By Charles Dhewa
Avenues for aligning agriculture with the nutritional needs of citizens
Pathways for successfully converting rhetoric surrounding nutrition security into reality should include collecting and analysing data from local communities to national levels and markets. Such data can include the volume and value of agricultural commodities flowing from each production versus the amount and types of inputs flowing into those production zones per farming season.
Such intelligence should be linked with the level of malnutrition in the community or production zone. A step further should align the production zone’s agricultural output with the nutritional needs of the local people. Collecting such information calls for cooperation between agriculturalists, farmers, nutritionists, village health workers, private companies, NGOs, and policymakers to embrace a collective impact approach to addressing nutrition challenges.
The value of African agriculture should not continue to be expressed in export earnings
One of the major reasons why African agriculture tends to be export-driven is that most countries have to repay foreign debts using agricultural commodities. However, measuring agriculture by the amount of export earnings underestimates the value of agriculture and local food systems. Looking at agriculture from a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) lens is also a very narrow perspective. Developing local farmers’ markets where everyone can take stock of a local community’s food outputs is an ideal entry point into understanding the true value of agriculture in particular communities.
A culture of data collection and real-time analysis can ensure value addition businesses at the community level are anchored on correct information like the total volume of commodities that can be produced versus what is set aside for household consumption, collective community consumption, and surplus for the market. This is also a promising avenue for linking a community’s food systems with tourism, enabling visitors to pay for learning from a community’s food culture.
Correcting nutritional imbalance with local foods
Dependence on processed imported food being dumped into African communities as food aid is creating nutritional problems for many communities. This situation can be corrected through integrating local foods by using the convening power of local markets. Households which rely heavily on food aid may suffer nutritional deficiencies because so much of the produce is processed rather than fresh. On the other hand, the people’s market can provide fresh food for everyone.
Droughts tend to exacerbate nutritional imbalance when governments start importing food irrespective of nutritional considerations. In the long term there is a real risk of children and families becoming deficient in fibre, calcium, iron and a variety of vitamins. Households that are consuming tinned soup, meat, puddings and pasta sauce dominated food are creating their own nutritional problems.
When well developed, local markets can ensure the consistent availability of fresh produce in each community. Collecting data and evidence in communities that are receiving food aid could tell a strong nutritional story. Unfortunately, the food aid landscape is very difficult to document due to a lack of coordination. Otherwise, data would be showing the dangers of over-reliance on food aid both in terms of the quality and variety of food supplied as well as the reliability of future supplies.
The role of farmers in aligning agriculture with nutrition outcomes
Given abundant natural resources, most African countries have no excuse for not producing enough food for their citizens. Market development at local level can avert losses that are incurred by farmers who have become used to shipping all the food to urban areas where they sometimes compete for choosy buyers. With climate change exerting severe pressure on water systems, adaptive solutions are becoming more important than technical solutions. Given appropriate support on time, smallholder farmers can help in aligning agriculture with nutritional outcomes.
Also critical is the extent to which the media is willing to assist in turning data and evidence into the informative and vibrant public discourse on the consequences of ignoring nutritional issues. Without evidence from the ground, policymakers will rely on exaggerations and misinformation from sources bent on whipping up public fear, not grounded in facts. Most international agencies pushing monoculture and unsustainable contract farming arrangements are well fed but they deny a healthy diet to millions of poor people by misdirecting them to the wrong food and production systems.