Story 2: Strengthening Nutrition Resilience and Food Security on the African Continent

Story 2: Strengthening Nutrition Resilience and Food Security on the African Continent

Africa, 7 November 2022 - 

Read our second story in the series on The Food Crisis: What's Happening, a collection of work on the current events and the impact we're seeing on a global scale. The Food Crisis is affecting everyone socially, economically and nutritionally. Mduduzi Mbuya and Saul Morris speak about the common threads connecting the threat to African food systems.

In February of this year, African leaders launched the African Year of Nutrition. However, as the year has unfolded, the outlook for nutrition on the continent has been increasingly bleak: the latest report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World estimates that around 322 million people in Africa experience severe food insecurity, a significant increase from 282 million in 2020. In fact, since 2018, the majority of Africans have been suffering from moderate or severe food insecurity.

Inevitably, this will result in increased rates of malnutrition as families de-prioritise consumption of more nutritious food items to ensure they can at least afford the basic staples.

Africa is not a homogeneous continent. Each country has its own challenges and opportunities, yet a few common threads stand out. The first is the rise in food prices. Maize, a staple food in most of the continent south of the Sahara, is now trading at its highest price for a generation, perhaps two. While this might be good news for maize farmers, the majority of households in sub-Saharan Africa are net buyers, or at best neutral market players who eat what they grow and have none left to sell. These sky-high prices will limit households' ability to buy more nutrient-dense foods. They will discourage efforts to fortify food by adding nutritious vitamins and minerals to milled flour. They will limit the quantities of maize governments and relief agencies can buy for stockpiles or social safety net programmes. And the likely result will be social unrest with further destabilising potential.

The trend of rising food prices is being exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Today, it is having significant negative impacts on global food supplies and the distribution infrastructure. And the risk is that it is also threatening fertilizer supplies tomorrow. It is particularly bad timing because the food transport industry is still struggling to recover from the disruption caused by Covid-19.

The second common challenge is climate change. More severe weather events, such as the cyclones that destroyed Mozambique's food system infrastructure in 2019 and again in 2021, can decimate agricultural productivity, particularly in rainfed growing areas. The resulting volatility and risk will make agriculture increasingly unattractive for younger generations of rural dwellers, accelerating the drift to cities and the reliance on imported food.

All of this is against the background of significantly increasing total population sizes in many countries. Nigeria, for example, is expected to have 375m inhabitants by 2050, compared to 100m in 1990. No serious commentators still believe that fast population growth means the world cannot feed itself. However, it is clearly challenging to plan sufficient dignified work and food system infrastructure with things changing so quickly.

A third common challenge is the lure of tasty but unhealthy food. With time at a premium and the availability of cheap but nutrient-scarce fast food increasing, aspiring consumers are eating ever more salty, oily and sugary food. Unless this is reversed, and quickly, we will witness an explosion of non-communicable disease such as diabetes and heart disease. We know exactly what happens because we've seen this pattern across the world in other rapidly "Westernising" food environments.

There is, however, much cause for optimism.

Africa's maturing governance offers many opportunities. The very fact we have an African Year of Nutrition indicates the increasing political salience the topic has acquired. And many countries in the region are now developing Food Systems Transformation Pathways, inspired by the energy of last year's United Nations Food Systems Summit. Devolution, which even just a decade ago was struggling to deliver its promise in many countries, is now starting to result in increasing local capacity and accountability, and cities such as Nairobi now have comprehensive food systems plans.

Secondly, Africa's young and ever-better educated population is producing inspiring youth leaders who take control of their own futures and lead social change. With a clear view of the risks of climate change, and a spectacular mastery of communications technology, this generation is well-placed to create a stronger future. Those with the right energy and vision now have the tools to influence the world, creating a groundswell that is impossible to ignore. Just look at what Malala and Greta have achieved.

Thirdly, the "hardware" of food systems is gradually improving. New roads and railways are being built to facilitate market linkages, and municipal markets are gradually being upgraded to meet the needs of a modern food sector. The information highway is as important as the physical infrastructure, particularly as the number of Africans online is growing so fast. African companies such as Twiga are using that to rapidly scale up novel solutions to move food quickly and safely from farmers to consumers.

These opportunities suggest a trio of solutions which can move us faster towards more resilient food systems that can withstand the challenging headwinds in the years to come.

What is needed

Leadership at national and local levels really matters, as do the tools that enable leaders to make decisions and prioritise. Both formal training and leadership programmes, such as the African Nutrition Leadership Programme, need support. Tools such as the Food Systems Dashboard can help leaders both diagnose their local challenges and plan appropriate interventions, perhaps inspired by what has worked elsewhere. Ultimately, communities of well-informed and supported decision makers will be able to take the appropriate and specific actions to shape their local food environments.

Secondly, we must harness the power of youth. It is critical that we find ways to enable highly motivated and connected young people to engage with their local food systems in a meaningful way. Those of us who are older can support young people to organise by making spaces for them to participate, promote and nurture the leaders, and fund initiatives which empower those who are yet to find their voices. We need to take active measures to counter the barrage of marketing of unhealthy foods this generation is subject to. We can also incubate the early-stage businesses which will grow to develop and deploy products and services that will improve African food systems in the medium term. African supply chains are still dominated by small businesses across production, distribution, and retail, so these small companies are critical.

Finally, development banks and governments need to step up their investment in food systems hardware. Markets need upgrading and connecting to production areas, with modern cold chain transport and storage facilities, and green energy and efficient water use throughout. Food systems resilience requires more than 19th century infrastructure, or local nutritious food value chains will continue to be weak and vulnerable.

The African Year of Nutrition provides the impetus to address the challenges we're facing by working together to ensure every household across Africa has access to enough nutritious food, every day.

This article originally appeared in allAfrica.