Who is Tom Brown? Responding to Malnutrition in Nigeria

Not a person but rather a recipe, Tom Brown is a nutritional weaning food for babies in Nigeria. In an ICRC first, it’s being tested as a response to malnutrition.

For Hadiza Yunusa, the experience of armed conflict and malnutrition are intertwined.

War forced Hadiza and her family to leave their home in Gwoza, Borno State, to seek shelter in Muda of neighbouring Adamawa State – and has made it harder to look out for the health of loved ones.

“When I see how children from wealthy homes look, I stop and stare, wishing my child looked half as healthy,” Hadiza tells us.

“As a mother, it gets emotional when you feel your child could look healthier with a balanced diet.”

Making Tom Brown: The grains used as ingredients are laid out

While Hadiza’s experience is unique, she is far from alone.

Nigeria is ranked second in the world for the number of chronic, severe malnutrition cases among children. For every ten children under the age of five in Nigeria, three are estimated to experience malnutrition.  

These challenges are not limited to the conflict-affected northeast, but extend to Nigeria’s northwestern states – like Sokoto, Zamfara and Katsina – where banditry and herder-farmer tensions also lead to violence.

Conflict and violence drive up humanitarian needs, prolonged displacement increases vulnerabilities, and the impacts of climate change – from unpredictable seasons and rainfall to shrinking safe access to water or arable land – exacerbate existing tensions, disrupting lives and livelihoods, while making it harder to adapt.


Making Tom Brown: The ground up ingredients are mixed together

Projections suggest close to six million children across northeast and northwest Nigeria will have experienced acute malnutrition by April 2023. Children under the age of five are often hit the hardest by this challenge.

Mindful of these urgent humanitarian needs, and as part of its overall food security response, the ICRC has launched a pilot project in northeast Nigeria to help respond to malnutrition using locally available ingredients.

The project promotes a variation of the traditional Nigerian Tom Brown recipe, often used as a nutritious porridge for weaning babies.

Making Tom Brown: Once mixed, the porridge-like substance is then cooked

Guinea corn, maize, millet, sorghum, soybeans, groundnuts and moringa powder all go into the mix, giving this nutritious supplement the colour that is said to have led to its name.

Through trainings and engagement with community groups, the project seeks to raise awareness of nutritional needs, and how malnutrition can be identified and referred, encouraging communities to take the lead.

Run together with volunteers from the Nigerian Red Cross, the project’s very first training was held in Muda, northeast Nigeria, over five days in February 2023.

The finished product – Tom Brown solution made at the training in Muda

“The mothers and community volunteers trained will help us sensitize women about the dangers of malnutrition and how to fight these cases with locally sourced grains,” says Grace Madanya, one of the participants. 

Maryam Hassan, a mother of one in Muda, also attended the sessions.

“I feel this was a life-saving training for mother and child – and it’s good to know that those grains can be sourced locally,” she says.

For some, like Rabiyatu Yunusa, a single mother in nearby Buladega, the issue of malnutrition among children is all too common.

Even then, she remains hopeful. “It’s a problem our local grains can solve,” she says.