Last week’s ReSAKSS Conference, held in Accra, Ghana, highlighted key findings from the latest ReSAKSS Annual Trends and Outlooks Report (ATOR). This year’s report focuses on the current state of nutrition in Africa, including progress on the Malabo nutrition targets, and how the agricultural sector can be strengthened and improved to ensure quality nutrition for all.

According to Chapter 12 of the report, hunger and malnutrition have been on the decline throughout the region since the launch of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) in 2003. Specifically, there has been a significant decrease in the prevalence of undernourishment in Africa’s general population and in the prevalence of underweight, stunting, and wasting in children under five – all key CAADP indicators and important global nutrition targets. Undernourishment across the region has declined from 24.3 percent of the population in 1995-2003 to 16.3 percent in 2015. Similarly, child underweight, stunting, and wasting also all fell between those periods – from 24.7 percent to 20 percent for underweight, 41.9 percent to 35.6 percent for stunting, and 10.8 percent to 9.3 percent for wasting.

However, Chapter 12 also points out that these improvements have been slow and that millions of people throughout the region remain hungry and malnourished. In addition, as highlighted during an IFPRI-led side event at last week’s conference, there remain substantial gaps in research regarding food and nutrition security under the CAADP framework.  Thus, much of the rest of this year’s ATOR emphasizes the need to mainstream nutrition in various sectors (including agriculture), to include nutrition indicators in national monitoring and evaluation systems, and to efficiently expand the implementation and coordination of nutrition-sensitive programs and policies across sectors.

Chapter 5 discusses how African can improve its agricultural and food systems to better address nutrition challenges. According to the authors, agriculture is closely linked to both the direct causes of undernutrition (diets, feeding practices, and overall health) and the underlying factors driving undernutrition (income, food security, access to clean water, sanitation, and health services, and gender equity). Thus, the agricultural sector has the potential to drive major improvements in Africa’s nutrition – but only if nutrition is taken into consideration in the formulation of agricultural policies and programs.

The chapter uses recent and ongoing research to provide several recommendations to accelerate the integration of nutrition into Africa’s agriculture and food systems:

  1. Knowledge, evidence, communication and advocacy: More data is needed to strongly show that, rather than creating a financial burden, investing in nutrition can actually bring high economic returns in the form of reduced healthcare costs and increased labor productivity. Clear nutrition objectives, indicators, and action plans also need to be set and aligned with other national multisectoral plans, including national agricultural investment plans. Finally, countries’ evaluation and monitoring programs need to be improved in order to track what is and is not working, and policymakers need to be held accountable for food and nutrition security-related goals.
  2. Politics, policies, and governance: In addition to better integrating nutrition in the agricultural sector, African policymakers need to create coherent, coordinated policies and programs across multiple other sectors and across all levels of local and national government. For example, many countries in Africa are now facing increased diet-related noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and obesity. This new challenge is due in large part to increased incomes, urbanization, and integration into global markets, which have all shifted consumption patterns toward fat- and carbohydrate-rich foods and processed food products. Thus, policies are needed to address the marketing and labeling of food, increase consumers’ awareness of nutritious food choices, and increase access to nutritious foods in both urban and rural areas.
  3. Capacity and financing: Improved capacity-building programs are needed, including: increasing the number, training, and geographic reach of agricultural extension agents; providing in-field education for farmers; and better targeting both education and extension services to women.  Successfully building human resources also takes money. Chapter 5 calls on governments to better track their agricultural expenditures and to identify nutrition interventions that are appropriate to their countries’ context in order to better determine the costs of those programs. The challenges to properly financing nutrition include a lack of publicly available, disaggregated information regarding existing nutrition programs at the national and local levels, a disagreement about which indicators to measure, and a complex structure of local and national actors, institutions, government agencies, and programs.

According to the report’s conclusion, agricultural production provides the most direct pathway for improving nutrition in Africa. However, attention needs to be paid to increasing awareness and profitability of healthy foods. Programs and policies should focus on stimulating demand for nutritious foods and thus increasing producers’ incentives to grow those foods, as well as on decreasing demand for less healthy options through increased education and awareness.

All of these goals will require a coordinated approach to the region’s agriculture and food systems. The CAADP provides one such framework, although important gaps remain regarding how nutrition is measured and tracked.

The report concludes with a series of 12 recommendations for improving Africa’s nutrition:

  1. Make nutrition a priority at the highest levels of government;
  2. Increase the nutrition sensitivity of existing and future agricultural programs and policies, and ensure that nutrition indicators are included in monitoring and evaluation plans;
  3. Coordinate efforts across the agricultural, health, sanitation, and education sectors to include nutrition targets;
  4. Create national growth and development plans that include both nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive programs and that focus on improving agricultural value chains to both provide healthy foods and improve rural livelihoods;
  5. Review current agricultural, food, and trade policies to identify where reforms should take place to improve access to and availability of nutritious foods;
  6. Create an enabling environment to support nutrition and health goals;
  7. Focus on agricultural R&D to reduce postharvest loss and waste, promote diversification of agricultural production into more nutritious crops, and improve storage and transportation options to increase healthy foods’ shelf life and quality;
  8. Reduce exposure to parasites and mycotoxins, such as aflatoxin, in the food value chain;
  9. Use evidence-base decision-making to set agricultural and nutrition policies;
  10. Develop leadership capacity to better coordinate the region’s multitude of stakeholders and agencies and balance competing priorities and goals;
  11. Build the capacity of Africa’s educational institutions to ensure qualified researchers, extension agents, and other nutrition experts; and
  12. Make nutrition targets specific, measurable, relevant, and achievable; this will call for higher quality and increased data, as well as improved and more transparent monitoring and evaluation programs.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID