had about 108 organizations. My task was coordinating these organizations to always have a more shared agenda on nutrition, whether it has to do with advocacy or trying to lobby for a specific policy that should talk more about nutrition.
During my time as coordinator for the civil society, I worked a lot with parliamentarians. I think it all originated from the Nutrition for Growth commitments that were done in 2013 in London. Malawi was one of the countries that had actually made financial commitments to raise funding or allocations within the budget to specific percentages.
For me that triggered, “How then can we track that within our government?” Not only tracking and letting them be accountable, but also supporting them in the fact that they should reach their goal, fulfill their commitment. We worked a lot with parliamentarians and at the beginning we had about 12 nutrition champions who were parliamentarians.
We trained about 20 parliamentarians [annually] in budget analysis because that was another thing. Even though they were parliamentarians, they had to understand a budget and how to look for nutrition allocation in a way that they would be able to talk about it when they’re in parliament, or question certain numbers if they don’t make sense.
Malnutrition Deeply: What were your policy and legislative victories?
Zimpita: Nutrition is always lost within political cycles. A new president comes in, he’s very passionate about nutrition. The next one comes and then he’s not and then it kind of falls through the cracks. Then you have to do the whole advocacy thing again. But one of the things that for us that was more of a priority and a strategy direction was to insure that we have nutrition within the National Development Plan.
And Malawi has just launched this National Nutrition Policy that had been dragged for a while. I was so happy to hear that the whole Civil Society Alliance was quite engaged in that process.
Malnutrition Deeply: And what were your key lessons from your time as the coordinator?
Zimpita: I did have an audience with the minister of finance twice about nutrition. I think the first one was quite interesting because it was very short, so I had to really practice my pitch.
The second time he really gave us an audience. Within the budgetary review process, where the minister actually talks about the budget within different regions of the country, we ensured that we had our member organizations present and asking relevant questions towards the budget process. I think maybe he got annoyed over that and was like, “Okay, I’m going to give you an audience now.”
It was quite an interesting conversation with the ministers, especially the minister of finance. You have his attention now. Now you have to give him the facts and figures. That’s one of the challenges within nutrition: Even though we’ve done so well in telling people which interventions are cost-effective ones, I think what we don’t have is exact figures within countries. I know there’s a global figure, but within countries – for them to know exactly how much is it that they should allocate toward nutrition if they’re going to reach the World Health Assembly targets.
If you’re engaging with ministers of finance who are faced with so many priorities, being exact on a specific percentage in terms of what you want will really help if asked to address or even reduce malnutrition entirely.