Former presidents Jakaya Kiwete of Tanzania and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria joined top government officials across Africa in Nairobi, Kenya last week to discuss issues in an increasingly complex topic of nutrition in the rapidly changing food landscape of sub-Saharan Africa.
Combating malnutrition was the primary concern. But several participants observed that in many African countries today, increasing wealth is leading to a reduction in classic forms of malnutrition–only to be replaced with rising rates obesity and dietary diseases linked to over consumption of highly processed foods.
“We may be feeding our stomachs just fine, but we are not necessarily getting enough nutritious food,” said former President Kikwete.
“At times there is malnutrition even when food is there.” The discussion was convened by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, an assemblage of influential experts committed to tackling global challenges in food and nutrition security.
Its members include Rhoda Peace Tumusiime, the African Union’s Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture, AGRA President Agnes Kalibata, and the head of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina.
Driving its deliberations are the profound impacts of malnutrition on individual, communities and entire economies. For example, in Africa today, some 58 million children under five years old are stunted due to a lack of food.
“Investing in nutrition is investing in the future of our continent,” said Commissioner Rhoda Peace, adding that “good nutrition is the key to Africa’s economic and social well-being.” The panel also wanted to help influence the development of Africa’s agriculture sector so that increases in production also elevate nutrition.
They want to help African countries avoid the unfortunate experience in many countries around the world, in which the transition from low to middle income status has been accompanied by a decline in food quality and increase in obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Bukar Tijani, from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), said for Africa, agriculture policies that encourage local production and consumption of fruits and vegetables should be a key component of efforts to spark a green revolution across the continent.
Indeed, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said he has come to realize as an adult the enormous nutritious value of what was readily available in the poor village where he grew up. “Our parents were never short of fresh vegetables or fresh fruit, even though we thought we were poor,” he said.
“Growing up and going to school in the city, I realised the value of what we got in the village.” Victor Ajieroh, a Senior Programme Officer for Nutrition at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said it was clear that Africa’s dietary challenges are multifaceted.
They include, he said, the fact that there are 160 million African women of reproductive age who are anemic, coupled with an alarming rise in obesity in certain countries. But he said he “takes great pleasure that great things are happening in Africa,” including rising food production and falling rates of malnutrition in many countries.
And he was buoyed by the fact that “we have former presidents” who were willing to spend several hours at AGRF to contribute thoughts on improving nutrition in Africa. “There is light at the end of the tunnel and there is reason to be positive about Africa,” Ajieroh said.
“We are making progress in the midst of challenges. But I believe we can make progress much faster.”