Local research capacity is essential for the Scaling-Up Nutrition agenda to take off in Nigeria

Delegates at the second SUN Annual Global Gathering in October 2015 called for better use of evidence in policy-making for nutrition, and stronger country-level nutrition data to track progress towards overcoming malnutrition, and to keep governments accountable. The 2015 Global Nutrition Report recognises that governments and donors need to work more closely with researchers to understand the impacts and costs of implementing and scaling-up the right mix of nutrition strategies in each country context.

But what if the capacity to produce and communicate high quality research is lacking?

IFPRI’s latest Food Policy Research Capacity Indicators (see IFPRI’s 2014-2015 Global Food Policy Report) show that amongst a group of 32 middle- and low-income countries, Nigeria has the second highest number of full-time equivalent food policy researchers with a PhD, but was bottom of the pack (with the exception of Liberia) for the number of international peer-reviewed journal articles published per researcher between 2009 and 2013.

This woeful situation is not to be blamed on the researchers. They are achieving often admirable results amidst challenging conditions, including poor facilities, infrastructure and equipment, and grossly inadequate funding for nutrition research available within universities and from government and donors.

Challenge grants help to build research capacity

DFID is currently funding a six-year programme called WINNN (Working to Improve Nutrition in Northern Nigeria) to implement and scale-up nutrition interventions in Northern Nigeria. ORIE (Nutrition Research in Northern Nigeria) undertakes nutrition research and evaluation to generate evidence on the operationalisation, costs and impact of the WINNN programme. Strengthening the capacity to undertake research in Nigeria is built into ORIE’s activities, with Nigerian and international senior and junior researchers working side-by-side throughout the research process.

In addition to these routine activities, ORIE has made challenge grants to Departments of Community Medicine in two Northern Nigeria universities – Ahmadu Belo University (ABU) in Zaria, and Bayero University in Kano (BUK). The grants programme provides funding for a nutrition research project, allowing researchers to ‘learn by doing’, along with the ongoing support of a group of experienced international researchers.

Generating and disseminating valuable research findings

The ORIE grants will generate valuable research findings to inform efforts to scale-up and improve the impact of nutrition interventions in Northern Nigeria. The ABU team is examining growth, morbidity, and mortality outcomes of acutely malnourished children treated in Community-based Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM) programmes six months after discharge in the state of Katsina, given the lack of data on long-term outcomes and concerns over high relapse and mortality rates.  Their findings will help programme implementers to understand and act upon the risk factors associated with poor long-term outcomes.

The BUK team is comparing the feeding practices of mothers with stunted and non-stunted children under two years of age in Jigawa, Katsina, Kebbi and Zamfara states. They aim to enhance our understanding of the conditions needed to promote sound infant and young child feeding (IYCF) patterns (breastfeeding and complementary feeding) which support healthy child growth and development in the Northern Nigeria context. Their findings will be used to strengthen the implementation and scale-up of IYCF counselling programs in the region.

Both grantees have crafted dissemination plans to ensure that their findings reach practitioners and policymakers throughout Nigeria, as well as the Nigerian, African and global scientific communities. Funding for more of this kind of research is desperately needed in Nigeria to underpin the Scaling-up Nutrition agenda.

Developing skills for qualitative inquiry

The grantees require new skills to answer their research questions. Both research groups have adopted a mixed methods design which requires researchers accustomed to using primarily quantitative methods to undertake qualitative inquiry and integrate quantitative and qualitative data. As part of the support on offer, ORIE recently had the pleasure of providing a two-day introductory course in qualitative research to a group of 20 departmental staff and students from each university. Part of the task was to dispel myths around the perceived ‘unscientific’ nature of qualitative inquiry. This was done by debating the value of non-numerical data – such as local people’s perceptions of health and nutrition services and how they can be improved – and discussing strategies to maximise the credibility of qualitative data. In the words of one participant: “[before the training]….I would concentrate on the quantitative aspect of research, giving less attention to the qualitative. That’s perhaps because I had no strong knowledge base on the qualitative. Now I feel more confident and [will] upgrade the qualitative aspect of research I’m involved in.”

This course will be followed shortly by training sessions in in quantitative research and general research skills such as writing research grant applications and scientific papers, and using electronic literature.

By Frances Hansford and Vincent Ahonsi of ORIE

Feature image – Trainees from the Department of Community Medicine of Bayero University in Kano (BUK)