In 1983 a Nutrition Unit was set up as a technical unit at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MoHSW) in line with the Primary Health Care (PHC) strategy adopted by The Gambia. Prior to the setting up of the Nutrition Unit, limited nutrition activities were being conducted under the general umbrella of Maternal and Child Health Care (MCH) with no trained Gambian nutritionists. Since there were no trained nutritionists, technical assistance was sought from the Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), UK who provided a Nutritionist to help set up the Unit and give on-the-job training to the trained Public Health Officers and Field Assistant working with him. The Unit was understaffed, under resourced and poorly housed at the Ministry of Health, with no nutrition policy in place to guide its work.
Between 1985 and 1987, three trained Gambian Nutritionists returned home and were absorbed into the Nutrition Unit. However, two of the three nutritionists only worked with the Unit briefly, leaving Ms. Isatou Jallow to take over as Head of Unit after the departure of the late Mr. Seedy Taal to embark on her mission of ensuring that core staff of the Unit are trained in nutrition. In 2004, her mission was realized with the attainment of an MSc in Public Health Nutrition by three staff and BSc in Nutrition by two others.
In 1999, the Government of The Gambia signed a credit agreement with the World Bank with the continued funding of the project contingent on the availability of a nutrition policy in the country. The Participatory Health, Population and Nutrition Project (PHPNP) was launched in November 1998 heralding a major turning point in the evolution of nutrition in the country. A Nutrition Coordinator (Head of the Nutrition Unit) was appointed in April 1999 and work on the formulation of a Nutrition Policy commenced in May 1999. To provide policy guidance and high political support, a National Nutrition Policy Council composed of representatives from various sectors was established and chaired by H.E., The Vice President. A National Nutrition Policy (2000 – 2004) drafted by a team of local consultants was ready to be filed by the then Department of State for Health for Cabinet approval by 21st December, 1999 enabling the continuation of the World Bank support. Once the policy was approved, the National Policy Council was transformed into the National Nutrition Council (NNC).
The National Nutrition Agency (NaNA), established in September 2000 as per the Nutrition Policy (2000 to 2004), by merging the Office of the Nutrition Coordinator with the Nutrition Unit of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, was assigned to coordinate the implementation of the Nutrition Policy. The Agency was mandated to coordinate all nutrition and related activities in the country and to facilitate inter-sectoral collaboration in the area of nutrition. A new Headquarters was also built for the Agency by the World Bank.
A legislation giving NaNA the legal status to perform its coordination and implementation role was seen to be absent and this was a serious gap. In 2000, a Technical Cooperation Project (TCP) was signed between The Government of The Gambia and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to improve the Food Control System. One of the outcomes of that TCP was the drafting of a comprehensive modern Food Act, and thus; Part II, Section 4 of the Food Act 2005 establishes NaNA as a legal entity with a clear mandate and well defined functions to perform with regards to nutrition programming, implementation and coordination in the country.
Between 2000 and 2005, NaNA was adequately funded and equipped by the World Bank supported project, PHPNP. The Agency performed very well and was rated highly satisfactory and satisfactory during both the mid-term and end of project evaluation respectively. In fact, the Agency was described as the ‘jewel in the crown’. Exclusive breastfeeding rates were raised from 17% to 48.6% exceeding the 40% target set by the project. Exclusive breastfeeding for six months went up to 45.6% nationally which is above the Sub-Saharan Africa rates and in the Baby Friendly Communities the rates reached 70%. Underweight was reduced from pre-project baseline of 26% to post-project prevalence of 18.8%, Vitamin A Supplementation coverage slightly exceeded the 90% project target to 91% and the household consumption of iodised salt increased from 9% to 13% within the same period. The Gambia was among six countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that were rated by the World Bank to be on track of halving the proportion of underweight children in their countries.
In 2006, an Agency Board to regulate and guide the affairs of the Agency was established as per Section 5 (1) of the Food Act 2005. In 2009 the Agency was accorded a sub-vented status strengthening government’s commitment to invest in nutrition.
From implementing just one programme as a Unit back then in 1986, the Agency has now designed, piloted and implemented other sustainable and cost effective community based nutrition intervention programmes such as the Salt Iodisation Programme, Vitamin A Supplementation Programme, Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative and the Baby Friendly Community Initiative to protect, promote and improve the nutritional status of the people.