By Alice Marks, Agriculture for Impact, Imperial College London
As we celebrate Africa Day 2016, it’s time to reflect on the state of nutrition in Africa and the weighty effect malnutrition has on the continent’s ability to prosper. Progress has been made over the past decades, for example through the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), to reduce extreme hunger and starvation. However, it is the quality of food that people consume and a lack of variety that is of increasing concern. A few weeks ago, Roger Thurow, a Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, released a new book, The First 1,000 Days: A Crucial Time for Mothers and Children—And the World. The book lays out that nutrition, or lack thereof, in the first 1,000 days of life – from conception to the age of two – has a profound and lasting influence on a child’s ability to grow, learn, develop and work.
Stunting is a measurable impact of malnutrition, but the height of a child doesn’t tell the full story. The development of the child’s brain is also affected, so stunted children are more likely to fall behind in school, fail to achieve decent incomes, and perpetuate the cycle of poverty for the next generation. The cumulative effect of widespread malnutrition in a group of people can therefore directly impact, and limit, a society’s ability to develop and prosper. Thurow’s book highlights Uganda in particular, where half of women of childbearing age are anaemic and about 35% of children suffer stunting due to malnourishment. Indeed, a staggering 40% of all under-five deaths in Uganda are caused by malnutrition. Tragically, Uganda is not an isolated case in sub-Saharan Africa, where 40% of all children under the age of five are stunted.
Malnutrition: a gender issue
Globally, 60% of malnourished people are female, yet women have a particularly important role to play in building a nutrition-driven food system. This is because of their central roles in agricultural production, as buyers or consumers, and often as primary caregivers for children. However, women may be limited in their ability to carry out these roles consistently or properly, because they are more vulnerable to shocks such food price volatility, climate change, and natural disasters than their male counterparts. The reasons are complex, but in general boil down to a lack of access to resources.
Lack of access to resources is a grave problem for female farmers. Women make up around 50% of the agricultural workforce in sub-Saharan Africa, and in some countries almost 60%, according to the ASFG. Despite this, gender-specific constraints, such as lack of access to inputs or land rights, result in them producing up to 25% less than their male counterparts. If women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20–30% and raise total agricultural output by 2.5–4%. This could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100 – 150 million people, improving food security and potentially reducing malnutrition, because women often grow a variety of crops for household consumption.
Empowered and educated women will drive change
Studies show that nearly half of the reduction in hunger that occurred in developing countries between 1970 and 1995 can be correlated with increases in women’s education. Better educated women tend to make smarter choices to ensure nutrition, such as which varieties they should buy or grow for household consumption. Indeed, studies show that when women are well-informed about the nutritional qualities of different varieties, they will select the most vitamin-rich and nutritious option if they can. Furthermore, biofortified crops such as HarvestPlus’ high iron beans in Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo are shown to be effective in improving the nutrition of those who grow and eat them, demonstrating that interventions that facilitate access and information about nutritious food are effective.
A recent report by the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, Empowering women and Girls to Improve Nutrition, highlights that when women’s incomes rise they will invest more in their family through better education, health and nutrition, which can lead to long-term economic growth. The report includes some inspiring success stories, and makes a strong case that in order to eradicate malnutrition women’s rights and empowerment must be at the forefront of progressive policies.
If Africa is to escape the self-perpetuating cycle of poverty and malnutrition, African women need to be involved in the process. With policies that protect women’s rights, ensure access to resources, guarantee good and equal education and, crucially, include them in decision-making at all levels, women can and will break the chain. If such policies can be implemented, Africa Days in the years to come will have ever more reason to celebrate.