Amid Complexity, Progress in Tackling Deadly Hunger in Nigeria

An inside look at ACF’s work in Africa’s most populous nation
Three Nigerian girls in Jajere smile for the camera

If you simply scratch the surface, it appears as if Nigeria is having a golden moment. It’s a middle income country according to the World Bank, and is the second largest economy in Africa after South Africa. The U.S. gets 20 percent of its oil from Nigeria and is the nation’s largest foreign investor. And according to Citigroup, no country in the world will have a higher average GDP growth rate in the next 40 years than Nigeria.

But it’s also a land of significant dichotomy. That fast-growing GDP, reflective of the highly-concentrated oil wealth, masks the plight of an impoverished majority. For starters, more than 70 percent of Nigeria’s population lives on less than a dollar a day; more than 90 percent live on less than $2 a day. Less than half have access to sufficient sanitation and sources of water. And the life expectancy is a staggering 44 years.

Its rapid population growth has also been sounding international alarm bells. One out of every two people in West Africa hails from Nigeria, and the country’s nearly 170 million people already make it the most populous nation in Africa, the 6th most populous in the world. What’s raising eyebrows now are projections that in just 25 years, that population could skyrocket to 300 million—meaning that a population roughly equivalent to that of the United States would be living in a geographic area no bigger than Arizona and New Mexico.

Despite significant needs for nutrition, food security, and water and sanitation support, only four international NGOs work across Nigeria. Action Against Hunger is proud to be one of those NGOs.


It’s a country in need of significant nutrition, food security, and clean water interventions—and one that only has four international NGOs in place to tackle some of that work. Action Against Hunger is proud to be one of those NGOs, and we understand the complex road ahead. To that end we recently hosted an Insider Briefing at our New York headquarters, where members of our senior Operations staff shared key context and programmatic updates with some of our donors and friends. Since we couldn’t fit all of you in our conference room, we’d like to share some of that information with you now.

Going where the needs are greatest

Until fairly recently, the Nigerian government wasn’t particularly forthcoming about the country’s high rates of severe acute malnutrition among children. Calling it a problem is an understatement—there are more than a million children in need of treatment for severe acute malnutrition in Nigeria. A turning point came in late 2009, when, for a variety of reasons, government officials became more receptive to outside assistance. We opened our first office in May 2010, in the capital city of Abuja, and spent the remainder of that year supporting the Ministry of Health in developing nutritional and training guidelines.

In 2011 we expanded our operations by opening two more bases, in Damaturu and Dutse, in the country’s north where humanitarian needs are most pressing. This northern region is also home to the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram, whose violent activities have heightened security concerns—more than 100 people were killed in a single day of coordinated bombings and shootings this past January—and raised tensions between the Muslim north and Christian south.

Scaling up capacity to combat child malnutrition

Last year our efforts resulted in lifesaving treatment for 12,000 severely malnourished children across Nigeria, and our staff trained 1,000 community volunteers and 200 health workers. This year we plan to effectively double that reach, helping 20,000 severely malnourished children and training 2,000 community volunteers and 400 health workers. We’re already supporting 15 health centers in Dutse and 21 in Damaturu; by December we’ll be in 33 centers in the former and 36 in the latter. Before a new year begins, we’ll be providing training and services in nearly 70 health centers throughout Nigeria.

“The total number of severely acute malnourished children in Nigeria is 1.2 million. We’re basically doubling the number of people who will benefit from our programs this year, but the needs are massive. It’s critical that we increase our capacity to reach these children.”

Andrea Tamburini, Director of Operations, Action Against Hunger

Diversifying programs for an integrated approach

We already ensure there’s clean water, good sanitation, and safe hygiene practices in the health centers where we work. A natural progression is extending these critical services into the surrounding communities. The areas we serve currently face high rates of waterborne diseases like cholera due to the widespread use of unprotected surface water and poor latrine coverage. Since these diseases are so heavily correlated with malnutrition, we view it as essential to conduct community outreach on sanitation and hygiene practices while ensuring access to clean water and latrines. This year we’ll work alongside one of our in-country NGO partners, Doctors Without Borders, to develop a cholera response and prevention strategy for at-risk communities across the North.

We’ve also conducted a food security and livelihood assessment to better understand what’s causing malnutrition in Nigeria’s northeastern states. We found that Nigerians struggle with market price fluctuations, post-harvest management, seasonal livestock migrations that limit animal protein availability, and overall diet diversity, especially amongst the youngest children. We’re working now to use these findings to better inform our programs as we work with these communities on proper nutrition and food security.

An uphill battle remains, and new challenges continue to emerge. This year saw inflation rates spike when a government fuel subsidy was removed in January, causing transportation costs to jump 25 percent and triggering considerable economic hardship and political turmoil. Obstacles like these, however, come and go but our teams remain dedicated to helping Nigerians create better lives for themselves, starting with lifesaving support for their malnourished children. As always, we can’t do it without the generous support of friends like you, and for that we thank you.

Tell Us What You Think

Did it shock you to learn that only four international humanitarian NGOs work in Nigeria? Some 90% of Nigerians live on less than $2 a day; as an experiment, have you tried spending less than $2 a day? How did you do?

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