'Money needs to be found': African leaders call for urgent action on nutrition

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A villager shelling beans in a village outside Lilongwe, Malawi. Photo by: Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Institute / CC BY-NC-ND

GABORONE, Botswana — When Botswana went into lockdown in April, 46-year-old Kefilwe Montsho worried about how she would be able to feed her three children. As a freelance makeup artist, her bookings were linked to events such as birthday parties and weddings.

“With the lockdown, almost all of my events were canceled and as a makeup artist you come into close contact with your clients, so I also did not want to risk [my health],” she said.

Luckily for Montsho, during the first month of the lockdown, Botswana’s government-supplied food relief baskets to vulnerable households like hers.

Five months after the lockdown, however, Montsho is still struggling to put food on the table and there is no help in sight. “There are very few events happening at the moment and it would have been helpful if there was more support from the government because things are tough,” she said.

“It is not just a health pandemic, it is a food and nutrition pandemic as well.”

— Andrew Mude, manager of the agriculture and agro-industry department, African Development Bank

In a recent position paper, African Leaders for Nutrition Initiative — an initiative by the African Development Bank and the African Union Commission — recognized that many Africans are in the same predicament. The initiative — which includes high-level “champions” such as AfDB President Dr. Akinwumi A. Adesina, former President of Ghana John Kufuor, and AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat — urged governments to step in and “ensure that financing for nutrition is included in their country’s COVID-19 response and recovery plans.”

The paper explains that the pandemic could result in job losses, higher food prices, loss of remittances, reduced purchasing power, and rationing of food and other basic goods, and will push more people into extreme poverty.

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“Unless concerted and integrated efforts within a multisectoral response plan are rapidly implemented, the pandemic will reverse vital gains made in human development and nutrition outcomes across Africa, and its ramifications will be felt for years to come,” it warns.

Dr. Margaret Agama-Anyetei, head of division for health, nutrition, and population in the social affairs department of the AU Commission, explained that the aim of the paper was to remind policymakers and governments that “money needs to be found for nutrition.”

She commended governments such as Botswana for including nutrition as part of the COVID-19 response but said the level of support varied across the continent.

Andrew Mude, manager of the agriculture and agro-industry department at AfDB, said the bank has made emergency resources available to countries but that they must choose how to prioritize their spending.

“Earlier this year the bank launched a COVID-19 response facility of about $10 billion. Much of this is going to what we call budget support, of which the countries then have to make a decision on how to deploy those resources for their national responses to COVID-19,” he said.

“In the early days the response was geared toward medical and health-related needs … but now a growing part of those resources are trying to respond to the other side of the pandemic. It is not just a health pandemic, it is a food and nutrition pandemic as well and a lot more of these resources are going toward that, but that is of course going to provide temporary relief,” Mude said.

Looking ahead, the ALN paper calls for a sound nutrition strategy and high-level political engagement to ensure that nutritious foods are made available and affordable to all.

Mude said this means governments need to put more resources into food and agricultural systems, and that there is a need to “shift the focus so that we are not looking simply at food security but at food and nutrition security and beyond that to healthy diets."

Anyetei identified staple foods as one of the areas that needs more investment.

“These are foods grown within a country and what is easily available. They need to be produced to scale and there needs to be value chains and value addition. We need to ensure that there is preservation, transportation, and good market access,” she said.

For Mude, the solution needs to go further.

“When we talk about building back better in agriculture and in food systems this comes with a fundamental recognition that nutrition and healthy diets must be at the center of any systemic response and any effort to try and transform agriculture on the continent,” he said.

“We can’t do business as usual. We recognize that we need to increase agricultural production but we have been focused mostly on starchy staples. These are important inputs but when we talk about the problems of malnutrition what we really need are more nutritious foods.”

Though the ALNI paper recommends that governments should “maintain and even increase the level of funding allocated to Nutrition and make sure there is no gap in multi-year nutrition programmes,” it also highlights an overall funding gap in the COVID-19 response. ALNI estimates that Africa needs $114 billion in 2020 to fight COVID-19. Taking into account funding from “official” and “private creditors,” it says there is a funding gap of around $44 billion.

Despite this, Anyetei believes that investing in nutrition is the smart choice and cannot wait.

“If you do not invest in nutrition it will impact on your overall GDP; it’s going to impact on your health sector through costs associated with poor nutrition, it’s going to impact on the education sector because you won’t be able to keep children in school or you will have to feed them more so the overall cost is much higher. It is much better and cheaper to invest in nutrition now,” she said.

About the author

  • Rumbi Chakamba

    Rumbi Chakamba is an Associate Editor at Devex based in Botswana, who has worked with regional and international publications including News Deeply, The Zambezian, Outriders Network, and Global Sisters Report. She holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from the University of South Africa.