Interview with Unathi Sihlahla - Program Director: Health in Action, INMED Partnerships for Children
Unathi Sihlahla is Program Director for the Health in Action Program at INMED South Africa. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Agriculture and Rural Development as well as a Masters in Social Change and Development from the University of Newcastle in Australia. He has managed a number of multi stakeholder community development programs over the past fifteen years. Together with his team they help create a brighter future for South Africa's most vulnerable children.
Unathi: Health in Action is a primary school-based program whose goal is to develop a sustainable healthy lifestyle culture in targeted schools and communities within the Gauteng and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa. The program design addresses a number of critical objectives including improving nutrition and reducing hunger by increasing access to fresh produce, increasing participation of learners in physical activity while improving the health and nutritional status of beneficiaries through participatory education. Overall, more than 75,000 children in over 100 schools are expected to benefit from this initiative.
Unathi: Both South Africa and Brazil are regarded as emerging economies while both nations have stubbornly high levels of socioeconomic inequality and malnutrition. In both countries these problems are compounded by some inefficiencies in the government support program such as the school feeding scheme which often comes short of supplies and nutritious food.
From the Brazilian experience, our programs have led to a remarkable improvement in nutrition and physical activity habits among more than 450,000 children in 1,000 schools, thus improving learning opportunities. Another indicator of success has been improvements in BMI and we expect similar outcomes with our South African program.
Unathi: Research show an increased number of South Africans being overweight, more particularly amongst children of school-going age, and under-nutrition continues to be concern. In simple terms, it’s a double burden of malnutrition that includes overweight and under nutrition and we witness that on daily basis in our communities. These challenges often correlate with inappropriate eating habits and lifestyles as well as hunger and inadequate nutrition which pose barriers to opportunities for a brighter future.
Unathi: It’s a very complex problem, however INMED believes that complex situations don’t always require complex solutions. We’re tackling these problems through a common-sense approach which pulls together all role players, including universities within the targeted school communities and harnesses inputs and contributions from these bodies in ways that seek to derive meaning from the concept of nutrition education, active play and access to fresh foods. At the core of this process, children are able to learn and absorb educational messages on nutrition, physical activity and healthy lifestyles through hands-on, skills-based activities including development of school gardens. We also combine deep local knowledge and innovation in our programmes to ensure sustainable solutions. For instance, our range of sustainable technologies, such as aquaponics, continue to draw the interest of children in agriculture while serving as a good model for food security, nutrition education and income generation.
Unathi: In order for countries to fight obesity there is a great need for a multi-disciplinary approach that does not solely depend on the government for solutions. Mondelēz has become an enabler for us to develop best practices that will lead to changes in behaviors, which we hope can be adopted and replicated by government.
Unathi: Volunteers are crucial to INMED and have roles in service delivery, external communications and constituent and donor engagement across the globe. Some of our programs depend on trained volunteers with regular schedules for direct service delivery, as in our child and youth mentoring and after-school programs. Other programs effectively involve volunteers in important single event-oriented activities, such as building school gardens, planting aquaponic systems, and facilitating school reading programs, wellness contests and health fairs.
We appreciate the collaboration with Mondelēz volunteers over the years, especially in the single event-oriented activities, like their Global Volunteer Month service effort held each October. The results have been inspiring. Volunteers help us accomplish important projects for a particular program, for example constructing a school garden. They also help motivate children, teachers and parents involved in the program. The attention and participation of Mondelēz volunteers deepens their personal commitment to bringing about change. The Mondelēz team volunteers from a deep sense of wanting to make a difference first hand, and a real need is fulfilled.
In terms of challenges, matching meaningful volunteer opportunities to today's hyper busy lifestyles and schedules requires a lot of creative thinking, but we are up for the task!
Unathi: I am a very socially-minded individual who, coming from a rural background in South Africa, has a desire to develop and lead programs that create lasting social change. I have an educational background in agriculture, nutrition and rural development as well as social change and development. I’ve spent most of my career helping communities, with the last eleven years working with programs directed at finding solutions for children at risk, which has been very fulfilling. My passion to serve in this space is driven by the overall need in our society and the potential for ordinary South Africans to be change agents.