How might leadership on food systems in Africa deliver better for nutrition?


Might a bird’s eye view of investments in agri-food systems in Africa alarm or excite us, as we consider the findings of the EAT-Lancet Commission? Is the future food supply in Africa sufficiently incentivised to transition to meet future demand for healthier diets? The honest answer to the first question is that ‘we don’t know what this looks like, and almost certainly it would alarm us’, and for the second question ‘no, incentives are insufficient’. So, what to do?

In January 2019, the EAT-Lancet Commission set out a global diet that might help safeguard the health of the planet and humans. Put simply, typical diets should include more vegetables and fruit and pulses, less meat and dairy. Advocacy based on this bold analysis could trigger momentum for a change in mindset among leaders and influencers across the world to reach the start-line for a #GreatFoodTransformation marathon race. But forging a new #GreatFoodTransformation such that the behaviours and decisions change for billions of consumers and businesses, is one of the world’s most ambitious global shifts yet (rivalling action on limiting climate change). A recent blog outlined some approaches for systemic and enduring change at multiple levels.

Shifting diet patterns is a complex issue, and the questions for many of us might be: what can I do as an individual change-leader? What might my organisation contribute?

My lens at present is on supporting Africa’s food systems, including continental partnerships on agricultural transformation and I have a longstanding interest in nutrition. While overconsumption of meat is less of a problem for diets at present in Africa than in the western world, the pressures of population growth and an increasingly rich (meat and dairy heavy) diet in future, is projected to take a huge toll on both the environment and human health in the decades to come, unless they evolve in a more positive direction. The scale of the change is daunting and there is need to turn a lose-lose into a win-win.

Thankfully, given the scale of the challenge, there is good news out there.  For instance, system-wide understanding of the need to increase focus on ‘diet and food systems’ is starting to draw together actors as diverse as environmental groups, agricultural transformation agencies, philanthropic organisations, businesses and governments into new combinations of partnerships to consider and act on this collective challenge. Individually, some investing institutions are considering adding a ‘nutritious food lens’ to their strategies. Further, a recent decision by the African Union (AU) to place environmental issues, together with food security and agriculture, in one directorate of the AU Commission for the first time is a positive step when it comes to devising strategy for the continent, that combines protecting the environment and promoting human development.

There is a broader point to make about the context for investing and partnership development: Africa is firmly in charge of its own destiny and some of Africa’s leaders have increasing appetite to take the tough but necessary decisions to shape a positive future. With such a big food transformation required, outside stakeholders must build on what Africa is wishing to do rather than create their own initiatives to which Africa can conform.

In particular, Africa has a ground-breaking continent-wide performance assessment system that covers agricultural transformation and poverty reduction (including ending hunger, undernutrition and providing social welfare) that could potentially accommodate the desired dietary transformation referred to above. The Africa Agriculture Transformation Scorecard, or oft-called ‘Biennial Review’ as it happens every two years, was launched in January 2018 and will continue until 2025. African countries will submit data in 2019 for results to be provided to Africa’s 55 Heads of State and Governments at the African Union Summit in January 2020. The purpose is to help countries understand their progress towards the targets in the 2014 Malabo Declaration and adjust what they do to accelerate their efforts. Managed as an AU initiative, it serves as the preeminent moment for Heads of State to consider their country’s performance, and through peer review the performance of each other (see: how exciting can an African Union Biennial Review really be?). While crowded with more than 40 performance indicators, it offers an effective accountability framework and practical reporting mechanism that could evolve to take on board more fully the environmental and nutrient requirements of food systems in Africa linked to healthy diets. However, it requires at least two things to work:
i) an organised set of high champions making the Biennial Review a priority for leaders on the continent and
ii) interest to make ‘transformation in diets’ a priority must come from a sufficient number of member states for change to happen.

There is also less good news. Most investing institutions do not actively focus on boosting nutritious foods. Further, the policy environment provides little incentive to do so. It appears that environmental concerns that relate to agriculture in Africa that are sponsored by major institutions (e.g. those behind the Africa Climate Smart Agriculture Summit, May 2018) appear only loosely connected to efforts by the major institutions sponsoring agricultural transformation in Africa (e.g. those at the AGRF 2018 in Kigali) which are in turn focused on how partnerships, investment and technology can deliver economic growth, jobs (especially for youth), and poverty reduction. This seeming disconnect between environment and human development could be better allied if ‘nutritious and sustainable diets’ becomes a priority for major institutions and research and policy-based partnerships.

Could the continent’s leaders draw together issues of environmental sustainability and food systems using diet as a common aim? Might UN agencies, agriculture transformation agencies, and philanthropic leaders engage better together and find the means to coherently support the continent’s institutions to take a coherent view on food systems, the environment and people’s health? Could a new leadership group comprising African Heads of State and Governments help bring about such a change? I believe it could. Joined up philanthropy can help these connections come about. It is encouraging there are movements afoot with champions for Africa’s agricultural transformation, though there is some way to go for diets to also be a core focus.

While leadership is important at continental level, what are some of the key aspects that need attention at country level to stimulate food systems that deliver nutritious foods in abundance for people to eat healthy diets?

To begin with, elevating a collective understanding of current and future investments in the agri-food system in Africa is important. How can they engage better to shape food systems that deliver sufficient nutritious foods from among a diverse landscape of investors? From a common understanding of the challenge, ways forward can be found to build commitment to shift the agri-food investment arena to realise the desired availability of nutritious foods in the years ahead while also providing the necessary financial returns.

A strategic dialogue among investors and those supporting them, and convened by the right party(ies), could also help overcome part of the ‘missing middle’ so-called because only a few investment houses provide enduring and high-quality technical advisory and funds that help move agribusiness SMEs from embryo form to genuinely investible entities. We can change the investing ecosystem so that more public and private investments offer support to SMEs of a kind that is necessary to assist the thousands of budding agri-food entrepreneurs and SMEs across Africa (see Generation Africa), that could deliver transformative volumes and seasonal regularity of nutritious foods to the market for consumers.

I see three complementary ways to encourage a more positive pattern of behaviours and activities.

  • First, plan and manage for a nutritious food system: One place to start is to build an understanding of national planning on agriculture and investment. Link to this some technical modelling and planning work to identify what are the food groups necessary, and broadly what quantities for a nationally relevant nutritious diet(s) for a national population in the years ahead given demographic projections. It also involves deciding what is feasible in terms of potential domestic supply and considering how to shape public investments and incentives for farmers, agri-businesses and investors; these are needed to create the changes necessary for a much greater volume and season to season availability of nutritious foods (recognising imports play a part).

Nutritious foods must be priced by the market much more cheaply than at present, with a desirable balance of fruits, vegetables, pulses, diary, protein sources and whole grains. The requirement to bring the prices down for nutritious foods and make them available through the year is an important potential common aim, to be achieved in part by a population busting increase in supply.


Specifically, National Agriculture Investment Plans (NAIPs) in Africa should consider their role more purposefully as vehicles to cultivate a food system that delivers good nutrition to national populations. Many NAIPs are being drawn up and finalised in 2019 throughout Africa and goals for food system transformation could be set within them for an accelerated transition on nutritious foods through 2025, 2030, 2035 and 2040.

  • Secondly, beyond NAIPs, facilitate sector-wide common interest, a framework and incentives for investors to support businesses that produce nutritious foods in countries: In African countries, an organisation capable of convening others can build collective ownership for an agenda in favour of nutritious food systems. This would involve a ‘stock-take’ of investments within countries, to understand whether investors are creating a future food supply of highly nutritious foods, capable of meeting future national demand. The analysis would comprise investments from the major sources of finance including private sources, bilateral aid donors, and social impact investors can inform projections, of the likely volumes of food categories likely to be produced in the years ahead. Barriers specific to investing in nutritious foods need to be understood and addressed using public policy and financial incentives, as well as other important barriers prohibiting investors and the agri-business sector.
  • Third, shape consumer demand through collaborative coalitions and an enabling environment from the Government: Perhaps, most importantly is the need to put greater emphasis on empowering and influencing consumers about what is in their own interests as regards changing their diet. The EAT-Lancet Commission says: “Within boundaries of food production, the reference diet can be adapted to make meals that are consistent with food cultures and cuisines of all regions of the world”. The real world may prove more complex. The latest in social and behaviour change techniques alongside multi-stakeholder coalitions will be essential to shift social norms, particularly within growing urban areas. Beyond this, government policy levers including taxation, methods to encourage transparency, modern means to encourage public health nudges with social media, amongst others may help shift the demand curve, as nutritious foods become cheaper and socially desirable.

A new Great Food Transformation must be grounded in collaborative partnerships, a framework for collective action across multiple levels, measurements for understanding success and resources from governments and philanthropy. With the climate, nature and obesity clocks ticking towards damaging and reinforcing conclusions, now is the time to accelerate efforts!