MARSABIT, Kenya: Under an acacia tree in drought-ravaged northern Kenya, malnourished infants feed on sticky bites of a nutrient-rich groundnut paste long used to prevent starvation in children during disasters across the world.
This miracle food could mean the difference between life and death for a child in hard-hit Marsabit, where aid workers say young children are perishing in near-starvation conditions.
“If we ran out, more deaths would be recorded very soon,” James Jarso of aid group World Vision said of the sachets distributed by charity workers in the arid, isolated village of Purapul.
But just as 1.7 million children face starvation in the drought-stricken Horn of Africa, the cost of these life-saving supplements is skyrocketing due to another crisis unfolding thousands of miles away. kilometers away.
The conflict in Ukraine is making the production and purchase of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) more expensive, according to UNICEF, which buys almost 80% of the global supply.
Ukraine is a major exporter of sunflower oil, wheat and other cereals. The war has affected the price and availability of staple foods, pushed up fuel prices and disrupted supply chains already out of whack due to the pandemic.
A knock-on effect has been rising prices for powdered milk, vegetable oils and groundnuts – all key ingredients in RUTFs, said Christiane Rudert, UNICEF nutrition adviser for Southern and Eastern Africa.
Even the materials used to make RUTF wrappers have become scarcer and more expensive, she said.
UNICEF, which purchases around 49,000 tonnes of RUTF each year, is beginning to feel the effects.
“The cost has certainly already increased, which affects our orders,” Rudert told AFP.
French firm Nutriset told AFP it had raised the cost of its main RUTF product “Plumpy’Nut” twice in the past year, including a 13% hike in May.
He could not attribute this directly to Ukraine, but to a confluence of factors including war but also the pandemic, rising shipping costs and environmental disasters, Nutriset said in a statement.
Overall, the price of “Plumpy’Nut” – which reached 9.7 million children last year – has risen 23% since May 2021, he said.
UNICEF predicts that by November, RUTF prices will have increased by 16% over pre-war levels.
The invasion of Russia also increased fuel prices, making it more expensive to deliver RUTFs to where they are needed.
The timing couldn’t be worse.
More than 1.7 million children in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are suffering from the deadliest form of malnutrition as the Horn of Africa experiences its worst drought in generations.
The rising cost of RUTF means treating these children “will cost $12 million more than it would have cost before Ukraine,” Rudert said.
It is money that is sorely lacking, she said, with donations to tackle the hunger crisis in the Horn falling far short of what is needed.
“This product…is literally what saves children’s lives when they have already reached this very serious form of malnutrition.
“It’s not just peanuts and milk and sugar and oil…it’s therapeutic,” Rudert said.
Invented a quarter of a century ago, RUTF has proven to be revolutionary in the treatment of severe wasting, a deadly condition where undernourished children are too thin for their height.
A single packet of RUTF provides 500 calories and essential vitamins and minerals.
Consumed straight from the packet, RUTF helps malnourished children regain weight and energy quickly, and requires no refrigeration or preparation by a health worker.
This is essential in remote and impoverished areas like northern Kenya, where clean water and health workers are in short supply.
During a fortnightly visit to Purapul, government doctor Mohamed Amin said most women and children only survived on the packets of paste he had prescribed.
“It’s really been a challenge,” he told AFP at a mobile health clinic, where mothers received two weeks’ worth of supplements to feed their children between screenings.
“At least it boosts them.”
UNICEF buys enough RUTF to feed at least 3.5 million children a year. But at current funding levels, a 16% price hike could mean 600,000 people would miss out on this life-saving treatment, Rudert said.
This would have disastrous consequences not only for the Horn but elsewhere in Africa such as South Sudan, where 300,000 children are expected to need RUTF treatment this year.
Jarso of World Vision said the impact of RUTFs in a place like Purapul cannot be overstated.
“There is no milk. There is no meat… there is no food for them. Therefore, it saves lives.