Feb 7, 2023 | Blog

The power in your plate – Transforming Africa’s food systems through better nutritional choices

As of 2023, four out of 10 people in Africa live in cities, where they are exposed to new dietary trends and habits, including the regular consumption of highly processed foods, or foods of low nutritional value. At the same time, the soaring cost of living is denying many an opportunity to afford balanced diets. Consequently, there has been a co-related spike in diet-related diseases like malnutrition, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. Indeed, the World Health Organization predicts that Africa will experience the highest increase in diabetes globally, reaching 55 million people by 2045—a 134% spike from 2021. As a result, nutrition-related conditions are costing African governments $110b every year in lost productivity.

Faced with such realities, we must admit that our current food systems are neither working for our health nor our environment, and must now be urgently transformed with a focus on improved nutrition for all. Going forward, all stakeholders are called upon to increase the access, affordability, and availability of healthy and nutritious food for all Africans across the continent, a process that starts with a strong policy environment. In this regard, governments must strive to actualize policies for robust nutrition-focused investments that can withstand emerging shocks like pandemics, regional and international conflicts, and climate change. Many of the policy goals needed to support this drive are contained in previous commitments by government leaders such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. In the next few years, it will be critical that governments honor their pledges in the aforementioned programs, notably the commitment to invest at least 10% of their budget in agricultural food system transformation, a key investment for addressing the continent’s nutrition and hunger problems.   

The private sector, too, has a vital role to play in sustaining the continent’s nutrition objectives, as it serves as the major link between producers and consumers of agricultural produce. Through various partnerships, governments and their development partners must advocate for nutritious food uptake in ways that invoke the interest of private investors. Some work has already been done in this context, including at last year’s AGRF – Africa’s Food System Summit, where private entrepreneurs, including owners of agri-SMEs, emphasized their willingness to move nutritious food, as long as it made business sense.

Yet perhaps the biggest progress in terms of nutrition would be achieved by targeting smallholder farming communities, which account for nearly two-thirds of the food consumed on the continent. Given appropriate production resources and linkages to markets, this demographic, comprising over 33 million households, may gradually transform the food choices available for the rest of the continent. This has already been shown by the successful commercialization of the orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) variety in countries like Kenya, Malawi and Rwanda. In Kenya alone, OFSP products raise over $5 million in revenues, through a demand that has helped increase the crop’s market value, and in turn, its commercial attractiveness to smallholder growers. More opportunities abound as the Vitamin-A rich variety is increasingly adopted by aid organizations for their humanitarian assistance products.

Meanwhile, indigenous foods must be continually explored in driving nutritional change amongst African countries, particularly in urban areas. Many researchers have found high nutritional value in traditional African vegetables, wild fruits and other indigenous crops, which are readily available or can be cultivated with minimal effort. However, these indigenous crops are increasingly marginalized as taste and diet preferences shift to exotic options, which are also increasingly available. However, for a complete transition to healthy food systems that do not leave anyone behind, it is important to lead a drive that integrates indigenous foods and ingredients in meal and diet plans.

In the long-run it is important to emphasize that the journey to well-nourished societies is one that requires the deliberate participation of all stakeholders, who must work towards a common goal. In the coming months, and as the continent prepares for different food system stocktakes, as well as progress tracking events like AGRF’s Food Systems Summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in September, we hope to see stronger action aimed at transforming the nutritional wellbeing of the continent, for socio-economic prosperity.

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