• Sunday, June 23, 2024
businessday logo


Food and nutrition security in Nigeria – an emergency before the declaration

How Russia can partner with Africa to achieve food security

Last week, the government of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu declared a state of emergency on food security. For the first time, it seems, a government has woken up to the emergency we have on our hands. The pronouncement alongside the raft of measures announced with it have dominated the airwaves into this week, and rightly so.

I have used the word crisis many times over the past few years in describing the desperate state of food and nutrition insecurity faced by way too many Nigerians. The soon-to-be published National Food Consumption and Micronutrient Survey report underlines the situation starkly.

Data from the preliminary report released in September 2022 showed that 4 out every 5 Nigerian households sampled were food insecure meaning they were missing meals, and 1 in 5 households were severely food insecure meaning they were going without eating for a whole day because of lack of money or other resources.

Nationally (there are significant regional differences in the detail) a third of our children under 5 years of age are stunted and a quarter of children are underweight, indicating both chronic and acute childhood malnutrition and in many cases poor maternal nutrition. It is clear that with outcomes like these “crisis” is not an excessive descriptive and a “state of emergency” is apt and long overdue.

The government has announced a number of actions and interventions it intends to take. Many of these unfortunately read like a repeat of the rhetoric we have had for many years from successive governments. Three things are needed to ensure food and nutrition security – adequate food supply, physical and economic access to the food, and ensuring that the food is nutritious and safe for consumption.

Most of the measures announced focus on increasing supply but even within that ignore the one big thing that can be a quick win and could be addressed relatively quickly – reduction of post-harvest losses and waste. Government is planning to revive Central Bank intervention schemes, deploy federal grain reserves, etc. but these measures are likely to amount to doing the same things but expecting different results unless a fundamental re-design of these interventions are done.

The immediate focus should be on actions to address supply shortages from loss and wastage due to poor post-harvest storage and handling practices and the severe lack of cold storage and temperature-controlled logistics for moving fresh produce around the country.

Given the urgency of the crisis, government should deploy social protection measures in ways that target the most vulnerable such as through school feeding programmes for school-age children, and through targeted and conditional cash transfers for women, younger children, and small holder farmers.

Nigeria’s future: self-reliance and scale

In the medium to longer term, the centralisation of food and nutrition policy, financing and interventions needs to be radically switched. Government must now re-focus its energies on championing the role of regional and local food systems and the transformations required to secure affordable nutritious and safe food in an environmentally sustainable way.

When Nigeria fed and nourished herself and exported spare farm produce, states or regions were the main actors. Future federal incentives should focus on bringing down the cost of local and regional food production and support local and regional food systems interventions to secure food that is geographically and traditionally appropriate for these communities.

States willing to invest, and there are many, should be incentivised by central challenge funds. Some states are already investing significantly in establishing and/or re-vitalizing farm estates which are large agricultural land holdings managed and operated as a single entity to maximise production and value chain synergies, much like a special industrial zone.

Other states are investing in homestead and school gardening, initiatives that started under the previous government’s Operation Feed Yourself – a simple model that should be massively scaled. Other states are investing and have developed expertise in extension services for farmers and other value chain actors. There are many good local examples. What Nigeria needs now is scale!

To have clarity about the opportunities and challenges, what is required, what is critical, and what would move the situation forward, we need to go beyond national level data and generate reliable state level data on the prevailing food and nutrition security situation.

Making this data easily available also means citizens are much better informed and able to encourage or better still, challenge their state governments if they are not responding responsibly. This is why tools such as the soon to be launched National Food Systems Dashboard are crucial for this phase of food systems transformation that we are going into.

The Dashboard enables actors at federal and crucially, state levels to describe their current food systems, diagnose the challenges and opportunities they present, and decide on key actions required which then go into policy and/or implementation plans and actions.

Better access to data for better decision-making

Nigeria is already on the front foot if the new government chooses to build on existing work. Government at all levels facilitated months of reviews, conversations, and analyses of where the issues and gaps are in our food systems.

Recommendations from the various dialogues were presented at the Food Systems Summit in September 2021, and Nigeria subsequently signed up to 2 coalitions – the Zero Hunger and the Healthy Diets coalitions. The Transformation Pathways document was prepared after the Summit by grouping all the recommendations into six clusters.

The document outlined targets and actions for federal and state governments as well as for the private sector, development partners and citizens, with a timeline to 2030. The Pathways has since created some real traction with national, regional, and state level coordination already taking shape under the coordination of federal and state Ministries of Finance, Budget and Planning with support from the Governors Forum and other coordination platforms.

Food systems is a complex construct and the components of these plans and interventions at different levels need to be broken down into bite sized chunks. The food system transformation pathways need to become central to national and state level planning as they already provide more than a starting point. Federal government must work with states and devolve the meat of the action to state level. Kano and Lagos states have already used the Food Systems approach, with support from GAIN to inform the development of State Agriculture Sector Nutrition Strategies.

Mechanisms at state level must enable citizens to hold state leaders accountable. The federal government should not be at the forefront of food supply and nutrition interventions. These should be clearly and accountably with states and regional development agencies who have ownership of the land and are closer to the people we refer to as food and nutrition insecure.

We do not have the luxury of time. Diet related deficiencies and disorders are already a leading cause of disability and death in Nigeria. Last year, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released the Nigeria Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which showed that 63% that is, 133 million Nigerians are multidimensionally poor.

The Survey’s multifaceted approach focused on health, education, living standards, work, and shocks, including a Child MPI for the first time which specifically and uniquely considered children under 5 years of age. Out of all indicators across all dimensions, nutrition was found to be the primary driver of multidimensional poverty in all regions, while food insecurity was assessed as prevalent in all regions, with urban areas having a relatively higher rate.

Read also: Nigerians spent over N22trn on food in 2019 — NBS

Some are already making the distinction between the need to feed and the need to nourish contending that in an emergency, we apply the most critical life saving measures first. But the reality is that Nigeria is suffering multiple criticalities needing multiple and additive measures immediately.

The emergency focus should not just be on food but on affordable, safe, and nutritious food delivered in an environmentally sustainable way. Our policy makers and implementers must get the message that a well fed and nourished population is not a nice-to-have but a critical national investment in resilience and development.

The gaps that the current food and nutrition insecurity has already set in place in our population means we are storing up a productivity and human capital deficiency time bomb that will reduce Nigeria’s ability to compete with the rest of the world as these young “victims” become the adult workforce and leaders of tomorrow’s Nigeria.

The world will be in Rome at the UN-FSS+2 Stocktaking Moment next week to reflect on how far things have moved on from 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. Nigeria will be there to reflect progress but the challenge we are facing is outpacing the progress we are making. This is why we have an emergency on our hands and why we must act with much more urgency.