Defying malnutrition in Lao PDR

Defying malnutrition in Lao PDR

Linly knows too well how it feels to be hungry.

At the age of 3, she was used to eating sticky rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  For a long time, the Mangkong ethnic communities of Phalanxay district have been struggling to bring diversified food to the plates of their children. While parents spend the majority of their time foraging for food in the forest, collecting water from open sources, caring for the rice fields, or getting extra work to meet the needs of their family, the children stay home with other caregivers, for instance, grandmothers. This prevents babies from receiving exclusive breastfeeding during their first 6 months and combined with many other challenges, contributed to Linly’s younger sister Bounthai being diagnosed as malnourished 2 years ago. It’s a  sad reality experienced by many other children in the country: in three Lao southern provinces, at least 10% of the children under 5 suffered from acute malnutrition back in 2017.[1]

In 2019, the European Union's Accelerating Healthy Agriculture and Nutrition (AHAN) Project entered the life of Linly’s family. Worried about the precarious situation of their household, Somsamai and Hom, Linly’s father and mother, joined the activities of the project implemented by World Vision. Somsamai has been trained by AHAN staff to grow vegetables during both dry and rainy seasons through the home garden activity.

When I received the seeds and materials from the project, I immediately started to build our garden following the methods I learnt. I didn’t use any chemicals to grow the vegetables, only compost and organic liquids. It has been terrific.

Indeed, this home garden became a valuable resource for the family, producing enough vegetables to feed the eight members, the excess being sold for 360,000KIP (around 38USD). The father placed that money into the savings group he joined, established in his village by AHAN. He re-invested it into more food for his household and the construction of a latrine, following the Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) action supported by the project.

Hom joined the Mothers’ Nutrition Group run by Village Health Volunteers who received training and materials from AHAN. Now, she understands the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6-months of a child and she knows the meaning of good nutrition for her children. She is also able to cook nutritious and balanced meals with the vegetables from their garden. The spring onions, tomatoes, and long yard beans are a perfect fit with the traditional chillies, garlic, oil, and oyster sauce in the pan heated by the energy-saver Thao Fai Wai cookstove delivered to all families with a child under 5 years by the project. Her home-grown food supplements the family’s diet of sticky rice and provides much-needed proteins and vitamins to Linly and Bounthai. As a sign of change, the variety of fragrance coming out of Hom’s kitchen is now giving the appetite to the whole family.

Seeing the impact of the project on the life of his family, Somsamai has not hesitated to get more involved. He volunteered to provide hygiene awareness to his community, as a member of the village water and sanitation committee (VWSMC). He is encouraging his neighbours to understand the importance of good hygiene and sanitation, and motivating them to start building latrines. In the next few months, a new borehole will bring clean water to the village. Coming along is the hope of reducing waterborne diseases, and Somsamai will be here to promote good behaviours towards the use of this new asset.

Back to the garden, Linly is finding joy in helping out her parents with child-appropriate work. The involvement of her parents in multiple AHAN activities has been good for her sister, too. Bounthai is no longer malnourished. She is healthy and thriving. More importantly, the family doesn’t only eat rice for dinner anymore. Linly’s family is a testament to the effectiveness of an integrated nutrition approach.

[1] According to the Lao Social Indicator Survey II 2017 – % of CU5 suffering from acute malnutrition (wasting): Savannakhet: 10%, Saravane: 13%, Attapeu: 15%