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Today in several parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the headlines are depressingly and distressingly familiar. They warn of drought and famine. This year the alarm is ringing for South Sudan, Somalia, and northern Nigeria. Last year it was large parts of southern and eastern Africa hitting the red line.
Unfortunately, these are just extreme examples of a more pervasive food problem that can be found across the region, which is the punishing grind of being consistently underfed. Today there are millions of Africans who, while not visibly starving, are chronically malnourished. This malnutrition produces a combination of physical deformities, like stunting, and long-term cognitive impairments that frequently guarantee a bleak future of limited economic opportunities and greater vulnerability to disease. And the problem is pervasive.
While globally malnutrition affects one in nine people, in my part of the world, Africa, it threatens one in four.
That sobering statistic weighs on me and my fellow agriculture scientists as we look for ways to end both the vicious cycle of food crises that plague different parts of Africa and the poor nutrition that simmers just under the surface, doing its damage long before the food aid trucks get rolling.
This week, the place where I work, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (better known to farming experts by its Spanish acronym, CIAT) is celebrating its 50th anniversary as an institution dedicated to science in the service of food and agriculture in developing world. A major topic as we gather to mark the occasion is how to change the narrative in Africa so that food is no longer a constant burden but is instead a major source of opportunity.
I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, coming of age in the harsh economic downturn of the 1980s. I saw my share of poverty and hunger and have long understood the link between the two conditions: Most Africans rely on farming for food and income, and that means our farms are the frontlines of the fight for both better nutrition and economic opportunity. Thankfully, today I am increasingly seeing how that battle can be won.
For example, last month, I visited the Peter Manda village in Mzimba, in southern Mozambique, where malnutrition was common and income mainly came from selling reed mats and axes. Peter Manda was in an area targeted for adoption of a new variety of nutrient-rich beans, with the support of CIAT, developed by plant breeders to naturally provide higher levels of critical nutrients like iron and zinc.
This process of developing crops, through natural processes, to increase their micro-nutrient content is called biofortification. Village farmers were given 18 kilos of biofortified seed, which they multiplied and shared.
This year alone, farmers in the village harvested ten tons of the beans, which had a market value of about $11,000. Malnutrition is down and incomes are up. Several are building brick houses and installing solar lighting. It’s been a remarkable turn around in just five years, an example of how dramatically and quickly lives can change in Africa if our farmers just have the basic things they need to succeed.
Nutrition Early Warning System
The innovations now being developed to improve food security and nutrition in Africa are not just confined to traditional areas of farming, like improved seeds. This week, CIAT launched a new initiative that uses big data, and machine learning to monitor food and nutrition conditions in Africa. We see this as our contribution to the collective aim, led by institutions such as the African Development Bank - with their ‘Say No To Famine’ initiative - focused on breaking the cycle of food and malnutrition crises across the continent and moving the sector closer towards resilience.
The Nutrition Early Warning System or NEWS will crunch a constant stream of data on a wide range of issues that influence nutrition, such as climate variations, crop yields, armed conflicts, food prices, migration, urbanization, maternal health, and government policy. The goal is to use sophisticated software algorithms to reveal threats to nutrition and food security far earlier than they would be detected by conventional means.
Our scientists already have used this technology in Córdoba, Colombia, where a machine learning algorithm scanned large volumes of crop and climate data and correctly predicted that a drought was likely to hit rice farmers during planting season. The farmers who adopted the advice and heeded the warning avoided over $3 million of losses in wasted seed, inputs and labor by delaying planting for a few months.
I am not so naïve as to think that plant breeders and computer geeks alone can solve Africa’s food and nutrition challenges. But I do detect a shift underway in the thought and practice of agriculture. We are increasingly succeeding in moving innovations like biofortified crops and machine learning programs out of the laboratory and into everyday agriculture in the developing world. You can go to farmers’ fields in places like Malawi and rural Colombia and see them at work.
Successes like these can give you hope that, even now, as relief agencies send out urgent requests for food aid, progress is possible. With the right mix of investments, innovations, and policies, agriculture and nutrition can go from being Africa’s bane to Africa’s boom.