Three million children die globally every year from malnutrition. 

If current trends continue, by 2030, a “mind-boggling” 36 million children will have lost their lives because they didn’t have enough to eat.

But African leaders on Monday made a landmark commitment to overcome malnutrition at the launch of the African Leaders for Nutrition (ALN) initiative in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Take action: Children Are Starving and They Need Your Help

“There’s every reason to care: poor nutrition is the main cause of death for millions of children under 5,” said Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB). 

Long-term malnutrition, especially during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life (measured from conception), can lead to what’s known as stunting.

Stunting harms children’s growth in both their bodies and brains, including their educational development — because they generally start school later and have to miss more because of ill-health — and their future economic prospects. According to Adesina, stunted children today will lead to stunted economies tomorrow. 

Read more: Here's How Stunted Kids Are Growing Again in Nepal

In 2016, 59 million African children suffered from stunting and 14 million suffered from wasting. Together, that’s more than the population of France, more than the population of South Africa, and seven times the population of Switzerland, warned Adesina. 

And, he continued, Africa is the only region where the number of stunted children has increased, from 47 million in 1990, to 59 million in 2016.

“There is both a moral and economic obligation on us to resolve this utterly preventable African disaster,” he said. “Africa can defeat stunting and malnutrition if its leaders align and leverage their combined will.” 

“So, today, I speak for the victims of the silent killer of life: malnutrition,” he continued. “Nothing breaks our hearts more than a mother unable to calm the rumbling, hollow stomach of her hungry baby.”

Read more: How Bill Gates Is Helping Lift 100 Million Farmers Out of Poverty

“You cannot watch as 3 million babies die from malnutrition on the backs of equally malnourished mothers,” he told the gathered leaders. “We all need to hear the voices of these mothers and children and act without delay.” 

According to Madagascar President Hery Rajaonarimampianina, stunted children fall ill more frequently, generating high costs to families and the economy — the equivalent of between 1 and 30% of the total public budget allocated to health, or 3% of GDP.

While the impacts of stunting are devastating and irreversible, is is completely preventable. 

If current stunting rates are reduced by 50% by 2025, it could lead to a saving of $21.7 billion. If stunting could be reduced to under 10%, and underweight children to 5%, by 2025, it would lead to a saving to $39.3 billion. 

Read more: This 'Super Bean' Is Feeding and Empowering South Sudanese Refugees

The ALN initiative is backed, along with the AfDB, by the African Union Commission (AUC), the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and other partners. 

By addressing the cost of hunger in Africa, and committing to bold leadership African leaders hope to drive economic growth and sustainable development, by removing the barriers that prevent children and societies from realising their full potential. 

The ALN initiative aims to increase the visibility of nutrition in Africa, to achieve the vision of a continent free from hunger and malnutrition. It hopes to address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition, and encourage specific policy and financial commitments to ending the burden of malnutrition.

Read more: How 2 Years of Drought Have Caused a Devastating Humanitarian Crisis in Kenya

As well as the tragic loss of human life, malnutrition is having a devastating economic impact, with African countries losing up to 16% of their GDP annually — as much as $25 billion each year.

By reducing the cost of malnutrition, the ALN aims to boost Africa’s socio-economic development as well. In fact, every $1 invested in nutrition has the potential to return $35 in health and economic benefits. 

“Nutrition is at the heart of our continental agenda and is a developmental issue,” said the Chair of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, at the event. 

“Nutrition security remains critical to all ongoing programmes and has a positive impact on development,” he added. “Working together, we can make a difference.” 

Global Citizen campaigns to achieve the UN’s Global Goals, which include action on ending world hunger. You can join us by taking action on this issue here

Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen.

Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.


Defeat Poverty

African Leaders Just Made a Landmark Commitment to End 'Silent Killer' of Malnutrition

By Imogen Calderwood