Marja Mutanen, Professor of Nutrition Physiology at the Department of Food and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki is studying Beninese child diet and feeding practices. Her research is a part of the FoodAfrica work package focusing on improving nutrition and food security by enhancing the usage of traditional foods in Benin.

University of Helsinki is working together with Bioversity International, which is the leading institution in this work package. Bioversity International is doing research on traditional plants growing in the research areas in Benin, and investigates how these plants could be utilized better by local people for improvement of food security.


What’s your and the University of Helsinki’s role in FoodAfrica?

– We are paying attention to the importance of complimentary foods given to children during the two first years of their life. The researchers at Bioversity International are focusing more on traditional foods, and finding out, if these foods could be utilized better to improve children’s diet. The mothers need to have understanding of the nutritional needs of the child and proper child feeding practices from the very beginning in order to be able to utilize the traditional foods as well as possible, Marja Mutanen explains.

How are you trying to improve food security in Benin?

– We are trying to influence children’s diet from 6 months to 2 years old via their mothers. The first couple of years and especially the exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months and the period after that until the age of 2 years of a child’s life play an essential role in his future growth and development. This has to do with the nutrition and health of the mothers, too.

– We are doing research in order to find out what are the main determinants of the small children’s undernutrition in Benin. If we find out, that it depends on a too monotonous diet, we can intervene. It is also possible, that the undernutrition starts before children are or should be eating complimentary foods in addition to breast milk. Then the mothers should be informed more intensively on the proper breastfeeding and hygiene practices, she continues.

How are the locals involved in the research?

– A group of 30 local interviewers are sent to the Beninese villages twice to collect data on child diet and feeding practices of more than 2000 children. Once in the dry season, when there isn’t a lot of food, and once after the rainy season, when the harvest begins. Mothers of children under two years of age are interviewed and asked what the child ate the day before the interview. This is done twice for every child. They also follow the children’s nutritional status, height, weight, MUAC (mid upper arm circumference) and health. In addition to this they also collect a comprehensive amount of background information, for example how much cultivated area the family has, who in the family works and when, how the child caring practices in the family are organized and issues related to women education and empowerment. The first round of interviews has now been done. The interviewers live in the remote villages for as long as they need to in order to gather all the information and then move on to the next village.


When will there be results?

– All the gathered information will be put in a matrix, in which the information on child’s undernutrition is explained by the dietary determinants and other background information. It will take some time before we get results, there is a huge amount of data that needs to be analyzed. Some results will be available earlier as we have two Master of Science students from the University of Helsinki, who are writing their theses based on qualitative data collected from the same Beninese villages. They did structured interviews on how the mothers experience feeding their children and focus group meetings with several mothers discussing the reasons and beliefs behind their child feeding practices. Similar focus group meetings were also held with nurses. They even followed some children for a whole day and took notes on what they had to eat. Some results based on this information should be available later this year, she continues.

How is the research progressing in Benin?

– I visited one of the villages in Benin where the interviewers are working to get a clearer picture of how they do their work. We travelled for three hours by car and then walked for an hour to get to the village. Even though the villages are remote, the work is progressing very well. The interviewers are professional and the infrastructure is well built. They are doing their work as well as possible. We can only hope that they can get enough information from the mothers.