Strengthening Resilience in Nutrition and Food Security on the African Continent: Strengthening Agro-Food Systems, Health and Social Protection Systems for the Acceleration of Human, Social and Economic Capital Development
As part of the long-term vision set out in Agenda 2063, the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union has adopted common African aspirations, drawing on the potential of its populations, in particular, a human capital well-nourished citizens and in good health with a particular emphasis on women, adolescents and children. Human capital is key for development as it leads to improved lives for individuals, higher earnings and improved incomes for countries.
Africa was estimated to have a population of 1.25 billion in 2018 and is the fastest urbanizing continent, with a growth rate of more than 2.6 percent. The large youth population presents a potential demographic dividend that, if adequately leveraged with the right investments, could contribute to accelerating sustainable and equitable development. Over the years, the under-5 mortality has reduced by more than 50 percent between 1994 to 2019; fertility rates have declined from 6 to 4 children per women. However, compared to the rest of the world, the malnutrition remains high in the continent and under nutrition is particularly an underlying cause of almost half of child deaths.
According to the findings of the Continental Accountability Scorecard launched by the African Union and the Africa Leaders for Nutrition (ALN) in 2019, data shows that in the African continent;
- 8 million children under 5 years are stunted, and 58.7 million of those stunted are in Africa
- Only seven (7) member states have stunting rates below 19 percent
- Fifteen (15) member states have child wasting prevalence below 5 percent
- Thirty-eight (38) countries have women’s anemia prevalence rates of more than 30 percent
- Eighteen (18) member states have at least 50 percent of infants exclusively breastfed
- Twenty (20) member states have more than 70 percent prevalence rates for vitamin A supplementation.
At the same time, overweight, obesity and non-communicable diseases related to the quality of diets are increasing rapidly, worsening morbidity and mortality rates. Malnutrition, by its double manifestation, does not spare any African country at one point in the life cycle. Malnutrition is not only one of the worst killers of children under five years of age but prevents children and adolescents from reaching their full potential, and traps entire populations in vulnerability. Through its negative effects on the development of human capital and its productivity, malnutrition contributes to the delay in African countries’ economic and social development, with unacceptable human consequences on African individuals, communities and nations.
New evidence has shown that the persistence of the burden of malnutrition has very significant consequences for physical, mental, cognitive and physiological development of African children; hence it has become a critical human rights issue that goes far beyond the already existing volatile public health impact. At the same time, evidence shows that malnutrition leads to decreased social and economic development of nations and becomes a very important political and economic development issue.
According to the findings of the Cost of Hunger in Africa Study, it is estimated that African countries are losing the equivalent of between 1.9 and 16.5 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) due to child under-nutrition. It is also estimated that malnourished children are at risk of losing more than 10 percent of their lifetime earning potential.
In addition to existing malnutrition challenges the global health crisis of Covid-19 has greatly exposed the economic vulnerability of African countries and the weaknesses of their health and food systems. The price to pay for keeping the virus at bay has been, in many African countries, at the expense of gains made in reducing malnutrition. It is vital that these gains are protected by increased and well-targeted official development assistance, but above all by an increase in allocations of national resources, focused on the nutritional well-being of populations, including the most vulnerable ones.
While the past decade has made it possible to acknowledge better the importance of investing in nutrition at global and continental levels, substantial efforts are still needed to stem the scourge of malnutrition through various strategies:
- Building Resilience: Food and nutrition security are, in themselves, important elements of individual resilience, but they can also enhance the resilience of whole economies by improving the health and productivity of individuals. More efforts are needed people, communities, countries, and global institutions prevent, anticipate, prepare for, cope with, and recover from shocks and not only bounce back to where they were before the shocks occurred.
- Multisectoral and interdisciplinary approach: The complex causes of nutrition and the wide range of participants influencing need to be addressed through a multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral approach. Malnutrition is a complex problem caused by various factors: these determinants are directly linked to inadequate and inadequate nutrition and care regimes and practices. (sustained by health services- inadequate maternal and childcare practices – as well as unsuitable water provision, sanitation and health services. in a context of food insecurity, access to basic social services and other more fundamental issues such as socio-economic factors such as poverty, education and gender inequality sanitation hygiene and water supply. These complex multidimensional and interdependent determinants, intervening at different levels of society, require concerted and synergistic efforts across several sectors to reduce this scourge rapidly and sustainably. Partnership at all level is key in addressing nutrition challenges and the role of South-South cooperation should also be considered.
- Link between agriculture and nutrition: Increasing food production to ensure food security is not enough to end malnutrition if special attention is not given to all determinants with a focus to early childhood during the first 1000 days of an individual’s life. This involves ensuring the good health and nutrition of adolescents girls, pregnant and breastfeeding women, infants and young children, particularly by promoting exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life and continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond with appropriate complementary foods. Agriculture has a key role to play in nutrition-sensitive interventions; however, there is a need to consider the entire food system in determining, designing and implementing agricultural and food-based interventions to improve nutrition.
- Improving nutrition requires systemic change: There is a need to ensure that nutrition is integrated into resilient and strong health systems through universal health coverage -healthy, inclusive, sustainable and environmentally/ climate sensitive food systems; sanitation and sanitation systems inclusive drinking water supply; effective social protection systems ensuring that no one is left behind, including the poorest and most nutritionally vulnerable; and investment in nutrition education for all.
- Investments in nutrition: There is a need to strengthen the existing financing mechanisms and scale up innovative and sustainable resource mobilization, which includes a broad set of public and private sector actors and financial instruments if actions are to be implemented in the continent.
- Commitments to actions: The policy commitments and strategies are yet to generate the expected results. African Member states need to clearly review and exert effort in order to improve the translation of political commitments and declarations into effective programs on the ground, particularly in the context of the ambitious targets set in the African Union’s Malabo Declaration for 2025, World Health Assembly targets and Sustainable Development Agenda for 2030.