‘Disconnect’ between agriculture and nutrition in focus

Africa’s Green Revolution “has let us down”, not because agriculture on the continent is delivering insufficient quantities of food, but because, overall, the food that is being produced is not diverse and nutritious enough, a leading expert told a recent gathering at Stellenbosch University (SU) in South Africa.

Professor Simba Sibanda was speaking at an African Food Dialogue hosted by the Southern Africa Food Lab, an initiative of SU’s faculty of agrisciences.

Formerly attached to the University of Zimbabwe, Sibanda is now based in Pretoria, where he leads work on nutrition-sensitive agriculture at the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), a pan-African structure working to build resilient food systems across the continent.

Disconnect between agriculture and nutrition

“I strongly believe that agriculture should deliver better than what it is doing,” Sibanda said in a presentation about “the disconnect between agriculture and nutrition in African food systems”.

“We have always looked at agriculture as the solution. But, traditionally, the sector tended to focus on productivity and economic outcomes, with little attention to nutrition.”

As a result, a lot of food is being produced in Africa, but not necessarily the right kind of food.

“One of the characteristics of African diets is that they are largely starch-based, with little or no animal-source foods, fruits and vegetables,” Sibanda said.

“Chasing caloric security, we are producing mountains of grain with monocropping, but we have lost traditional ways of agriculture, in which you get a variety of foods.”

Shocking statistics

Sketching a sobering picture with statistics, he pointed out that, globally, 2.3 billion people are moderately or severely food insecure, and malnutrition is the biggest risk factor for the burden of disease, with 20% of deaths related to poor diets.

Sub-Saharan Africa registers the highest rate of food insecurity, with 63.2% of the population experiencing this problem and 32.3% of children under five years old suffering from stunted growth.

Besides the human cost of food insecurity, it also leads to an average loss of 11% of Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) per year. This is doubly frustrating because “on the flip side, if you invest in nutrition, you get a return of US$16 for every dollar invested,” Sibanda said.

Sustainable development

He argued that nutrition is central to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations, with at least 12 of the 17 goals related to nutrition.

“Improved nutrition has a positive impact on health, education, employment, female empowerment, as well as on the reduction of poverty and inequality.

“Conversely, poverty and inequality, water, sanitation and hygiene, education, food systems, climate change, social protection and agriculture affect nutrition outcomes,” he said.

“That’s why it is important to incorporate nutrition targets into the development and social sectors, where many governments spend more than 30% of their budgets.”

Political will lacking

Sibanda gave feedback on two major studies of food and agricultural policies in selected African countries. He reported on food and nutrition security strategies in 11 member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and said these were mostly misaligned with regional strategy.

And he looked at agriculture and food and nutrition security policies, strategies and plans in Ghana, Kenya and South Africa, and said these were often not nutrition-sensitive.

“Everybody says Africa has good policies, but they are mere wish lists without the necessary funding,” he said.

The result is that very few countries have achieved the goal set by the African Union in 2003 in its Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) of allocating 10% of their national budgets to agriculture.

“Political will is a major challenge. Electoral systems that favour short-term gains can make it difficult to implement long-term solutions,” he said, also pointing a finger at a lack of accountability.

“Governments get consultants to produce nice documents, but there is no commitment; they don’t even spend money to develop their own policies, they get donors to pay for it – that’s how seriously they take it. Ownership is wishy-washy.”

Wicked problem

Characterising nutrition as a “wicked problem” because of its “multisectoral” nature, Sibanda said food systems needed to be “transformed from farm to fork” to make it “nutrition-sensitive” and address the underlying causes of malnutrition.

“Agriculture should play a significant role in delivering safe, nutritious and affordable food, and there are opportunities for interventions all along the value chain, from primary and post-harvest production to marketing, income generation and consumption,” he said.

He called for better coordination between different sectors, and increased investment in nutrition-sensitive agriculture. Also, “we need to see incentives for the various actors along the value chain to produce diverse and nutritious food”.


Sibanda pointed out that undernutrition, overnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies are often present in a single household simultaneously, but said that more women than men are malnourished in Africa, and that children also bear the brunt of food insecurity on the continent.

To correct this problem, women should be empowered, but with the participation of men, or else it will not happen, he said.

Research agenda

Sibanda argued that researchers have a vital role to play in dealing with the disconnection between agriculture and nutrition in Africa and promoting greater food security for all people on the continent.

However, in outlining a research agenda, he warned that “it’s not the kind of research we’re used to doing, because it’s messy”.

He highlighted four areas for future research:

• Evidence-based implementation, to find out what works and what does not;

• How to empower women and youth for more meaningful participation in the food and agriculture value chains;

• A basic set of indicators to deliver on the main food and nutrition outcomes, in line with capacity and resource limitations; and

• Using the most effective incentives to improve nutrition outcomes, including creating functional public-private partnerships.

Sibanda also identified effective science communication as crucial.

“We can do fantastic work, but if it’s not relevant and if policymakers don’t take note of it, what’s the use? We develop tools, but we don’t ‘retail’ them, almost like a company that develops products without marketing them.”

He argued that research findings should be communicated to politicians and other stakeholders in a way that makes sense to them and that drives the message home in an environment filled with “noise from all quarters”.

“Academic papers and even policy briefs can be too long and complicated. We should get the media and communication experts to help us convey our messages better,” he said.

Hardcore academics

In her response to Sibanda’s talk, Professor Lisanne du Plessis of SU’s faculty of medicine and health sciences said somebody recently told her that “academics used to stand up and make a noise, but we don’t seem to do that any more”, with the result that “politicians are no longer scared of us”.

“I take that as a challenge to become more hardcore, and I don’t mean aggressive, but more skilful in conveying the powerful message that agriculture should be nutrition-sensitive,” she said.

Through the African Food Dialogues, SU’s Southern Africa Food Lab says it is “convening Africa’s pre-eminent food policy thinkers and researchers to take part in public lectures coupled with sessions of facilitated discussion”

This article was written by Desmond Thompson and was first published on University World News on 8 November 2023.