CEO Blog: When Hunger Necessitates Innovation

Back in 2018 I met nine-month-old Nyakuma in one of our nutrition clinics in South Sudan. Nyakuma’s mother, Mary, walked for three hours to reach one of our supported nutrition clinics so Nyakuma could be treated for acute malnutrition.

Nyakuma herself was bright and cheery, and her laughter made all of us smile.

Lately I find myself thinking of Nyakuma and Mary. I wonder where they are now, and if Nyakuma is as happy as she was when I met her. More than anything, I wonder if they have enough food to eat.

Growing Hunger

2020 is an unprecedented year for all the wrong reasons. A global pandemic. New and completely unexpected humanitarian crises, like the one that unfolded after an explosion at the heart of Beirut. And now, hunger.

Hunger was an issue even before the global pandemic started. Conflict, insecurity, and the climate emergency contributed to an increasing number of people experiencing hunger around the world. But with COVID-19, the situation is even worse. Lockdowns, the loss of jobs, and the disruption of markets and agricultural production (among other factors) have contributed to an immense increase in the number of people at risk of starvation by the end of 2020. The World Food Programme estimates that around 270 million people could be at risk of starvation by the end the year, double what was predicted at the end of 2019.[1][2] More people could die from hunger related to COVID-19 than from COVID-19 itself.[3]

We have years of experience implementing lifesaving nutrition interventions in countries experiencing conflict, insecurity, and natural disasters. But on a hunger emergency of this scale, we must do everything we can to try and prevent death and suffering related to malnutrition. This means we must think on our feet.

Hunger and Innovation

We are working with the innovation lab at an international transport company to develop a super precise baby weighing scale, one so accurate that it can detect the difference in weight in an infant before and after breastfeeding. This scale will be used in nutritional emergencies, in special inpatient units for the most severely malnourished children who require 24-hour care in order to survive. Knowing these small differences in feeding can make a huge difference in their recovery and will also give us information about their mother’s breastmilk production. Having accurate scales to measure weight will improve that infant’s chances of surviving malnutrition and growing up to be a happy, healthy child.

We have also adapted our nutrition interventions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable communities. To help screen for malnutrition and determine if a child is malnourished, trained staff take measurements with a special tape measure. With the pandemic and social distancing, we are not always able to take those measurements ourselves. In addition to working with caregivers to ensure that they understand the importance of practices like handwashing, we are also showing them how to take these measurements. This way, caregivers are able to monitor their child’s nutritional status at home and will know when to seek care at a nutrition clinic. In doing this we are not only preventing the spread of COVID-19, but are also empowering families to identify malnutrition earlier and at home.

Of course, we continue to do everything we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among vulnerable communities. In Bangladesh, we continue to provide health services to vulnerable families. In Afghanistan we run information sessions to help dispel rumours, myths, and misconceptions about how the virus spreads. In South Sudan, we have a phone-based home care support system to provide support for families with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19. We never imagined a year ago that we would need to plan humanitarian interventions around a global pandemic, but being able to think on our feet and adapt our programming has allowed us as much as possible to keep essential services running while still preventing the spread of a virus that has had devastating impacts on global health, the local economy, and especially hunger.

As a humanitarian organisation, we cannot stop conflict, the climate emergency, or COVID-19. However, we must do everything we can to find innovative solutions to help screen for and treat malnutrition in the communities that are most severely affected by these crises. We have a responsibility to ensure that children like Nyakuma have the best possible chance at life – and that means being willing to be innovative in the midst of one of the most serious hunger crises of our time.

[1] World Food Programme to assist largest number of hungry people ever, as coronavirus devastates poor nations. WFP, 2020.

[2] Global Report on Food Crises. Global Network Against Food Crises, 2020.

[3] The Hunger Crisis. Oxfam, 2020.


This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and headquarters staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.