The white SUV waits until the big white letters ‘U-N-I-C-E-F’ have disappeared behind the heavy blue sliding gate. On the backseat is Joan Matji, leaving for a meeting in Addis Ababa. Her phone rings in regular intervals. Joan’s job as Chief Nutrition is the coordination of UNICEF’s nutrition activities in collaboration with various nutrition development partners in Ethiopia. “[…] I spend a lot of time attending meetings with Government partners including the Ministry of Health reminding them ‘yes, the minister has signed the National Nutrition Programme (NNP), but what can YOU do differently or what can we do collaboratively to make a more sustainable, a more scaled-up impact on nutrition,” she says.

The National Nutrition Programme is the government’s directive to reduce the country’s burden of malnutrition. Initially developed in 2008, the deputy prime minister launched a revised NNP in June 2013, which was signed by nine of his ministers. “This document provides concrete evidence to make a lasting change to the nutrition agenda in Ethiopia through collaborations between the various sectors and ministries. That is an innovation,” she explains. The government from the highest level is committed to “making a change and influencing nutrition outcomes in this country”. 

Large scale

Joan signals the driver to stop in broken Amharic. Originally from South Africa, she came to the Horn of Africa in 2011. She climbs out of the car and enters a multi storied building in Ethiopia’s capital. “When I arrived here, I was stunned that through a key intervention such as Vitamin A supplementation given twice a year, we reached 11 million children under five. That makes me very proud to be part of UNICEF - doing things at scale is […] a reality,” she says. The impact is visible, also on paper. Over the past years Ethiopia has reduced its under-5 mortality rate by over two-thirds thus reaching the forth of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). She cannot help but smile when being reminded of the news.  

She accounts the success to the scaled up Health Extension Programme and the health workers on the ground – around 38,000 on government payroll. “You have a service that is closest to where people and their vulnerabilities are […]. They can trace health and nutrition related problems at the community level before they become worse,” she explains. She is positive about reaching the other MDGs but acknowledges that much more work is needed to reach MDG 5: improving maternal health. According to her, it is one of the most important ones as “malnutrition is an intergenerational problem”. Back in the car, she wraps a colourful scarf around her neck against the cold breeze of the air-conditioner. Through the car windows, she does not see the hunger stricken country that people know from concerts like Live/Band Aid. “We have completely moved to a new Ethiopia – one that knows that caring for your population means prioritising good nutrition,” she says contently enjoying a few minutes of peace from her mobile phone.