Africa has made great progress in the fight against malnutrition. Between 2000 and 2016 Senegal, Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Togo, Cameroon and Angola reduced undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality by up to 56%.
As a result of these countries’ efforts, the proportion of hungry people on the continent dropped from 27% to 20% between 1990 and 2015.
The benefits of improved nutrition are widely known and appreciated. Improved nutrition increases the incomes of households. This in turn raises the demand for food, enriches livelihoods and leads to more employment opportunities.
Many past initiatives to produce more food in Africa and combat malnutrition have focused on increasing the availability of staple foods like maize, rice, wheat or cassava.
But too little attention has been paid to diversifying diets and on how policymakers can ensure that low-income households can access the variety of foods they need to be healthy.
It’s clear from food policy research that the continent needs to learn from past mistakes across the world. There have been a variety of approaches to tackle malnutrition.
In the last decade more, attention has been paid to how to promote nutrition-sensitive agriculture. This puts nutritionally rich foods and dietary diversity at the heart of fighting malnutrition. But there is a lack of agreement about the best way to do this at scale and in ways that drive widespread economic development.
Governments and policymakers face two problems. Firstly, they are trapped in a short-term mode of planning. This neglects long-term development objectives that ensure sustainable growth in household incomes and a steady improvement in the overall availability of food.
The challenge is that nutrition programmes are hard to design.
Some nutrition-specific interventions have worked in reducing malnutrition. Examples are supplementation, complementary feeding for children and food parcels. Complimentary baby foods have provided essential nourishment for children between the ages of six months and two years old and has been shown to save lives and reduce stunting.
But to make even more progress in fighting malnutrition, policymakers need to be smarter and sharper with nutrition-sensitive planning. For example, by anticipating that the demand for nutritious foods will increase if incomes increase, should help with the plans to meet this demand through programme development and intelligent investment.
If African food policy only focuses on supplying cheap starches then the demand for nutritious foods will exceed the supply. The prices of these nutritious foods could be pushed beyond the reach of those the policy was designed to help.
One solution is to invest in value chains that meet multiple development objectives: ones that increase employment, improves incomes and makes more nutritious food available. The aquaculture industry is a good example as is diary, fruit and vegetables.