A Nutrition Revolution for Africa: How Can African Agriculture Play a Greater Role?

Africa faces a triple burden of malnutrition: highly prevalent chronic malnutrition characterised by stunting; widespread micronutrient deficiencies; and rapidly increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity and related non-communicable diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes.

Photo credit N.Covic/IFPRI

The theme of the October 2016 Regional Strategic Analysis and Knowledge Support System (ReSAKSS) Conference, “Achieving a Nutrition Revolution for Africa: The Road to Healthier Diets and Optimal Nutrition,” was therefore very timely. This theme, also that of the Annual Trends and Outlooks Report (ATOR-2015) of the African Union, led by IFPRI, calls for a nutrition revolution for Africa and emphasizes the need for agriculture to become more nutrition-sensitive to play a greater role in promoting improved diets for better nutrition and health. Different aspects and pathways need attention for agriculture to make this important contribution to nutrition, some of which were discussed at the 2016 ReSAKSS Conference and highlighted in the ATOR-2015, launched at the conference.

The scaffolding for a nutrition revolution requires a policy environment conducive to enabling the necessary change. The Maputo Declarations (AU, 2003); Malabo Declarations (AU, 2014); Agenda 2063 (AU, 2014); and the African Regional Nutrition Strategy 2015-2025 all contribute to this scaffolding at the continental level, but more needs to be done. There is also a need for nutrition-sensitive agricultural policies with specific nutrition objectives and activities at the national level. Chapter Five of the ATOR 2015, “Making African Agriculture and Food Systems Work for Nutrition: What Has Been Done, and What Needs To Be Done?” (Gillespie & Dufour, 2016), gives the following key requirements for agriculture to impact nutrition:

Nutrition objectives and indicators must be explicitly incorporated into the design of agriculture policies and programs and it is important to put in place mechanisms not only to track progress but also mitigate potential harms from related developments in agriculture. Recent work by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), FAO and other development partners to make National Agricultural Investment Plans (NAIPs) more nutrition sensitive should be better leveraged to foster a nutrition revolution. The activities planned within NAIPs must consider local context at a sub-national and community level to ensure relevance of activities intended to address the types and causes of malnutrition more effectively. The levels of vulnerability of different sectors of the population are different. It is therefore important to have deliberate targeting to bring about more equitable employment of the more vulnerable groups such as women and youth while at the same time bringing about more positive nutrition impact for women and children. The pathways through which agriculture can impact nutrition all need attention. These include, production of more diverse food; economic access to better and more diverse foods; economic access to health care and other services such as education, water and sanitation, and women’s health; improved well-being and empowerment. These pathways clearly reflect the multisectoral nature of nutrition. Therefore, whatever the planned activities in NAIPs and Regional Agricultural Investment Plans (ReIPs) (for Regional Economic Communities (RECs) of the Africa Union), it is critical to consider this multisectoral nature of nutrition and the agriculture sector must, therefore, work in an integrated approach with other sectors and programs related to health, water and sanitation, social protection etc. Health issues related to food contamination and safety form part of this critical mix and should include mitigation of mycotoxin contamination such as aflatoxin contamination of foods along the food value chain from production to consumption. It is also important to maintain or improve the natural resource base to avoid land and water degradation that threatens future nutrition security.

Is a nutrition revolution for Africa possible? Chapter Twelve of the report focuses on tracking trends for the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). In this chapter, Bahiigwa et al. (2016) provide evidence suggesting that the countries that have gone the furthest in the CAADP implementation process tend to reflect better progress on different nutrition-related indicators, including undernourishment and stunting. This is cause for optimism. However, we also know the progress on stunting and micronutrient deficiencies is too slow to meet current global and continental targets (Haddad et al., 2016) and much of the increase in food production and productivity on the continent has focused on staple foods with little attention to diversification. For a nutrition revolution to be realized, agricultural production must diversify significantly to provide not just affordable, but also more diverse diets. Biofortified staple crops should be considered in addressing selected nutrient deficiencies. Both NAIPs and ReIPs must therefore make adequate provision for dietary diversification.

CAADP is indeed a key strategy for agricultural development at the continental and national level, with at least 44 countries at varying stages of CAADP implementation. The programme is well positioned to leverage African agriculture for a nutrition revolution on the continent, but for this to happen, deliberate attention to nutrition objectives and activities within agricultural strategies, programmes, and projects is critical and the developments must mitigate against land and other natural resource degradation to avoid threatening future food and nutrition security.

This leads to an important point in the Conclusions and Recommendations of the ATOR 2015. CAADP needs to adopt a deliberate food systems approach to effectively address the triple burden of malnutrition faced by the continent while striking a needed balance between addressing both undernutrition and overnutrition. This approach would also ensure the implementation of adequate resource management and trade strategies to promote sustained food and nutrition security in the long term. Capacity and transformational leadership for nutrition is needed across the board, and Chapter 11 focuses on three areas of need, including multisectoral nutrition systems; technical capacity for programmes, research, monitoring, and evaluation; and transformational leadership. Both institutional and human resource capacities are important to propel the sustained nutrition revolution Africa needs and indeed deserves. As we move towards the 2017 CAADP Partnership Platform, all relevant stakeholders must consider how they can set in motion actions to make Africa’s agriculture more nutrition-sensitive and in doing so promote a nutrition revolution on the continent by addressing issues raised in the ATOR 2015.

Namukolo Covic is a Senior Research Coordinator with the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), with the Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).