Abebe Hailemariam stands in the main square of Diego town in the region of Tigray, where a group of boys has transformed the market place into a football pitch. Under the usual shouting, pushing and tackling, the boys chase after a small rubber ball in their colourful plastic sandals. The Nutrition Project Officer puts on his blue UNICEF cap and joins in. “Personally I have a very strong connection with children. I feel more like talking to children than to adults. Even at the household visits I don’t talk much with the adults, but with the children. I ask them questions or tell them stories,” he says catching his breath.

As a father of two, the promotion of nutrition and health issues is close to his heart. “Children shouldn’t be malnourished, they should grow up healthy. I hope to contribute to that change, to be part of this history,” he explains. Since 2001, he has been supporting UNICEF to advise health extension workers. He currently helps monitoring the progress of the Community-Based Nutrition (CBN) programme, which was established in 2008. “We started with CBN in 39 districts (woredas). As part of the scaling-up we cluster our work, where I focus on the regions of Amhara and Tigray and my colleague mainly focusses on Oromia and Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region,” he explains. He knows the regions well, especially Tigray in the north of Ethiopia on the border to Eritrea, where he grew up.

Holistic approach

The region serves as a showcase for CBN, as health workers have already been trained in all woredas. Another component in the battle against malnutrition is the production of complementary food. So far women in four woredas and a few sub-districts (kebeles) have been shown how to prepare this nutritious blend of three types of grain. “We have seen encouraging results,” he says and adds: “It has some important items missing. We need micronutrients, which can be provided through vegetables, fruits and even eggs to diversify the agricultural output.” Until the agricultural output can keep up with the dietary needs of the population, micronutrient powders are imported from abroad to enrich complementary food in an easy and inexpensive way.

Abebe takes off his cap and wipes the sweat of his forehead. “We are not happy to see pictures of malnourished children – in [fundraising] proposals. That should be stopped, as we are working on this,” he says. He believes that the interventions like the Agricultural Growth Programme (AGP) or the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) by the Ethiopian Government will have lifted the country’s status from developing to middle-income country by 2025. “The holistic approach of the government encourages the efforts to improve food security and nutrition. Every Ethiopian citizen doesn’t like to depend on food aid. This dependency is hurting our image,” he says assertively. Tomorrow is his last day in Tigray before he returns to his home in the capital Addis Ababa where he gets to play with his own children again.