Malnutrition — it's the economy, stupid!

African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina. Photo by: AfDB

Nutrition was on the agenda, and there wasn’t a finance minister in sight. Meeting at the tail end of the World Bank’s spring meetings Sunday, big names including Bill Gates and the newly appointed CEO of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation Kate Hampton had gathered to champion nutrition as “the foundation of development.” But when moderator Femi Oke asked any finance ministers present to raise their hands, attendees looked around expectantly — to no avail.

The dearth of finance ministers in the discussion about agriculture and nutrition is a central challenge for another panelist, Akinwumi Adesina, who assumed the presidency of the African Development Bank last year. Adesina, a former minister of agriculture in Nigeria, says he wants to shift the conversation about nutrition from one of social service to one of economic necessity.

Malnutrition contributes to 45 percent of all deaths of children under 5, according to a report produced in advance of the discussion. An estimated $7 billion per year in additional funding will be required for the next 10 years to meet global nutrition goals endorsed by member states of the World Health Assembly. Yet the sector receives underwhelming attention in developing country health budgets and less than 1 percent of official development assistance.

The last year has seen some new momentum. In June, for example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged nearly $800 million to prevent stunting, low birth weight, anemia, and other conditions that plague malnourished mothers and their children, impeding their development.

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Adesina wants to see more, and he’s pushing leaders on the continent to think big. Speaking to Devex, he offered a glimpse into efforts emerging on the continent to “raise the game” in the fight against malnutrition.

Here’s an excerpt of our conversation with Adesina:

You mentioned some new initiatives — African Leaders for Nutrition and a new financing facility for women’s economic empowerment. Can you share any more details about those?

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It’s not acceptable to me that Africa is losing 11 percent of its [gross domestic product] because of malnutrution, and also that we have 58 million kids who are stunted. That is the future of Africa being wasted right there. So it’s very important for us in Africa to take decisive action to end it, because it has significant implications for the future workforce in Africa. And as you move into the knowledge economy, you can repair a bridge, you can repair a road, you can repair a port. You can’t repair a brain. This is very critical. So that’s why we are working together to launch the African Leaders for Nutrition. It will be heads of state. It will be a lot of CEO leaders. Myself, I will be there. And it’s to create big political momentum around ending malnutrition and stunting in Africa.

Why do you think there’s been a lack of accountability on this issue? It seems like such a basic human right.

It is basic but it’s not seen. You see a bridge, you see a road, you see a port, but you don’t see brain cells. Therefore, it doesn’t get the kind of attention that it should. You see a child — the child is playing on the playground. But that child is too short for their age. They are stunted. Their brain is gone. You only feel the impact in the future. So we want to take it to what I call ‘grey matter infrastructure.’ In the same way in which we invest in infrastructure for growth, I want us to invest in grey matter infrastructure for Africans. We’re going to raise the game on this.

You also described a new financing mechanism specifically targeted toward women. Can you tell us more about that — how it came about and what you hope it will achieve?

As soon as I became president of the bank, within two weeks I called for a high-level meeting of all ministers of finance, ministers of agriculture and central bank governors in Africa in Dakar — it was called Dakar high-level meeting on agriculture and financing — to get the ministers of finance to understand that when it comes to the issue of agriculture, it’s not a social sector. It is central to how you have macroeconomic and fiscal stability of countries. You cannot achieve that unless you have a way of financing women, who form the majority of the agricultural sector.

“You see a bridge, you see a road, you see a port, but you don’t see brain cells.”

— Adesina on why malnutrition does not get attention

The problem is women don’t have access to financing. At the same time, if you look at the repayment rate on loans that women get, they have 98 percent repayment. And perhaps the remaining 2 percent is the men who don’t let them pay … So the women are an almost risk-free group to lend to. The African Development Bank is putting up a financing facility that will allow us to leverage up to $3 billion specifically for women entrepreneurs and small-scale businesses in Africa. I am fully convinced that women are bankable, and this will unleash a tremendous amount of economic opportunity for inclusive growth in Africa.

How do you get finance ministers into this event next year? How do you get them to attend?

Actually change people’s mindsets. What happens is that when people talk about nutrition, they make it an issue for a minister of health or minister of agriculture. No, it’s about the economy. It’s not about those sectors. That’s what we are going to have to change.

Power of 5 is a global campaign in partnership with Amway, focused on raising awareness of the issue of childhood malnutrition, and the critical role nutrition plays in early childhood development. Learn more about the work of our partner and its micronutrient powder Nutrilite Little Bits here and join the conversation online using #powerof5.

About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.

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