Boosting Nutrition: A talk with Nigeria’s former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development

Government ministers often like to promise new infrastructure: roads, hospitals, schools, and so on. Nutrition may be less tangible, but for Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Akin Adesina, it’s an equally important part of a country’s infrastructure.

“I believe building grey-matter infrastructure is more important than all the hard infrastructure, such as roads,” he says.

“We need to reignite political consciousness about the importance of the silent issue of malnutrition. Investing in dealing with malnutrition is said to give a return of 16:1. What other kind of investment gives that rate of return?”

GAIN spoke exclusively to Adesina following a High Level Policy Dialogue on Nutrition Sensitive Agriculture in Nigeria, held in Abuja earlier this year in March. This was an advocacy event aimed at placing nutrition at the heart of agricultural policy in Nigeria, and it saw the launch of the ATA (Agricultural Transformation Agenda) Food Security and Nutrition Strategy 2015-2020, a key policy document for advancing nutrition-sensitive agricultural policy in Nigeria.

Adesina is adamant that while nutrition and agriculture need to be integrated, ending malnutrition requires a coordinated effort across all ministries, and this is why he has driven the launch of an interministerial Agriculture Nutrition Working Group.

“This issue goes beyond what any single ministry could deal with,” he says. “It’s clear we have to drive down malnutrition and stunting rates, and each minister will bring to the table his own part of that agenda.”

A specific budget will be dedicated to making it happen, he adds.

“I don’t see setting up a new ministerial committee as a one-off event. There have to be resources to get the job done and there has to be commitment and resources from each of the line ministries to the collective agenda. And our partners and donors are also very important.”

History is littered with partnerships and working groups that launched with fanfare but quietly fizzled out, but Adesina insists he means business.

“This is not just a love letter, saying ‘let’s get together’. It’s a partnership for impact and to get a problem solved, and it will go beyond the ministries. We have to involve the federal, state and local governments, and even our legislature, to legislate in our constitution that access to food is a basic fundamental human right.”

In practice, Adesina wants to pursue everything from promoting kitchen gardens and indigenous vegetables to the ongoing development of large-scale food fortification, and food quality and safety in the SME sector.

“It’s a continuum, and you have to start with the household,” he says.

“Women need access to land, inputs, finance, and markets, to allow them to have incomes so they can buy a wider set of nutritious foods to feed their families. We also have small and medium scale food enterprises selling food all over Africa, and they need to be better educated about food safety and quality. A lot of progress is being made with iodised salt, and fortifying flour and oil, and that is important, too.”

The Abuja event also launched the Transformative Partnership for High Energy Nutritious Foods for Africa, in which the Nigerian government will be working with Nestle to develop value chains for local crops such as maize, sorghum, millet and soybeans to be processed into high-energy nutritious foods.

“Africa today imports 90% of its high-energy foods, but it can and should produce them itself. We grow maize, soya beans  and sorghum in abundance, so this partnership for high-energy food is about taking what we produce and encouraging our own local industry to process and fortify and add value. It’s a way of saying that Africa should play a big role in feeding itself.”

Adesina has personally played a big role in driving nutrition-sensitive agriculture in Nigeria, but he is currently also a frontrunner to succeed Donald Kaberuka as president of the African Development Bank. Some might wonder if his work at home will wither on the vine if he is appointed, but he insists that his work on nutrition will outlast him.

“It may take a person to catalyse change, but it takes institutions to sustain them,” he says.

“I’m committed to making sure we have a directorate-level position in charge of malnutrition, and to getting the staffing necessary to execute the job. And we’re building powerful partnerships around this with the World Bank, the African Development Bank, GAIN, HarvestPlus, IFPRI, Save the Children, USAID, DfID, FAO, IFAD, and the EU. You have to create a spark for people to coalesce around. And I believe we’ve created that spark here.”

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This story was drafted by journalist, Caspar Van Vark in March 2015. Akinwumi Adesina is now former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. Akinwumi Adesina has recently been elected as African Development Bank president.