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‘My commitment is not just professional; it's deeply personal’ – Dr Mercy Lung’aho [Interview]

Article-‘My commitment is not just professional; it's deeply personal’ – Dr Mercy Lung’aho [Interview]

Women in Nutrition interview with Dr Mercy Lung'aho
Dr Mercy Lung’aho is Africa Director, Child Health and Development, at the Children's Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF). With expertise in designing, executing, and evaluating evidence-based solutions, she has a proven track record across Africa and over a decade of experience with international organisations committed to addressing global nutrition and health challenges.

Lung’aho has played pivotal roles in advising, leading, developing, and implementing nutrition research to diagnose and solve intricate problems, delivering practical, transformative solutions with demonstrated results. Championing a systems approach, she advocates for leveraging agri-food and health systems to tackle enduring and emerging nutrition, food security, and health challenges in Africa.

Lung’aho is a member of the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), the African Nutrition Society (ANS), and the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). She contributes as a steering committee member of the Micronutrient Data Innovation Alliance (DInA) and holds the designation of a registered nutritionist (RN) with the Kenya Nutrition and Dietetics Institute (KNDI), among other affiliations.

On your LinkedIn profile, you write: ‘I could have been a medical statistic at birth: female, preemie, underweight, anaemic, neonatal death. I was given only 72 hours to live. No doctor wanted to waste an incubator on a dying baby. But because they did, I am a nutritionist today.’ How have these personal experiences shaped your career today?

“I grew up very timid and searching for purpose. Hearing the story of my birth and facing adversity from the very beginning has instilled in me a laser focus on excellence, integrity, and impact. These values are what I bring to the table.

“Surviving against all odds has shaped my perspective to be intensely results-oriented. I believe in making a tangible difference because I've experienced first-hand the transformative power of resilience and determination. I am told I am stubborn and sometimes hard-headed (both beautiful virtues in my book) when I am pursuing a solution or result. But really, I am just committed to making a difference. My commitment is not just professional; it's deeply personal.

“I am extremely impatient because I know lives are at stake. With growth and maturity, I have learned to discipline my impatience – work smart, not hard; leverage networks and build value-based relationships; give my absolute best; and take nothing personally. I know that every effort counts, and that's what drives me to channel my energy into creating meaningful impact. I am not just passionate about what I do; I am driven by a profound belief in the positive change that can arise from dedicated, impactful actions.”

Your mission is to end malnutrition in Africa; part of your work is to advise governments on how to develop solutions that link agriculture to improved nutrition and health outcomes. How important is nutrition-sensitive agricultural programming? Where do you see research in this area heading next?

“Regardless of how it is defined, nutrition begins with what we eat. If our food is not safe, diverse, and sufficient, we cannot nourish Africa. Hunger and malnutrition come at an extremely high cost to individuals, countries, and the continent! If individuals cannot live up to their potential, we compromise economic development. So, if agriculture fails to prioritise nutrition and goes wrong in Africa, and we are unable to nourish communities, nothing will go right.

“Nutrition is a developmental issue. Dr Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank, puts it perfectly: investing in nutrition-sensitive agricultural programming is building grey-matter infrastructure – the most important infrastructure Africa should invest in.

“We pay a lot of lip service to nutrition. There is too much rhetoric and very little progress. Climate change will make it harder for Africa to address hunger and malnutrition. We have a narrow window of time to pull our act together and plan nutrition-sensitive mitigation and adaption. We need more research on what works, for who, when, where, why, and how.

“We must get ahead to stand a chance at achieving zero hunger in our lifetime.”

Much of your work has focused on improving the nutrition status of vulnerable populations. What are the biggest nutrition challenges facing women and children today?

“The nutrition challenges facing women and children today are multifaceted, encompassing issues of both undernutrition and overnutrition. Maternal nutrition is a critical concern, impacting childbirth outcomes and long-term health for both mothers and infants.

“Micronutrient deficiencies persist, hindering proper growth and development. Socioeconomic factors contribute to limited access to nutrient-rich foods, exacerbating malnutrition. Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) conditions play pivotal roles in ensuring optimal nutrition – these are poor among the vulnerable. Food security issues and the impact of global emergencies that increase the fragility and dysfunction of food systems further compound these challenges. And the lack of social protection, safety trampolines (not safety nets) that allow individuals, households, and communities to bounce back from shocks, building their resilience in the process is our biggest Achilles heel.

“My ‘migraine’ is that as far as nutrition challenges go, at any one time, we have critical, enduring, and emerging issues at play in communities – sometimes it feels like we cannot catch a break!”

You led the Nigeria Food Consumption and Micronutrient Survey. How can the power of big data be harnessed to benefit the most vulnerable populations?

“It was an absolute honour and privilege to be the technical lead for anthropometry and biomarker for the Nigeria Food Consumption and Micronutrient Survey. The experience advanced my career and also refined me as a human. I am also a steering committee member for the Micronutrient Data Innovation Alliance (DInA), hosted by the Micronutrient Forum. I am a firm believer that meaningful change can only be achieved through systematic measurement and consistent monitoring.

“In the context of Nigeria, the significance of micronutrient surveys is evident. The initial survey took place in 1968, followed by the second in 2001. Notably, a groundbreaking, new-generation survey occurred in 2021. Establishing the root causes of malnutrition, identifying priority issues and solutions, and effectively tracking the outcomes of policies and interventions requires a sustained commitment to collecting and analysing reliable data – and DInA is looking to help countries with improving their data ecosystem.

“Big data is not a magic bullet – it is closing the data gap that will help Nigeria and similar countries cost-effectively design well-targeted programs, monitor progress, and plan strategic actions to address malnutrition.”

Your research has taken you to different countries, including in Eastern, Southern and West Africa. What are women’s experiences like in these different regions? How do their priorities differ?

“I have always had a deep-seated curiosity to understand Africa in her complexity and accompany women in their unique experiences. Working in the PABRA Bean Program at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), I had exposure to women’s experiences in 33 African countries across Eastern, Southern, and West Africa.

“Certain countries have left a lasting impression on me: Malawi, Rwanda, Senegal. These places have been profound classrooms, imparting invaluable insights into the principles of women's empowerment and the significance of co-creating alongside women by fully grasping the unique context of each region.

“Working with women in farming communities, I've observed nuanced differences in women's experiences reflective of diverse cultural, social, and economic contexts. In Eastern Africa, for instance, women often face challenges related to agricultural labour and may prioritise access to education and healthcare. In Southern Africa, women's priorities may encompass health services, disease prevention, and community support systems. West Africa, marked by cultural diversity, presents a range of experiences, with women often expressing concerns about economic empowerment, maternal health, and access to clean water.

“It's crucial to recognise these regional distinctions to tailor effective programmes that address the specific needs and priorities of women in each area, fostering sustainable development and empowerment.

What would you say to young women setting out on a similar career path to yours?

“I would emphasise the importance of unwavering dedication to excellence, integrity, and impact. In the realm of research, these qualities serve as the foundation for meaningful contributions.

“Remain steadfast in your commitment to producing high-quality work, maintaining the utmost integrity in your endeavours, and consistently striving for real-world impact. Embrace challenges as opportunities for growth, and be resilient in the face of adversity and disappointment. Seek mentorship from those who inspire you, and don't hesitate to advocate for yourself and others.

“Remember, your unique perspective and contributions are indispensable to advancing research globally. Stay passionate, stay persistent, and make a lasting mark on the field. Your contributions are invaluable, and the world truly needs the unique impact that only you can make.”