World Bank Q&A: How can small fish reduce childhood stunting

Toby Johnson -

Dr Shakuntala Thilsted from WorldFish and Dr Pawan Patil from the WorldBank met in Dhaka to discuss childhood stunting.

WorldFish met with Dr Pawan Patil, a Development Economist at the World Bank responsible for the Bank’s Blue Economy portfolio across both South Asia and the Caribbean regions. Meeting in Dhaka, Bangladesh ahead of a visit by the World Bank President Dr Jim Yong Kim to mark “End Poverty Day” on October 17, we discussed the potential of nutritious small fish to address the key developmental problem of childhood stunting and a new collaborative partnership between WorldFish, the World Bank and social entrepreneurs in this area.

Childhood stunting is a particular focus of the World Bank at the moment. What’s the connection to fish?

The World Bank is interested in working with all kinds of partners to identify innovative, new and emerging solutions that have the ability to address big development challenges such as childhood stunting. In collaboration with WorldFish and social entrepreneurs, we may have discovered one in the fish-nutrition nexus. Dr Shakuntala Thilsted’s peer-reviewed research at WorldFish and prior to that shows that small-sized fish species such as mola contain micronutrients that are often deficient in pregnant and lactating women and infants and young children in the first 1,000 days of life. And if these fish are consumed during this period, there is a high probability of reducing childhood stunting as well as improving cognition. This is what the anecdotal and observational evidence suggests.

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My president, Dr Jim Yong Kim recently said: “The world’s most successful social movements are started by a small group of like-minded people.” By collaborating on a small fish solution to combat childhood stunting, we may have created a small but significant ripple that could one day lead to transformation that matters.

What is the potential of this fish to address stunting at large scale?

With respect to the state of food, poverty and hunger, policymakers need to wake up to the fact that fish is the most climate smart animal-source food on the planet and the emerging small fish solution may very well emerge as one of the most climate smart ways to reduce childhood stunting.

WorldFish in collaboration with many partners have shown that mola can be cultured in small homestead ponds together with other larger species, which are sold. And for those of us in the World Bank who work within the poverty-environment nexus, this becomes tremendously important. Why? Because currently mola is caught mainly from the wetlands. If we can culture these fish – and science and feed trials show we can – the potential for sustainable impact at scale to address the nutritional needs of women and children in the first 1,000 days can, we believe, reduce the probability of childhood stunting. This is significant, but how significant? Imagine, there are six million households in Bangladesh that are located in the right agro-climatic zone to culture mola fish, where currently some thousands of households farm the fish.

What is the path to scaling up mola production?

To increase uptake requires investing money and putting resources into scaling up the mola ‘proof of concept’. This can result in hundreds of thousands or even six million households and, specifically, women in those households, farming mola. This would benefit all households greatly, and particularly poor households, by empowering and supporting women to farm mola in their homestead ponds, which also enables these women to manage their own intake of this fish and that of their children and other family members. In addition, the sale of the larger fish and some of the small fish in the market offers the woman a livelihood, a sustainable livelihood.

A family eating mola for lunch in Khulna, Bangladesh. Photo by Yousuf Tushar.

However, while some evidence exists, what’s needed is a randomized control trial on mola consumption, to prove definitively that the relationship between the intake in lactating and pregnant women and the outcome of reduction of childhood stunting is true. In parallel, we can investigate other small fish species – from inland, coastal and marine fisheries – that have high micronutrient content that also have the potential to reduce stunting. This research will give us the evidence and the ability to invest in solutions that have true propensity for transformation that is both visible and measurable.

You are a development economist and globally-recognized thought leader as per the World Economic Forum. How are we going to bring researchers and private and public investors together to enable impact at scale?

There are many opportunities to solve the diverse challenges in the ‘Blue Economy’, based on scientifically-proven and validated research findings. But this research requires investment to move it from good and solid science to real actions, which can lead to sustainable impact at scale.

By informing all family members in an easily understood way of what the science is telling us about good nutrition in the first 1,000 days, amazing things can happen that can improve the lives of women and the lives of their children for good.

One option to unlock investment capital is through social marketing campaigns. In some places, social marketing has been built on research findings to change the mindsets of people in rural and coastal areas around the world. This approach has been very successful and helped achieve large-scale impact.

How can WorldFish work with the World Bank to promote mola and other small fish as a means to reduce stunting?

The work of cutting-edge researchers is not necessarily communicated in the right way to investors in this space.

For me, emerging social enterprises are the missing piece that can turn research from ideas to grassroots impact. Social enterprises are disruptive in a positive way. They are nimble at aggregating cutting-edge knowledge and know-how, and packaging these as a global public good that is easily acceptable to investors, those who invest in spaces to achieve impact at scale.

This ‘disruptive’ type of entity is exactly what’s needed to harness the potential of mola and other similar fish species, by unlocking capital that could be used to support the cutting-edge research emerging from organizations like WorldFish.

A woman showing mola in Khulna, Bangladesh. Photo by Yousuf Tushar.

We are delighted with the collaboration that’s emerging between WorldFish, the World Bank and social entrepreneurs around the fish-nutrition nexus. We saw how the WorldFish-led social marketing campaign around mola in Bangladesh, on national television led to all the mola fish being bought out across the country (with prices increasing 1,000 percent in some localities!). The narrative really speaks to mothers, fathers and other family members, and it’s clear that the family approach is key to the nutritional outcomes of their children. By informing all family members in an easily understood way of what the science is telling us about good nutrition in the first 1,000 days, amazing things can happen that can improve the lives of women and the lives of their children for good.

The price hike shows that market forces are certainly at work. And, the field trials show that culturing mola has the ability to deliver more supply to meet growing demand, and eventually the price per unit weight will settle at a market price that can be affordable to all. It also proves there are unique and innovative ways to translate cutting-edge science and knowledge and deliver it in a way that changes behaviors of the poor and investment decisions to reach them more effectively. And in addition to supporting action-oriented research in this innovative solution area, this is the space in which the World Bank and WorldFish will collaborate in Bangladesh and across South Asia, to reduce childhood stunting which stands at over 40%.

Toby Johnson

Toby Johnson

Toby Johnson is a communications professional with 15+ years experience in international organizations. Starting his career as a UK-based journalist he joined the UN's specialized agency for ICTs in 2002. At ITU he led a new era of outreach championing new and social media and pro-active media relations. He played a critical role in the development and presentation to the UN Secretary General of the first report of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development. Having joined WorldFish in 2014 he currently leads efforts to boost the impact and raise the profile of WorldFish research globally.

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