This is an exciting time to be in Ethiopia. A new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed Ali, was appointed in early April and the newly reshuffled cabinet was announced last week—a new generation radiating hope, with a focus on unity, youth, and economic growth.
But will this new dawn also generate added impetus in Ethiopia’s fight against malnutrition in all its forms? There is certainly success to build on: under 5 stunting rates may be 38% but they have come down from 58% 16 years ago. That is faster than one percentage point a year and is considered to be good performance.
But there are storm clouds a plenty. The country continues to be hit by drought playing havoc with food availability and food prices. On top of this, diabetes, hypertension and overweight rates, while still low compared to many other countries in Africa, are increasing fast, driven by rapid urbanisation and changing lifestyles among other things.
Food consumption is at the centre of all forms of malnutrition and recent research by Kalle Hirvonen and colleagues at IFPRI has shown just how much the real price of nutritious foods has risen over the past 16 years while the real price of cereals has stayed constant and those of sugar, fats and salt have actually decreased. Just imagine what the declines in stunting would have been if the price of nutritious foods had stayed constant or even declined.
The need for available, affordable and desirable nutritious food is at the heart of GAIN’s mission. We basically do two things: (1) make foods that vulnerable populations already eat more nutritious, and (2) make nutritious foods (typically unavailable or unaffordable) more likely to be consumed by the most vulnerable.
As I saw on my trip to Addis last week, GAIN in Ethiopia is working with partners to (1) help the Government implement its new voluntary fortification standards, (2) develop low cost home grown complementary foods that can be sustainably accessed by low income households and (3) reduce food loss in nutritious food value chains. We are planning additional work in a number of new areas that draw on our experience of linking governments, business and civil society to improve the consumption of nutritious foods.
Our view at GAIN is that while business is often a part of the problem it is also a big part of the solution. So we are happy to work with responsible businesses to find new solutions. And Ethiopia is brimming with entrepreneurial talent, much of it in the form of social enterprise start-ups, often run by individuals barely out of their teens. They relish the challenge of trying to reduce the price of nutritious foods. We met several of them at Blue Moon which provides support to these start-ups.
Small and medium enterprise business platforms can help to develop investible propositions for governments and business to improve the consumption of nutritious foods by surfacing and connecting businesses with these ambitions, providing them with some market analysis, and helping them understand the legislative and policy environment they work in.
But we don’t have to rely solely on markets for scale because Ethiopia has of one of the largest social protection programmes in Africa, the PSNP (Productive Safety Net Programme). The potential for this programme, reaching 8-10 million households every year, to serve as a platform for diet diversity via vouchers and choice of eligible foods must surely be high.
So will the new government deliver for nutrition? Yes, if the rest of society plays its part. We know that improved nutrition is everyone’s business AND everyone’s responsibility.
We will certainly be working with GAIN and partners in Ethiopia to try to convince the new PM and his team that malnutrition sits uncomfortably in a nation that sees itself as a middle income country by 2025, a leading light in Africa, and a source of manufacturing and innovation. The motto, “Made in Ethiopia” will only become a reality when we have made malnutrition in Ethiopia a bad dream.