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News out late last year on the state of global hunger provided troubling updates on much of Africa.
Despite progress throughout the continent over the last decade, the 2017 issue of the Global Hunger Index (GHI), which measures progress and failures in the global fight against hunger, found that six countries in Africa were rated as having alarming or extremely alarming hunger situations. The only non-African country in this group was Yemen.
This is disheartening because Africa is also the only region in the world where malnutrition is on the rise. Africa is home to 22 out of 34 countries with the most children suffering from malnutrition, and governments are losing up to 16.5 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) annually as a result of poor nutrition.
As a nutritionist, I cannot look the other way while women and children are dying of poor nutrition on our watch. And I believe that despite this grim portrait, we can end hunger and malnutrition. To do this, however, we need an all-hands-on-deck approach: we need civil society to be a better watchdog, advocate and incubator for solutions.
A key challenge in addressing the issue of poor nutrition is that it lacks a clear institutional home in many governments. There is no country that has a “Ministry of Nutrition”, and so ministries of agriculture or health are allocated funds to help reduce hunger and malnutrition among vulnerable populations. And as a result, those funds are harder to keep track of.
That’s where civil society and activists come in. To serve their watchdog function, they need to hold institutions and governments accountable for national investment in these sectors.
They must make sure that activities that can address hunger and malnutrition are prioritised and sufficiently funded – and that those funds are monitored and their results fully accounted for.
To end hunger and malnutrition in Africa, we must put money where we have the best returns on investment.
We must also focus on nutrition for specific populations if we want long-term growth. Africa will make little progress if we do not quickly prioritise improving adolescent nutrition.
As the continent’s youthful population grows, our children are going to school hungry and unable to focus, learn or thrive because malnutrition affects their brain power.
Yet our children have a right to nutritious food. The World Food Programme has played a key role in setting up school feeding programs as short-term safety nets for children and families.
Converting these nets into trampolines that will catapult the next generation into a better future requires government and community involvement to enable sustainable long-term social investment. To ensure that all kids have access to the nutritious meals that will also help them learn, we must advocate for a policy on universal school feeding programs in Africa.
These solutions won’t just come from government, though.
Grassroots movements that support nutrition and health should demand nutrition be a priority and track commitments at the local level. This will pave way for young people to be guaranteed at least two simple but nutritious meals per day in school – a move that will help end hunger and malnutrition while nurturing them to be tomorrow’s leaders and innovators.
All is not lost, as we have some success stories nutrition advocates can learn from. A key challenge in addressing hunger is shrinking land for agriculture due to population growth.
In hard-hit agrarian countries such as Rwanda, for example, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has developed climbing beans (the type that climbs up stakes like a vine) that use less land space but yield three times more than the familiar bush type. Such a simple innovation can ensure food security for densely populated, land-scarce countries in Africa.
Meanwhile, an emerging issue for African countries is the need to reduce post-harvest food losses and waste to help curb hunger. What innovative solutions could be adapted to local circumstances and contexts in this case?
As the GHI report puts it, the global goal on hunger is to ‘’leave no one behind’’. This means that practitioners and all parts of society must endeavor to reach first those who are furthest behind – those in Africa who are most vulnerable to hunger and poor nutrition.
To achieve that, we must focus our efforts through more effective partnerships, be innovative with local solutions from all sectors, and ensure we focus first on the children who need nutrition the most to ensure the strongest future.
Mercy Lung’aho is a nutritionist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and a 2017 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.