Africa’s Year of Nutrition: Time for paper tigers to start biting

This weekend, during their General Assembly, the African Union (AU) will declare 2022 the African Year of Nutrition. This attention is very much welcome as it presents an opportunity to link the African objectives of ending hunger and of promoting sustainable agricultural transformation on the continent. Progress towards those objectives has been slowing down. It is clear by now that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the impact of pre-existing drivers of food insecurity, such as climate change and violent conflict.

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      Ending hunger: A hard nut to crack

      Instead of focusing solely on nutrition or productivity increase, African policymakers need to use a strategy anchored in food systems thinking. This will help make efforts to end hunger more effective, coherent and integrated. Food systems are strongly related to nutrition outcomes, but also to formal and informal employment in the food economy. Moreover, they bring in foreign exchange revenues and both influence and suffer from climate change and biodiversity loss. For policies and investments to have positive impact, feedback loops and trade-offs between different food system outcomes and drivers need to be taken on board. As if this was an easy task, policymakers also need to do justice to the vastly differing challenges nutrition faces on the continent and navigate the different interests and agendas.

      The African Union needs to integrate a food systems approach

      One of the most important AU frameworks to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty is the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). It is comprehensive indeed, and comes quite close to a ‘food systems approach’, covering not only nutrition and productivity, but also trade, investments, resilience, and other elements. It is ironic then, that CAADP is not mentioned in the call for papers the AU put out to commemorate this Year of Nutrition. It shows the slow uptake of the AU in effectively integrating a food systems approach.

      In 2021 the UN organised the first Food Systems Summit to explore solutions that connect social, economic and environmental challenges afflicting food systems. Multi-stakeholder Summit Dialogues at national level were a novel way to co-create ’game-changing solutions’. These solutions now need to be implemented through National Pathways. The ways challenges related to agriculture, nutrition, environment, poverty and climate were discussed and linked, were similar to the formulation of National Agricultural Investment Plans (NAIPs). Multi-stakeholder dialogues were at the heart of this conversion of the CAADP at national level. There is a lot of potential for the National Food System Pathways to synergize with the NAIP processes at country level.

      AU’s main strategy to agricultural development and nutrition risks remaining a paper tiger

      The impact of the CAADP in achieving the 2025 Malabo targets, which includes ending hunger, halving poverty and enhancing resilience of livelihoods and production systems, is disappointing. Despite continuing efforts to support countries with interactive toolkits and research, very few countries are expected to be on track to achieving their targets. Two reports, the Biennial Review Report and the Africa Agriculture Transformation Scorecard, were intended to exert peer pressure on heads of state into upping their performance, but this hasn’t seemed to work.

      Insiders find that the disconnect between technical and political processes prevents policymakers and politicians from picking up the valuable recommendations coming out of the Biennial Review processes. Policymakers need actionable recommendations, and despite their strong evidence-base, the National Agricultural Investment Plans and Nutrition Action Plans risk remaining paper tigers, disconnected from the political reality of conflicting values, interests and agendas.

      Linking the broad and the specific: Food systems approach and the Problem-Driven-Iterative-Adaptation framework

      So, while the need for a food systems approach is clear, how to put it in practice is not. Such systemic approaches run the risk of wanting to tackle everything simultaneously, across the board, but end up accomplishing very little. How to keep the benefits of integrated thinking without falling in the trap of overstretched and ineffective broadness?

      It would be worthwhile to link food systems approaches to core elements of the so-called Problem-Driven-Iterative-Adaptation (PDIA). The central premise of the PDIA framework is that any intervention should be based on a deep contextual understanding of the way in which existing systems function and a diagnosis of very specific and actionable problems. Food systems approaches can help sharpen this diagnosis and ensure that no important aspects are overlooked. What needs to be avoided, however, is defining the absence of food systems approaches as the problem. The National Pathways should keep their eyes on the ball – how food systems approaches can support addressing locally-defined context-specific problems.

      In each specific context, the multiple stakeholders should then be encouraged and enabled to improve food systems by collectively resolving those specific problems through a process of trial and error (or iterative adaptation in PDIA-language). Strengthening such problem-driven processes at all levels may just be a more promising avenue to putting food systems approaches to practice than merely integrating them in top-down strategies.

      Which is not to say that it is all about top-down versus bottom-up. The appropriate level of action really depends on the specific problem at hand.

      One good example for this is the case of pigeon peas in Mozambique. On the back of strong demand from India, and further encouraged by countless agricultural development projects, hundreds of thousands of smallholders had started producing this pulse. In 2017, however, they suddenly saw their main source of income disappear, after India, the only major importer, shut its border following a bumper harvest, provoking a price collapse in Mozambique.

      A food systems lens exposes the specific problems and gaps that allowed this crisis to happen. Better understanding of the various political and economic interests at play, both domestically and in the international market, could have anticipated this kind of scenario and led to mitigating measures. Additionally, at district-level, an emphasis on crop diversification and ways to stimulate the local consumption of pigeon pea could have prevented the most negative outcomes.

      In sum, a food systems approach is not so much a ready-made solution, waiting to be implemented. Rather, it is a process that stakeholders throughout the system should employ to sharpen problem-definitions, which is absolutely essential to set in motion the concrete actions that are required, at all levels, to actually improve food systems.

      The Year of Nutrition: Reinvigorating the CAADP

      The AU’s focus on nutrition in 2022 is welcome as ending hunger on the African continent is still a moving target. By using the energy around the Year of Nutrition, the food systems approach can strengthen the effectiveness of ​​AU’s flagship CAADP. It helps create a common, big picture of the drivers of malnutrition, as well as environmental, social and economic challenges and trade-offs of African food systems.

      But it is important to note that adopting such an approach is not a panacea, by far. Key elements of existing tools – like PDIA – should be used and repurposed to link food systems approaches to locally-defined, context-specific problems. Because it is there that these policies and procedures are truly tested – on the ground.

      The views are those of the authors Paulina Bizzotto Molina, Koen Dekeyser and Jorrit Oppewal (The Broker), and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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