Featured Leader: Governor Victor Borges

We have the honor of partnering with inspiring leaders across Africa, who are delivering truly game-changing initiatives for their people. To highlight some of the excellent and ground-breaking work being carried out by our partners, we are excited to launch our new “Featured Leader” series.

For the first interview in the series, we were pleased to speak with H.E. Victor Borges, the outgoing Governor of Nampula Province, Mozambique. Borges was appointed Governor of Nampula in 2015, following a long and distinguished public service career. During his time in office, he has made tackling malnutrition and stunting a priority for the economic and social development of Nampula.

Despite being one of the most fertile and most populous regions of Mozambique, Nampula Province registers the highest stunting rate in the country for children under five (50.1%). The damage caused by stunting is irreversible, severely affecting a child’s potential to live a healthy and productive life. The governor asked Big Win to carry out a ‘deep dive’ diagnostic study to examine the root causes of stunting and support the rollout of nutrition-smart interventions in Nampula.

The study determined the key drivers of stunting in the province and revealed the complex set of behavioral drivers that contribute to the high rate of stunting. It was clear from the study that a new multisectoral approach was needed to coordinate nutrition smart activities that would engage communities from the ground up. As a result of the study, Governor Borges launched a new social movement in May 2019 to empower communities and households to be the agents of change. 

Recently, Governor Borges sat down with the Big Win team to talk about this ambitious initiative.

Big Win: Thank you, Governor Borges,  for your time today. It has been a privilege to partner with you on the social movement to tackle stunting in Nampula Province. What prompted your commitment to address malnutrition?

Governor Borges: The first time I recognized the impact of malnutrition was in 1985. There was a terrible drought in Tete and I saw, first-hand, people suffering from malnutrition and starvation. At the time, I needed to make sure that people had access to food, especially that the children had access to oil, milk, and sugar to restore their capacity. Working with doctors and nurses, I came to appreciate the negative effects of stunting and malnutrition, and the need for action.

During my time in central government, the Ministry of Health would brief the council of ministers about malnutrition and stunting. I understood that the national rate of stunting was about 43%, but I didn’t realize how much this varied from province to province.

When I was appointed governor of Nampula in 2015, I was shocked to discover that the provincial stunting rate was even higher: 50.1%. I said, “Oh my God it’s worse than the national level, so what can we do?” We had been working on a provincial strategic plan for the development of Nampula, focusing on both economic and social issues, particularly education and health. However, once we realized that the provincial stunting rate was so high, we all agreed that this needed to be our focus as well.

There were local activities in health centers, schools, and in some communities. Women’s groups and even some traditional leaders were trying to address this issue, but they weren’t very well coordinated. We knew that we needed to coordinate the activities, but we didn’t appreciate that to tackle stunting it wasn’t enough to have different health, education and food security programs. We needed to bring all the actors involved in this issue together.

By 2016, we had only managed to reduce the stunting level from 50.1% to 50%. We realized that this wasn’t just an issue of food supply and water. We needed to do something else. I drew on my insights from 1985 and my time in central government and began to think differently about the problem.

Big Win: This is a very ambitious initiative. So, what is the ‘big win’ that you see this initiative working towards? How will you define the success of the social movement?

Governor Borges: Between 2015 and 2019, the central government committed to tackling stunting and set an ambitious goal of reducing levels from 43% nationally to 35%. In Nampula, we initially said to ourselves that we would aim to reduce stunting levels to 35% as well. But when we saw that the World Health Organization agreed that 20% is the maximum acceptable rate, we decided to aim higher. We would look to first reduce the rate in Nampula to 35% and then we would aim to bring it down to 20% or even lower. This is the big win.

Big Win: How did you build the political will needed to mobilize support across different sectors and arms of government?

Governor Borges: When we began work, we knew that there were already some activities across sectors that were aimed at addressing malnutrition. The Technical Secretariat for Food Security and Nutrition (SETSAN) was a central government body that was set up about 10 years ago to tackle this issue. However, it can be difficult to coordinate the activities of a wide range of ministries and other partners. This could may be the reason that we have seen slow progress in reducing the malnutrition levels.

I realized that in order to accelerate progress we needed to improve the way SETSAN and others were trying to bring down the national and provincial rates. A plan was set up to do so, but even then, we realized that maybe it wasn’t enough.

Based on conversations with Big Win and FDC, we decided to set up a baseline study to understand what was happening at the community level in Nampula Province. We recognized that beyond better strategies and better sectoral coordination, we needed to involve the communities themselves. That’s why we began talking about a social movement. By involving everyone, maybe you really can achieve these objectives.

Big Win: What is innovative about the approach of the social movement?

Governor Borges: Until now the community was not enough evolved from the different efforts to tackle stunting. There was a role for the ministerial departments, the provincial directorates, the private sector, and the civil society but few in the communities. This is what is new – the improvement of community participation. So traditional authorities, the people in the villages. And they understand why they have to be more involved. We make sure to not only bring them recommendations and advice but financial and practical support from partners and donors so that the communities can help us achieve our objectives.

Big Win: What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

Governor Borges: It’s easy to say that there’s no stunting, no malnutrition, no starvation when there is enough food in the community. But this is not true. The main challenge is telling people what is really happening. They are often not benefitting from food properly and we need to work out how to change their mentality. How do we change behavior and the ways that people use to get food? Nampula is one of the best examples because we produce a lot of food in the province. But Nampula has one of the worst stunting rates in the country. Why is this happening? How do we all come together in the community to take action? It is the people who need to be involved. There are about 6 million people in Nampula – how do we do it? I think that the social movement can help to achieve this.

Big Win: You’ve touched a little bit on my next question, you will soon be leaving office, what do you hope will be in place by the time you leave? What will be your legacy?

Governor Borges: We only launched the social movement less than a year ago, so it is too early to be talking about a legacy. We will need to wait for three, four, five years to see what results it has brought about. For now, the achievement is centered on setting up the social movement and bringing many partners together. But the results will be the real legacy.

Big Win: What measures have been put in place to ensure the social movement continues beyond your tenure?

Governor Borges: One of the things that we needed to change is the way that we coordinate this activity. Following advice from Big Win and FDC, we now know that we need to set up a COPSAN (Provincial Council for Food Security and Nutrition). Along with the social movement, this will provide momentum for our stunting reduction efforts.  We also need to bring partners on board. We are speaking with a range of donors and partners about covering 10 priority districts. We are building the sustainable infrastructure for this effort so that hopefully we can say in a few years’ time that the stunting rate has fallen all over the Province and not only in the 10 Districts.

Big Win: Nampula is very much a demonstration province, not only for the country, but also for the region. What advice would you give to leaders in other regions and other countries looking to implement such a cross-sectorial initiative?

Governor Borges: Look at why you have been chosen as leaders and prioritize actions and activities that benefit the people and their households. Set targets and plans to achieve those targets. Make it clear where you are going and bring in government and community partners to help you achieve your objectives.

Stunting is a very important issue. People suffering from stunting perform badly in school, in employment, and across every area of their lives. We will compromise a generation if we don’t fight stunting. Just as our parents took good care of us, let us do the same for the next generation.

Big Win: What role has Big Win and FDC support played towards this process?

Governor Borges: We knew that there was local food production and government bodies and initiatives such as the National Action Plan for the Reduction of Chronic Malnutrition (PAMDRC) to fight against stunting. But we also knew that something was missing. You supported us in defining the stunting baseline and made us realize what was missing – the social movement. This was not an idea that I had thought of before. So, while you provided us with financial support you also provided us with ideas. Ideas and advice sometimes can be more important than money.

Big Win: We have always said that anything is possible with the right leadership, which is what we’ve seen in Nampula. How can other international partners support the social movement?

Governor Borges: The social movement in Nampula can be a case study, not only for Nampula and Mozambique but for other places. Because if we succeed in Nampula, which I am confident of, we can show that there are ways of addressing big challenges. International partners can support Nampula and make sure that we have what we need for the social movement to succeed in terms of coordination and provision of resources across the province. That way we can reach our objectives, which is so important for Nampula and for Mozambique.