University of Wollongong health sciences graduate preventing malnutrition in developing countries

Asher Taccori at his graduation at the University of Wollongong.
Asher Taccori at his graduation at the University of Wollongong.

Asher Taccori always knew he wanted to be a dietitian and had a passion for nutrition.

Helping other people has long been a big driver for Mr Taccori, who was a University of Wollongong student representative for many years, and is now celebrating his graduation with a BA in Nutrition and Dietetics (Honours).

With a clear focus on the implementation of nutrition in developing countries, the 24-year-old Yellow Rock student’s graduation journey stretched from four to five and half years, as a result of chasing a range of international internships and opportunities including India, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Fiji and Kiribati. 

He said after completing an exchange semester in the US at California State University, Long Beach, the travel bug took hold and he applied to do the 40K Globe program in India.

This experience included a one month internship in rural India, to learn about social enterprise and how that can be used as a tool for social impact.

“I went there for the first time in 2014 at the age of 21 as a volunteer, and was fortunate enough to have a scholarship to do that,” he said.

“In the second instance I got invited to come back and led a team of health volunteers and we started a nutrition food security project in the south of India, about two hours outside of Bangalore.”

As a result of this experience, Mr Taccori threw his hat in the ring for an Australian Government New Colombo Plan Scholarship which involved work, travel and study in the Indo-Pacific region. He was one of 69 scholars selected from around Australia to represent the country.

“I was what was called the Fiji Fellow. So I was the first person to ever go to Fiji through this New Colombo Program, it was an ambassador role for Australia and the New Colombo Plan over in Fiji,” he said.

“While I was studying in Fiji I did an internship at the Ministry of Health, and I also worked in the Colonial War Memorial hospital there, so I got to see how the health system worked in Fiji.”

His adventures were far from over, with his sights set on a little known small South Pacific country.

“I went over to Kiribati and partnered with the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS) who are based at UOW’s Innovation Campus - they do a lot of their research work in Kiribati.

“I worked with them on a research project for one month collecting data on household’s food security, more specifically; I was looking at dietary diversity as an indicator for household food security. I ended up turning this in to my Honours project when I returned to Australia.”

Mr Taccori’s thirst for more experience continued. He went on to do another five month internship with the United Nations World Food Program in Bangkok, Thailand and another stint in Cambodia before coming back to complete the rest of his degree and Honours project work.

After finalising his university course work in June 2017, Mr Taccori went to Indonesia where he is now working for 12 months with an Australian Government volunteer initiative, Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID).

“I’m working on a remote island called Sumba in the Provence of East Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia, working for a very small, grassroots NGO,” he said.

“The province where I’m working has the highest rates of malnutrition in Indonesia. The rates of chronic malnutrition, according to a report put out a handful of years ago by the World Food Program, about 58 per cent of the population of children under five were chronically malnourished. The results that I’ve recently found for the village I’m working in revealed 62 per cent of children under the age of five were deemed as chronically malnourished.

“The role is to build the capacity of this local NGO called Project Hope Sumba, to run nutrition programs. The NGO identified the area of nutrition as a major concern, but they didn’t have the expertise or the experience in running any nutrition programs.”

Mr Taccori said he has felt different about every single project, but the longevity of the Indonesian experience in particular, has enabled him to sink his teeth into understanding the health system, learning the language and appreciating the culture.

“I am very passionate about nutrition, I think it’s because there’s such a clear, defined solution to this problem and with the right skill set, the right resources, the right knowledge, it can be solved.

“In the context of Australia, we have negligible numbers of chronic malnutrition when compared to the 36 per cent stunting rate in Indonesia in the under five population. In a country of 250 million people, that equates to a very large number of people. In some areas it is much worse, with almost two in three children in the area I’m working in now, being chronically malnourished.

“We know how to fix it; it’s just actually about the implementation of sustainable, evidence based interventions.

“I feel very empowered in the space of nutrition because it’s such a powerful tool in terms of what it can do for people’s lives,” he said.  

Mr Taccori said he is full of gratitude for the opportunities that have been available to him at the University of Wollongong.

“All the experiences I’ve reflected upon have been as a result of the support and opportunities that the individual academic staff members have provided me with. They have really helped me put myself out there, and given me the confidence to pursue things that have absolutely changed my life.”