More than two billion people still suffer from poor nutrition.

That’s the central finding of the new Global Nutrition Report, a first-of-its-kind evaluation of food security in 193 countries produced by the International Food Policy Research Institute. Researchers note that despite serious improvements in other key areas of global development in recent years, “little progress” has been made in addressing some of the core challenges associated with malnutrition in women and children: namely, iron deficiency and the risks its poses during pregnancy, low birth weight and poor nutrition in a child’s first years.

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The report is a reminder that nutrition must take top priority on the global development agenda. Nearly half of all deaths of children under five are caused by inadequate food and nutrition. That is a sad and shocking reality.

Even in South Africa -- arguably the most economically advanced country on the continent -- one in four children still goes to bed hungry every night. And as the South African economy has stalled, the proportion of kids under five suffering from “stunting” – physical deficiencies caused by chronic malnutrition -- has grown.

The situation is much worse in other African countries. In Madagascar, for example, half of all children under five suffer from stunting.

The effects of malnourishment during childhood last a lifetime, even if one’s food situation improves in adulthood. No matter how much better our local schools, hospitals and economy become, malnourished children can’t flourish.

If a child’s brain isn’t properly fed, he or she can suffer irreversible cognitive challenges. The gold-standard investigation into this problem found that the average adult that suffered from stunting as an infant has a much lower IQ compared to a consistently well-nourished adult, completes about four fewer years of school, and is significantly less likely to be employed in a white collar job.

The deficits created by childhood malnutrition can permanently suppress an individual’s long-term earnings potential. The World Bank estimates that early-life food insecurity drops the average person’s lifetime wages by about 10 percent. In Congo, Liberia, Burundi and other low-income African countries, malnutrition by itself can compress GDP by up to three percent.

Of course, many parts of Africa are rapidly expanding. The continent is home to over half of the fastest growing economies in the world. This development is not exclusively a function of natural resources. Smart governments are cultivating high-tech sectors and setting the foundations for sustainable growth. Just look at Africa’s booming telecommunications sector, with more than a half-billion mobile connections on the continent today.

This evolution produces an array of knowledge-based jobs that can support families and transform communities. Without proper nutrition, our children will struggle to become the champions who can lead Africa through the 21st century. Simply put, improving nutrition is the key
to accelerating Africa’s growth and empowering our people.

There has been a recent swell of support to improve nutrition, thanks to many dedicated professionals and strong leadership from some key donor governments. Indeed, earlier this year the Canadian government pledged $3.5 billion in new financial commitments for maternal,
newborn and child health, which included nutrition as a core pillar of that investment. Canada has been a leader on nutrition, thanks to this commitment and to long-term and sustained support for organizations like the Micronutrient Initiative, for which I serve as board chair.

However, global investments in nutrition represent only 1 percent of aid spent each year. It’s simply not enough. Dollars directed toward education and healthcare and other critical development initiatives risk being wasted if we don’t create a solid foundation for proper nutrition early in life.

More resources -- including through traditional aid as well as innovative financing approaches --need to be directed to fighting malnutrition. And there must be particular emphasis on the first thousands days of life, from conception to age two. That’s the period when brain growth is most crucial -- and most fragile.

Even modest upticks in nutrition dollars will translate into huge benefits. Effective nutritional support can be simple and inexpensive. Key programs include: fortification of staple foods with micronutrients; the addition of iodine to local salt supplies; and the creation of robust distribution systems for critical supplements like vitamin A and iron.

Nutritional aid shouldn’t be seen as charity -- it should be seen as an investment. Improving childhood nutrition will set the stage for long-term dynamism that will resound throughout the continent. This must be a global priority.

Masiyiwa is the chairman and founder of Econet Wireless, a global telecommunications company, and chair of the board of the Micronutrient Initiative.