Urgent call: ‘Agri must become more nutrition-focused’

Increased profit margins and productivity levels are often prioritised throughout Africa while neglecting the need for nutritional food at an affordable price. To try and diminish the disconnect between agriculture and nutrition, stakeholders gathered during an African food dialogue hosted at Stellenbosch University

The African Day for Food and Nutrition Security is commemorated annually on 30 October and this year, calls are mounting for African countries to strike a balance between farming for increased productivity, and income and the nutritional needs of consumers.

During an African food dialogue hosted at Stellenbosch University, Professor Simba Sibanda, who leads the theme nutrition-sensitive agriculture (NSA) at the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), discussed Africa’s food systems and the disconnect between agriculture and nutrition.

Food dialogues bring together diverse, influential stakeholders in Southern Africa’s food systems to respond to systemic issues in creative ways. It also inspires change in how we think and act on complex social challenges and is presented by the Southern Africa Food Lab, an initiative of the faculty of agrisciences at Stellenbosch University.

Economic outcomes are ‘more important’

According to Sibanda, there’s a need for agriculture programmes and policies in Africa to deliver positive nutrition outcomes. This, he believes, is possible by providing technical assistance to integrate nutrition into agriculture development programmes, strategies and policies.

“One of the characteristics of African diets is that they’re largely starch-based. The sad part is that agriculture is more focused on productivity and economic outcomes with little attention to nutrition goals.

“And so it’s not surprising that we’ve had some countries or areas within countries where there’s fairly high agricultural productivity… but also malnutrition.”

Urgent call: 'Agri must become more nutrition-focused'
The food dialogue on Africa’s food systems and the disconnect between agriculture and nutrition attracted a large crowd of agriculture and nutrition enthusiasts. Photo: Duncan Masiwa/Food For Mzansi

Disconnect between agriculture and nutrition

Pointing to nutrition-sensitive food systems, Sibanda said it does not only refer to what happens on the farm but also what happens when that food leaves the farm. He points out that issues of food safety often arise when food is processed at various facilities.

“We want to see [all] agricultural players delivering safe, nutritious, and affordable food. The issue of affordability is critical. We definitely need to see agriculture transform so that it is nutrition-sensitive.”

But how can this be accomplished? According to Sibanda, it starts at household and evaluating how food is consumed at a household level.

There is also the issue of urgency. In most African households, women are responsible for preparing food. The more urgency there is, the better off that household is, Sibanda said.

“Having women make more decisions around issues of food is helpful for the household, especially for children.”

Attendees were in agreement that more needs to be done from a policy and government perspective when it comes to South Africa’s nutrition agenda. Pictured here are Professor Simba Sibanda and Professor Lisanne du Plessis. Photo: Duncan Masiwa/Food For Mzansi

Africa’s nutrition wish list

At policy level, there is also work required and if governments invest appropriately, decreased food prices are a possibility, Sibanda added. However, he cautioned that this must not be at the expense of farmer.

“Also, when there’s generally improved agricultural growth, this is achieved through appropriate policies and protocols. This is when the whole population will benefit.”

To turn the tide on the disconnect between agriculture and nutrition, Sibanda said there needs to be a focus on nutritional programmes, youth and women inclusion, improved accountability, and enhanced funding.

‘Without funding, there is nothing’

“Everyone says Africa has food policies, but all it has are wish lists. Because without funding there is nothing. Policies are supposed to be the instrument for investment for the government. If there’s no investment, it means there’s no policies,” Sibanda said.

In the long haul, metrics for dietary variety are required to confirm that South Africa is making progress in the right direction when it comes to advancing nutrition. Sibanda said it is also concerning that different players in the value chain who produce a wide range of nutritious foods are not incentivised.

This article was written by Duncan Masiwa and was first published on FoodforMzansi.org on 30 October 2023.