06 Jan 2021

Why 2021 must be the nutrition year of action in Africa

Dr Renata Micha Chair of the Global Nutrition Report's Independent Expert Group and Associate Professor in Human Nutrition at the University of Thessaly, Greece

Image by UN Women/Ryan Brown

Tackling poor diets and malnutrition in all its forms

Africa is facing an increasingly complex range of interconnected challenges, impacting food and health systems and hindering progress made in fighting all forms of malnutrition.

Covid-19 and climate change continue to stress global food systems, disrupting food production and supply chains, tipping millions more people into hunger in Africa and globally. Health systems are also under pressure, with concerns that nutrition may be further de-prioritised on the health agenda when it's evident that nutrition is central to building resilience. Without urgent action, the number of people suffering from hunger and all forms of malnutrition will continue to rise in 2021, with the poorest and most vulnerable being disproportionately affected.

Despite these challenges, 2021 offers a unique opportunity for governments, businesses, and civil society in Africa to scale up efforts to ensure access to healthy diets for all and tackle malnutrition in all its forms.

Poor diets and malnutrition continue to affect Africa's potential

Improving the continent's nutrition starts with taking stock of the latest data. The Global Nutrition Report's Country Nutrition Profiles show that Africa has made progress towards reducing undernutrition, notably under-5 stunting, and adolescent and adult underweight. Kenya, for example, is one of seven countries globally that is on course to meet four of the maternal, infant and young child nutrition targets set out by the World Health Assembly.

However, progress to address malnutrition in Africa remains uneven. The continent's socio-economic development, for example, is bringing about changes in diet. Food systems are enabling an increase in the consumption of harmful products that are cheap and intensively marketed, such as processed meats and sugar-sweetened drinks. Countries are now facing the double burden of malnutrition, where undernutrition coexists with diet-related chronic diseases. Obesity is on the rise, particularly among adult women (18.8% in Africa compared to 15.1% globally), but also among men (7.8% against 11.1% globally).

Good nutrition is a cornerstone of health and development and is related to improved child and maternal health, stronger immune systems, lower risk of non-communicable diseases, longevity, and higher productivity, amongst other benefits. Nutrition is key to enabling individuals, communities and countries to thrive and must be at the forefront of Africa's sustainable development agenda.

2021 must be the nutrition year of action, and some African countries are showing that change is achievable

It is unacceptable that still, nearly 800 million people globally are hungry or undernourished, while 2 billion adults are overweight or obese. It is vital that policymakers, businesses, donors, and civil society prioritise and invest in nutrition, allowing it to fulfil its role in boosting population resilience, economies and societies.

2021 presents unprecedented opportunities for action and must be a turning point. Leaders are due to formulate commitments around several interconnected issues at global events including the UN Food Systems Summit and the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth (N4G) Summit. As commitments made in previous N4G summits draw to a close, the next event, hosted by the Government of Japan, will be a moment for key actors to make pledges to drive action towards improving nutrition. The Global Nutrition Report's Nutrition for Growth Commitment Tracker, which provides the latest data on commitments and progress made by stakeholders, will serve as an important accountability tool in the run-up to and following the event.

Many African countries and organisations are already leading the way. Senegal and Nigeria made bold financial and policy commitments at the recent Nutrition for Growth Year of Action launch event. In addition, Burundi recently launched its second generation Multi-sectoral Strategic Plan for Food Security and Nutrition and Nigeria has approved a five-year nutrition action plan.

We are also seeing innovations led by civil society to address malnutrition and food insecurity across Africa, and a growing youth movement such as the Youth Leaders for Nutrition that are helping to transform food systems in Africa and globally.

Food and nutrition must be integrated into our response to global challenges

2020 was a challenging year for global health and nutrition. Stakeholders must now capitalise on the opportunity to shift the dial on nutrition. We must build on progress made and ensure universal access to healthy affordable food and quality nutrition care.

Tackling poor diets and malnutrition is a complex issue that requires a multi-sectoral, multi-level approach. We know that food and nutrition play a central role in fuelling Africa's socio-economic growth. It is time now for stakeholders to work together to shape ambitious nutrition goals and commitments to support Africa's development and safeguard its future.

Renata Micha is Chair of the Independent Expert Group of the Global Nutrition Report and Associate Professor in Human Nutrition at the University of Thessaly, Greece. This blog was originally published as an op-ed in All Africa.

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