[CAVIE/ACCI] Malnutrition is one of Africa’s biggest challenges today. The number of ‘undernourished’ or hungry people in Africa increased from about 182 million in the early 1990s to around 233 million in 2016 according to the FAO, and yet no African country is expected to reach the UN target of ending childhood malnutrition by 2030.
The lack of nutritious food has come at a huge cost to African nations, affecting not only their well-being but also economic progress. In fact, African nations lose between 1.9% and 16% of the gross domestic product annually to under-nutrition due to increased mortality, absenteeism, chronic illnesses, and lost productivity. Ending malnutrition and improving dietary intake could help reverse this problem, but it needs both government support and private sector investment.
I recently chatted with Lawrence Haddad, the 2018 World Food Prize winner and Executive Director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), an international organization founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that deals with the malnutrition problem in the world today. He spoke to me about the private sector’s role in combating malnutrition, the concept of nutrition as an asset class, and how GAIN is working assiduously to unlock new private investments to enable SMEs in Africa produce more affordable, nutritious foods.
There is sufficient proof that Africa’s malnutrition problem has stunted its economic growth significantly – with countries losing between 1.9% and 16% of the gross domestic product annually to under-nutrition due to increased mortality, absenteeism, chronic illnesses, and lost productivity. And yet, no African country is expected to reach the UN target of ending childhood malnutrition by 2030. Why are African nations lagging behind, and what are some practical steps the African governments can take towards ending malnutrition and improving dietary intake across the continent?
LH: Governments have competing claims on their attention and resources. The evidence that investing in nutrition has high returns is necessary but far from sufficient to spur action. The nutrition community needs to make more noise to be heard. It needs to organize around elections, organize petitions, develop social media campaigns, put pressure on elected officials, enrol celebrities, publish op-eds in newspapers etc.
The campaigns need to have clear “asks”. For example, increase coverage of nutrition programs from 20-30% to 90%; increase spending on nutrition from 0.2% of budget to 2% of budget, make specific measurable public commitments with time bound targets on nutrition outcomes, sign up to the Scaling Up Nutrition movement etc.
What is the private sector’s role in all of this, and why should they care? Also, how can blended finance play a role in improving nutrition outcomes in Africa and around the world?
LH: Poor diets are the common denominator in all forms of malnutrition. Food systems shape food choices and the private sector is the main player and investor in food systems so they have to be a part of the solution. We need to work with marketing agencies to help us devise compelling and engaging messaging around nutritious foods. We need to work with agricultural R&D firms to increase the productivity of fruits and vegetables. We need to work with haulage and coolant companies to reduce food loss during storage and transportation. We need to work with food processors to increase the healthy diet components of processed foods and reduce the unhealthy components. We need to work with food marketers to create offers to incentivise purchases of nutritious foods. We need to work with food retailers to help them purchase nutritious foods at lower cost. We need technology development throughout the value chain to lower the cost of nutritious foods. And we need governments to reward businesses for doing good things for nutritious foods and penalise them when they produce bad things for nutrition.
Businesses should care because there are market opportunities out there. They should care because their employees, customers and shareholders are beginning to care more and more. Bad publicity in this area really is damaging for a company and good publicity has a massive halo effect. There is evidence in the economics literature that companies with a “purpose” beyond profit have perform better in the stock market. Nutrition needs to be embedded in that purpose.
Tell me about the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition and what the organization is doing to influence government policy to tackle Africa’s burgeoning nutrition problem, and how do you gauge the responsiveness of African governments to this imperative issue? Furthermore, which African countries/governments seem to have made the most headway in combating this malnutrition pandemic, and which African governments are lagging behind?
LH: GAIN works to generate solutions in food systems that improve the consumption of nutritious foods. We bring governments, businesses and civil society together with evidence to design, pilot and scale sustainable solutions in the food system to make nutritious foods more available, affordable and desirable. We support governments in Africa to identify where their food system is weakest for nutrition, where their food environment could do more to incentivise businesses to do better on nutritious foods and we support businesses to be more nutrition advancing.
Ghana and Kenya have done really well to reduce stunting, Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania are building up a head of steam. In fact most countries in Africa that are not conflict affected are making progress on stunting, but none are slowing down the rise of overweight, obesity and diet related non communicable disease. This is a problem for all countries in the world.
You’ve been championing of concept of African governments looking at nutrition as an asset class. Can you tell me more about this novel idea?
LH: There are many types of asset class, for example cash, equity and commodities. It is clear that improved adult nutrition leads to improved productivity, wages and cash, cash which is likely to be invested in local businesses and therefore generate multipliers in the economy. Nutrition is also a form of collateral in that investing in it when someone is young is a down payment on their cognitive capacity that will realise a high return over a 20-30 year period. And as a commodity, the demand for nutritious food is going to grow as incomes rise and healthy foods become more aspirational, driven by social media — and increasing demand stimulates opportunities for businesses.
Your organization is hosting the first ever Nutrition Africa Investment Forum in Nairobi in October. What does the forum hope to accomplish?
LH: GAIN is hosting this first of kind forum with our partner DSM as we both passionately believe that supporting business in Africa to scale up their investments in nutrition is critical making progress against malnutrition. As GAIN, we work with over a thousand food companies in Africa – and the number one barrier entrepreneurs, and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) face across the food value chain is access to finance. Our forum will bring 50 fast growing SMEs at the cutting edge of nutrition to meet with a diverse set of investors and open up deals which will to ensure more of Africa’s consumers get access to more nutritious foods. Many SMEs are the ‘missing middle’, too big for microfinance, too small for commercial support – so our forum will challenge impact investors, venture funds, banks and development partners to innovate in the ways they finance SMEs, position nutrition as a new investable asset class and put nutritious foods well and truly on the table.
Interview conducted by Mfonobong Nsehe