Last week marked the start of a better life for 15 million Afghans through something that many of us take for granted — healthy, nutritious food daily, the essential ingredients that enable us reach our potential and for our communities, economies and countries to thrive.

Approximately 65 per cent of Afghanistan’s children suffer from Vitamin A deficiency, resulting in low immunity, ill health and poor growth, while iron and iodine deficiencies throughout the country are negatively impacting GDP [gross domestic product] by approximately 2 per cent due to lower productivity of adults. Two out of three households have no access to adequately iodised salt and more than half of the rural population cannot afford the recommended daily energy intake of 2,100 calories.

As the Copenhagen Consensus affirmed in 2008 and again in May this year, large-scale micronutrient fortification is a proven and cost-effective intervention that can mitigate malnutrition in the form of vitamin and mineral deficiencies and enhance the well-being of millions. The group estimates return on investment for such interventions as high as 200 to 1.

On September 9, in Kabul, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain) and its partners, including the Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation (KBZF), Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health and the World Food Programme (WFP), launched a partnership to help alleviate the burden of malnutrition in Afghanistan by bringing more nutritious wheat flour, vegetable oil and ghee to approximately half of the country’s population. The government of Afghanistan has an official plan for addressing malnutrition through its Nutrition Action Framework. The large-scale food fortification programme fits into this national initiative. It follows several years of research and study into how best to construct nutrition interventions in Afghanistan with guidance from the Ministry of Public Health. And it is believed it will make a significant difference for further development of Afghanistan and to the health of its people.

The partnership launched this week is helping to make these regularly and widely consumed food more nutritious through micronutrient fortification — where vitamins and minerals essential for health and well-being are added to staple foods according to international standards and quality control measures.

By working with the largest vegetable oil and ghee producers exporting to or manufacturing in Afghanistan, we will help add Vitamin A to these commonly-used products and thereby ensure that a substantial proportion of Afghans get the nutrients they need. In addition, through this partnership, more than 200,000 metric tonnes of wheat flour a year will be fortified, which will reach five million of the most vulnerable men, women and children in Afghanistan. Working with millers in and around Afghanistan, wheat flour will be enriched with iron, zinc, folic acid and Vitamin B12 — all of which are also critically essential for well-being.

As Afghanistan’s future hangs in the balance with donor funding decreasing and US and Nato forces continuing their withdrawal from the country, the need for long-term, sustainable programmes like this partnership — that are driven by local markets and national ownership — will be increasingly essential towards the nation’s development.

Beyond making good investment sense, it is about transforming lives. It is about providing the sustenance needed to help Afghanistan create a more promising future so that each individual has an opportunity to reach his or her potential and to create livelihoods within the country that will help sustain both social and economic growth over the long-term.

Marc Van Ameringen is Executive Director at The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain), Geneva, Switzerland. Gain was created in 2002 at a Special Session of the UN General Assembly on Children.