Where are Africa’s Farming Superheroes? A Look at African Child Malnutrition

My first article on Nutrition Wonderland focused on the food crisis in East and Sub Saharan Africa and how the use of better agro technology and programming could enhance regional food production, through programs like the Backpack Farm Initiative I’m involved with. As this series expands, I want to shift your perceptions of a food crisis away from the image of the starving child to that of new opportunities crucial in changing the way we respond specifically to childhood malnutrition.

Inside the Numbers of Malnutrition

Living in Kenya, I have become numb, maybe even blind to the incredible malnutrition statistics you probably hear all the time, even though I see real life examples walking through the streets of Nairobi every day. Unfortunately, these figures are a reality; they are a legitimate part of the story of Africa’s food insecurity and humanitarian crisis, as is the role of the international community and food aid.

The face of malnutrition, for better or worse - image credit, MSF (Doctors Without Borders)

Young children, like the ones I often see in Kenya, need a broad array of nutrients – 40 in all – to maintain normal health and grow into adults. Without them, children become malnourished, a condition the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates includes 178 million children worldwide, five million of whom will succumb to malnutrition.

I'm even in Africa!

I'm Even in Africa!

According to UN data, some 24 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and parts of Uganda now need food aid and other humanitarian assistance, up from 20 million earlier in 2009. This does not include the humanitarian crisis in Darfur or Southern Sudan where 1/3 of the population is starving.

Since May 2009, the number of young children in need of emergency assistance in the Horn of Africa has increased by nearly one million – an increase of nearly 25%. According to Save the Children, who primarily works in a rural population heavily dependent on relief food, many children are eating only one meal a day – usually of corn porridge. This poor diet does not provide them all of those 40 vital nutrients they need to grow. Their brains and bodies then suffer permanent damage creating new cycles of poverty and economic stagnation in future generations.

“Children are on the brink of death… The numbers of malnourished children coming to our feeding centers is going up and up and we expect it to get worse,” Catherine Fitzgibbon, Save the Children’s deputy director in Kenya.

Funding Meals, Depends on Who You Talk With

Despite increasing humanitarian needs in the Horn of Africa, aid agencies like UNICEF and World Food Program (WFP) are faced with funding shortages. By the end of September, UNICEF had only received a third of the $189 million to support its emergency operations to support six countries of East Africa.

World Food Programme, a major player in this world

WFP says funding shortages continue to affect aid flights to Africa and price speculation in the cereals markets impact their ability to buy adequate grain supplies. Within 7 days in Kenya last fall, the price for a metric ton of white maize skyrocketed from $258 USD to $310 USD and the price is then reach $334 by December.

Even if we weren’t seeing a lack of funding or rising prices, cash aid does not necessarily translate into nutrition. Not everyone agrees on what we are paying for. Food aid should include foodstuffs fortified with micronutrients and animal protein but does not always get delivered that way. Between 2004 and 2007, only 1.7% of interventions reported as ‘development food aid/food security’ and ‘emergency food aid’ that actually addressed nutrition needs.

Another organization, the London-based think-tank International Policy Network understands these issues well and delivers a slightly different viewpoint. They feel that the “real causes of hunger and food insecurity are not even on the agenda” and cite restrictions on trade between countries as a factor undermining agricultural investments, especially in the commercial sector.

Trade subsidies as well as wealthy nations’ purchasing quotas to boost their own farmers are also often cited as factors frustrating efforts to fight hunger in the developing world. No one should expect food aid to tackle these thorny policy issues but the development of strategic policies attracting agriculture investment that also addresses malnutrition should be looked into.

And one more data point for you to consider: a recent MSF report points out that the level of child and maternal under-nutrition “remains unacceptable” throughout the world; 90 percent of the developing world’s chronically undernourished or stunted children live in Asia and Africa.

View the MSF report:

When asked about aid in general, MSF said the following:

“The emphasis is more on quantity rather than quality, and rarely does the food aid target the most vulnerable groups: children under five, pregnant women and lactating mothers,” says Stéphane Doyon, of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) aka Doctors Without Borders.

This is a situation I know we can improve upon.

A Shift in Thinking

One of these new ways in the aid world is fostering cooperation with the commercial sector to incubate investment in new food production. In November 2009, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced a deal with the Islamic Development Bank for $1 billion in funding to help develop agriculture in poor countries that belong to both organizations. Unfortunately, this program will not offset the $44 billion needed to fund emergency relief programs which commercial programs do not impact – but it’s a start.

Even with tremendous contributions like that from the Islamic Development Bank, real questions remain. Knowing that cash does not always result in supplying quality, “nutritious” food aid and there isn’t even enough cash to feed everyone, then how do we make a substantial impact on East Africa’s food insecurity and malnutrition?

The Answer: Africa’s Farming Superheroes

With an estimated 80-100 million rural farmers in East Africa, I believe implementing practical and sustainable rural farming schemes should be an urgent point of discussion with key stakeholders in the UN, NGO, governments, commercial development corporations and the commercial finance sector. These sentiments have recently been mirrored by organizations such as AGRA, Bill & Linda Gates Foundation, FAO, IFAD and many others. Of course, implementing these commitments remains challenging.

The Tools for African Farming are in the Backpack Farm Bag

While policy can have a positive influence, the international community needs to support practical production schemes as the first step on a long road to establishing sustainable food security in East Africa, Sub Saharan Africa as well countries plagued with conflict like Afghanistan and Pakistan. While I and others believe commercial development schemes offer practical solutions, the ethics of such programs must also be developed. Standards must encompasses more than just new production quotas or we will accomplish little more than new neo-colonial development schemes which lease large tracks of Africa’s land producing export crops with little if any benefit to the food and nutritional needs of Africa’s neediest communities.

I will continue to advocate for developing socially responsible, sustainable, and commercial food production models like the Backpack Farm Agriculture Program. This month, my team published the results of an independent impact study documenting the production rates of 8 regional food crops on 12 acres (5 HA) of the BPF production scheme. We can now mimic commercial rates of food production with a rural smallholder farmer. Now we need to focus on documenting social impact and development of new value chains designed to feed a country and not just a village. We hope to translate this impact to the UN, NGO and commercial farming community proving that sustainable food production can be accomplished through strategic commercial partnerships.

Obviously there is not one single, simple answer to Africa’s food crisis but more than dialogue must be initiated. The commercial sector has the capacity to leverage socially responsible agriculture production schemes which directly impact the poor. We must be creative and support social entrepreneurs who are looking beyond profitability to what the poorest consumers in the world really need and how they will also contribute to help feed not only themselves but the world.

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