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Assuring food and nutrition security in Africa: putting the pillars in place

Will children want to stay in agriculture?
Will children want to stay in agriculture?

Our young have become 'agrophobic' lamented a keynote speaker from Malawi at the international conference on 'Assuring Food and Nutrition Security in Africa by 2020', which was held in Uganda from 1-3 April. "Those without literacy and numeracy cannot be relied upon to modernise African agriculture," stated President Museveni of Uganda. "But when we encourage our children to get education, the result is that they leave the land." How can agriculture, the backbone of African development, be made attractive to the next generation? It was just one of several urgent challenges that African policy-makers and civil society leaders gathered to address in Kampala.

"Food production in Africa has been left to the peasants," continued President Museveni in his opening address. "They have done their part to feed us under the most difficult of circumstances." But while the Millennium Development Goals have set a target of halving the number of hungry people by the year 2015, hunger and malnutrition continue to plague many millions of people across Africa and the situation across the continent is continuing to worsen. One in three people are undernourished in the region. And, in those countries experiencing or recently involved in armed conflict, one in every two people does not receive enough nourishing food. The impact of this terrible situation is that 200 million people in Africa are undernourished and more than a third of the continent's children suffer from a range of mental and physical health problems. These are the adults of tomorrow and, with or without a future in agriculture, the situation should not be allowed to continue - let alone get worse, as current statistics predict they will. Isatou Jallow, Chief Executive Director of the National Nutrition Agency of The Gambia pointed out that Africa suffers from a vicious cycle of malnutrition but with direct and urgent interventions, it can be broken.

But combating hunger and malnutrition is only half of the battle. The biggest challenge that Africa has yet to face, as Alan Whiteside of HEARD* stressed in his hard-hitting keynote address, is the tragedy of HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that 27 million African people are currently infected with HIV. In Southern African, adult prevalence rates are over 35% - the highest in the world. A recent survey of 700 households affected by HIV/AIDS in South Africa found that almost a quarter of all children under 15 had already lost at least one parent. And by 2010, UNICEF estimates that 20 million children across Africa will have lost one or both parents to the disease. These are the children who will have been psychologically scarred by caring for their dying parents, who will be living in children-headed households and barely able to feed themselves. What are the food and nutrition prospects for these children and is it really feasible to believe that food and nutrition security can be assured by the 2020 vision date set by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)? Because, for example, as Alan Whiteside queried, "How does agriculture work when life expectancy in Botswana is only 37 years?"

Mothers prepare weaning food in maternal health centre, Malawi
Mothers prepare weaning food in maternal health centre, Malawi

The answer is hard to second guess. But, if one wanted a safe bet, then it would be more likely, that assuring nutrition as well as food security in the next fifteen years across Africa is just not possible. If agriculture is to provide the foundations of African development, building capacity, improving markets, strengthening governments and improving access to health are also key cornerstones which need to be laid. There is no longer time to mull over figures of HIV prevalence rates, the number of malnourished, and the exorbitant subsidies provided in the West. The facts are well known, promises have been made and the time has come, as Dr J. J Otim of the Advisory Committee for the Conference emphasised, to "move from rhetoric to action."

African leaders have hailed the formation of the African Union and NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development) as means for moving forward. "The solutions to our agricultural and food crises are within our reach," said President Obasanjo of Nigeria. "However, we must first put our own house in order." Critics question what will be achieved through these African-led initiatives but combined political will is the only way that progress will be made. "African leaders clearly have different perspectives but Africa is diverse and it needs different strategic orientations which, with a lot of learning from each other and comparing notes on the way forward, will work together towards a solution to the hunger problem," says Joachim von Braun, Director-General of IFPRI.

The outcomes of the next round of talks and the action to be taken will become clear after the next African Union Summit to be held in Addis Ababa in July, which is to address hunger. But, as delegates were consistently reminded throughout the three-day conference in Kampala and Isatou Jallow summed up, "We have to focus on ensuring that all the components of nutrition security (health, education, sanitation, infrastructure) are met in order to make the full use of people's capacity to produce food." All these components need to be put in place if peace and prosperity are ever to be achieved in Africa, let alone by 2020.

*HEARD - Health, Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division, South Africa
Note: Assisted by an Advisory Committee of distinguished Africans, this Pan-African conference on food and nutrition security was the latest in a series of events organized by IFPRI as part of their 2020 Vision for Food, Agriculture and the Environment Initiative

Date published: May 2004

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