I enrolled in the University of Malaya’s Master’s in Public Health program in 2021, and this educational experience has allowed me to conceive and implement a community nutrition initiative in my home country of Sri Lanka. Following a short background on Sri Lanka, I will delve into how the knowledge I acquired during my master’s degree empowered me to undertake this initiative.
Sri Lanka, an island nation in the Indian Ocean renowned globally for its tea and spices, faced its most severe economic crisis since gaining independence, with a staggering inflation rate of nearly 94% recorded in mid-2022. The northern region of Sri Lanka has grappled with recurring food shortages due to a 30-year civil war, tsunamis, extreme weather events, and the challenges posed by COVID-19. Following the currency devaluation in March 2022, food prices soared amidst soaring unemployment rates, further exacerbating food insecurity.
I was born in Jaffna, a small town in the northern province, during the height of the civil war. I spent my childhood without access to electricity and faced ongoing food shortages. I pursued my undergraduate studies at the University of Jaffna, where a colleague and I founded a community health NGO called SUVADI. Since graduating, I have been deeply involved with SUVADI, contributing to a wide range of community health interventions, from raising awareness about tuberculosis to addressing the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition.
Even after relocating to Malaysia for my master’s degree, I continued to support my community health organization. I scheduled most of my classes at UM during the evening, allowing me to stay involved with SUVADI. During my first semester, I studied epidemiology, research methods, and public health nutrition, among other electives. When the economic crisis struck Sri Lanka in early 2022, my colleague, Dr. Shribavan, invited me to help develop a community nutrition initiative for marginalized populations in Northern Sri Lanka. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, I agreed to assist in designing and executing this program despite being in Malaysia.
The strong foundation in research methods I acquired during my master’s degree proved invaluable in designing a baseline survey in a resource-constrained environment. We decided to employ EpiCollect5, a mobile-based platform for data collection, and JASP, an open-source statistical software for data analysis. Furthermore, the knowledge I gained from the Public Health Nutrition course allowed me to devise food-based interventions to combat food insecurity and malnutrition in rural households. I also delved into extensive research articles for my master’s level research, which focused on food choices within the Malaysian context, under the guidance of my supervisor and mentor, Prof. Victor Hoe, the Head of the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine.
With our proposal, we applied for the Australian government’s Direct Aid program and were fortunate to receive a grant for the first year. We assembled a team of young doctors from both Western medicine and indigenous medicine backgrounds and initiated the groundwork for the program. Given the scarcity of nutritionists with a strong background in public health in Sri Lanka, we were unable to bring someone on board immediately. Fortunately, one of my MPH colleagues, who is a nutritionist, agreed to provide virtual training to the recently recruited team on basic nutrition principles and data collection methods.
The Nourish North initiative offered a sustainable and culturally appropriate solution by honouring traditional knowledge, harnessing biodiversity, promoting local production, and involving underrepresented groups. This unique approach aimed to revitalize local food systems and enhance food system resilience to combat food insecurity and malnutrition. Four key pathways, centered on household income, women’s rights, agri-nutrition, and behavioral change, were employed to drive grassroots action, and within a year, we observed improved diet diversity among rural women.
Additionally, I facilitated connections between two Malaysian non-profit organizations and several Malaysian professionals who offered support for our work in Sri Lanka. In early 2023, upon completing my MPH program, I returned to Sri Lanka to monitor the progress of the Nourish North initiative. I was joined by a Malaysian corporate trainer who conducted several leadership capacity-building workshops for rural women’s cooperatives. Recently, a team from a Malaysian-based NGO visited the Northern Province and met with our team in Jaffna to discuss the challenges and potential solutions.
I had the opportunity to present our work findings at the Agri4D 2023 conference, titled “Building Resilient Food Systems in Uncertain Times,” organized by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in collaboration with SIDA. My abstracts were also selected for the Micronutrient Forum’s 6th Global Conference and IFPRI’s “Delivering Nutrition in South Asia: Equity and Inclusion” event held in Kathmandu, Nepal. These achievements would not have been possible without the knowledge and skills I gained through the MPH program at the University of Malaya. More than just knowledge, the University of Malaya instilled in me a culture of excellence in public health practice. I now wholeheartedly embrace UM’s motto of “serving the nation, impacting the world.”
Dr Prabu Nadaraja