The Cost of Childhood Undernutrition

June 9, 2015

Childhood undernutrition and incidences of underweight children under the age of five can have detrimental effects not only on the children themselves but on the social and economic wellbeing of their communities. Early childhood nutrition is a key factor in creating healthy, thriving communities. When children have access to proper nutrition they grow up with better resources and education, have less health complications, and become greater contributors to their communities.

The African Union Commission (AUC) created The Cost of Hunger in Africa (COHA) study in order to better understand the effects of childhood nutrition and undernutrition in developing countries. This study estimates the social and economic impacts of child undernutrition in 16 selected countries in Africa. It emphasizes the significant economic losses caused by childhood undernutrition in addition to the many social determinants one may expect. The COHA uses indicators such as undernutrition related morbidity, mortality, school repetitions and dropouts and reduced physical capacity to better understand the social and economic costs of poor nutrition for children under the ages of five.

Malawi, one of the 16 countries participating in the study, is of particular interest because of their recent improvements in poverty rates throughout the country. With the recent drop in poverty came a significant decrease in childhood undernutrition, however stunting remains a serious issue for children in Malawi. A 2012 study found that 1.27 million children in Malawi were affected by stunting and almost 350,715 children were underweight. Even higher rates of stunting and undernutrition were seen in children between the ages of 18 month and 23 months; this is a critical time in a child’s development and being stunted or underweight  could have lifetime effects on these children.

According to the COHA, these deficits also have social and economic impacts on health, education, and productivity throughout the country.

  • 81,783 child deaths in Malawi were directly associated with undernutrition between 2008 and 2012
  • 18% of all grade repetitions in 2012 were associated with stunting, bearing a total cost of MWK 3.4 billion (US$ 7.82 million)
  • An estimated 800,566 working hours were lost in 2012 due to absent workforce as a result of undernutrition-related child mortalities
  • 68.6% of productivity loss is attributed to undernutrition related mortality; in 2012 this resulted in a loss of MKW 132 billion (US$ 537 million), equivalent to 9.3% of the GDP
  • In 2012, a total of 147 billion MKW (US$ 597 million) were lost as a result of child undernutrition.

In order to improve childhood undernutrition the COHA recommends that Malawi:

  • Set ambitious targets to reduce undernutrition
  • Scale up high-impact nutrition interventions as outlined in national nutrition policy and  strategy
  • And improve communications and advocacy, coordination, and monitoring and evaluation

The Hunger Project in working to end childhood undernutrition in our 10 epicenters in Malawi and other epicenters throughout Africa. One of the ways this is being done is through the 1,000 Days initiative in which they conduct awareness campaigns on safe motherhood, carry out vaccination campaigns targeting children under five years old, and train mother-to-mother (M2M) support groups on safe motherhood and nutrition. Health and nutrition programs such as these in Africa are made possible by a strategic partnership with Ronald McDonald House Charities® (RMHC®).


Learn More:

Read the full Cost of Hunger in Malawi report

Check out The Hunger Project’s programs in Malawi

Learn more about the 1000 Days Initiative