When Terry Wefwafwa was posted as the Provincial Nutritional Lead in Western Province, Kenya in 1977, there were few trained nutritionists in the country, and the issue of nutrition was low on the government’s agenda. Faced with growing rates of malnutrition (especially in Western Province, where the sugarcane industry was taking over arable land), local officials were forced to come up with their own responses, often on the fly and with little or no support from the government. As Terry remembers, “We didn’t have a national nutrition policy; we didn’t have an action plan. You would do things piecemeal, guided by your own initiative.”
“This is a proud moment for me and my team; I could not make it here without them. I enjoy what I do for a living, but it is not just about income, it is a passion, a lifelong passion. If I was ever to be a young girl back in my home village and was faced with making choices for my life ahead, I would choose many things differently, but one thing I am sure I would choose the same is to be a nutritionist.”
— Terry Wefwafwa
Thirty-four years later, as Head of the Division of Nutrition for Kenya’s Department of Public Health and Nutrition, Terry has not forgotten the challenges of her early days in Western Province. In her work advising the government on nutrition policy, convening partners, and mobilizing resources at the national level, collaboration and coordination have become top priorities.
Terry’s nutrition colleagues in Kenya remember that when Terry took office in 2008, coordination between the government and partners was virtually nonexistent: nutrition partners had no trust in the government’s commitment to the issue, and the government did not believe partners were fully supporting the Ministry of Health in implementation of nutrition activities.
Under Terry’s leadership, stakeholders worked together to conduct Kenya’s first ever comprehensive Nutrition Situation Analysis, which gave way to the development of the Nutrition Action Plan, a coordinated strategy for all nutrition activities in Kenya between 2012 and 2017. For Terry, the Action Plan has been essential in driving progress in recent years. She notes that, “We’re now all speaking the same language. Government is complemented by its partners. We’re all working with common indicators, and we’re moving towards a shared vision.”
And Terry’s consensus-building has not been limited to board rooms and ministry hallways in Nairobi. She has also worked to put into place mechanisms to solicit feedback from citizens themselves – from whom, as she knows from her days in Western Province, the government has the most to learn.
This coordinated effort has no doubt contributed to Kenya’s recent progress on nutrition. After nearly 20 years of campaigning, a big victory for Terry and her team came last year with the passage of the Breast Milk Substitutes Regulation and Control Bill, which effectively adopts the recommendations of the World Health Assembly’s International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes.
Food fortification is another major area of achievement for Terry. After nearly seven years of lobbying, in 2012, Terry and her team succeeded in convincing the Ministry of Health to pass legislation making food fortification mandatory in Kenya. All large-scale vegetable oil producers and wheat flour and maize meal millers in Kenya have committed to fortifying their food products, which means that around 27 million Kenyans will now have access to nutritionally-fortified wheat flour, vegetable oil and maize meal over the next five years.
Looking ahead, Terry’s office faces some new challenges, including maintaining coordination and coherence through the country’s decentralization process, ensuring adequate investment to implement the Action Plan, and dealing with growing issues like obesity. There is no doubt Terry will bring her passion for nutrition—first ignited in Western Province over 30 years ago—to this new era. In a word, she describes the field of nutrition as “exciting,” in the sense that you can have a lifelong impact on people’s lives. She calls on everyone to be a nutritionist, in one way or another. “We are all eating something every day. Promote nutrition, to yourself, members of the family and your friends. That is my lesson.”