• Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Reflections on the World Food Day Celebrations

Reflections on the World Food Day Celebrations

These are extra-ordinary times indeed and our commemoration of World Food Day 2020 is set against the background of some of the most disconcerting statistics for food and nutrition security globally and for Nigeria. The theme for this year – “Grow, Nourish, Sustain. Together.” – is a call to action; and action on a scale not envisaged even a year ago.

Over the past few years, the world has seen significant advances in terms of policy and action on food and nutrition, and even though we are producing enough food globally to feed the world, we still paradoxically have 2 billion people globally who do not have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food. With over 690 million people going to bed hungry every day and production systems that are intensively focussed on a narrow range of foods – nine plant species contributing over two-thirds of total global crop production when we have over 30,000 to choose from – our food production systems are degrading the capacity of our ecosystems to sustain themselves and are delivering less diverse diets to people.

The inherent weaknesses in the way our food systems currently work means that some populations have much more of a wide range of foods than they need and consequently waste it, while other populations are unable to produce what they need in sufficient quantities but still end up losing significant amounts of the little they produce – up to 40% of fresh fruits and vegetables in countries such as Nigeria – due to infrastructure gaps in production, storage, transport and retailing.

Read also: Why Nigeria must bridge infrastructural gaps to aid food production

All these existing challenges have now been exacerbated by COVID-19. The pandemic moved rapidly from a health systems challenge to becoming a catalyst for rapid and severe economic shocks across the world impacting significantly on food systems as agricultural production slowed down and supply chains faced disruptions under the various lockdown measures implemented to deal with the health pandemic. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Nigerian government announced a package of economic measures to complement the health response. Its stimulus package valued at ₦2.3 trillion through the Central Bank (CBN) was designed to boost key sectors of the economy including small and medium-scale businesses (SMEs) as well as provisions for social protection interventions. However, with consumer spending at about ₦107 trillion annually and SME contribution to GDP at over 50% i.e. over ₦70 trillion, the CBN intervention was clearly not in line with the need.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that we have to make radical shifts in how we organise the systems that deliver the foods we need and eat to meet new system shocks. Food supply aside, rising poverty means more and more Nigerians are increasingly unable to demand or afford healthy, diverse diets. With one of the highest urbanisation rates in the world, the country’s predominantly youthful population is moving out of our rural areas and leaving smallholder farming and the associated relatively poor incomes behind. Climate change, desertification, soil degradation and topsoil loss as well as catastrophic levels of de-forestation all point to a lack of resilience in our environmental infrastructure putting pressure on biodiversity and sustainability of food systems. Projections indicate we will have over 400 million Nigerians by 2050, so even as we work to control our population to more manageable numbers over the coming years, we will no doubt have an increasing number of mouths to feed. There is no more compelling call to action than this!
Though there are no easy fixes, we need a medium to long term focus on solutions and Government’s role is key. But so also is the role of the private sector, from individuals and micro/small businesses to multi-nationals that have a footprint in Nigeria.

The first place to start is from data. If we do not have the right data in the right form, and in the hands of the right people, any attempt to fix food systems will be inefficient at best and misguided at worst. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN*) and Johns Hopkins University, with collaborators at Harvard University, University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the Agriculture-Nutrition Community of Practice have produced a new seminal tool, the Food Systems Dashboard (FSD), which could be a transformative component of the data infrastructure for Nigeria if we adopt it seriously. A Nigerian FSD will incentivize and guide Nigerian policymakers and businesses to take positive actions at the national and state levels to improve their food systems and achieve targets of the Nigerian Agricultural Sector Food Security and Nutrition Strategy (AFSNS) 2016 – 2025; it will help civil society to hold these actors accountable; and provide a unified database for researchers within and outside Nigeria to undertake further research to strengthen the evidence base for future decisions.

Secondly, Nigeria has to invest much more in critical infrastructure to support agricultural production and getting produce to internal and external markets. Reducing its budgetary allocation to the agricultural sector as it did by 20 percent from N173 billion in 2018 to N138 billion in 2019 implies the government is not taking the quest to attain food security seriously. As a signatory to the Maputo Declaration, we should be reflecting on the adequacy of 10 percent of the country’s N8.8 trillion budget at the time, not an allocation in 2019 that only accounted for 1.5 percent.

Thirdly, smallholder farmers and SMEs operating at different points in the food system must be able to access repayable finance in a sustainable way. This must now be undertaken as a national emergency. In GAIN’s work with nutritious food SMEs, access to finance is always cited as the biggest barrier to investment and bringing their operations to the scale Nigeria needs. Finding effective and creative ways to bring the agri-food-SME nexus together with financing mechanisms that work is one of the most critical components of the wider
transformation required for how our food systems work. And there is already a great deal of work going on. GAIN and DSM (a purpose-led global science-based company active in health, nutrition, and sustainable living) co-hosted the Nutrition Africa Investor Forum (NAIF) around World Food Day last year. It was a first-of-its-kind event which highlighted the role Africa’s agri-food SMEs could play to improve the accessibility, affordability, and desirability of nutritious foods, if appropriate investments are made.

To make these efforts tangible on the ground, GAIN has since launched its Nutritious Foods Financing Facility in partnership with Incofin (fund and investment management specialists) to provide direct investment funds and technical assistance. The fund will make short/medium to longer term senior, mezzanine, and junior debt investments in SMEs in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to enable them to scale up production and distribution to local markets of locally produced nutritious foods.

Finally, for our food systems to deliver the quantity and quality of food we need and be resistant to the inevitable shocks ahead, we must reverse the migration of young people away from agriculture. For this to happen, agriculture must become a more attractive source of meaningful and sustainable income. Our food system must support and reward the deployment of innovation and technology. As Nigeria is virgin canvass, opportunities abound for technology. From Agri-Tech to Fin-Tech and broad based ICT, technology will unleash youth entrepreneurship and bring forward new solutions to a range of perennial value chain, environmental, nutritional, and livelihood issues including seed availability, resource use, poor yields, postharvest loss, market linkages, food safety, and demand creation for nutritious foods.
There are more actions required. But these opportunities highlighted above present a good starting point to expand the productivity of our food systems to meet our food security challenges and to hedge Nigeria against future shocks.

In October 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will convene a Food Systems Summit to raise global awareness and secure global commitments and actions that transform food systems to resolve not only hunger, but to reduce diet-related disease and heal the planet. The Summit will call for collective action of all citizens to radically change the way we produce, process, and consume food. This will translate into a once in a generation effort to make food systems work for the nutrition of people. Nigeria is an important global stakeholder, and should aim to engage with the Summit not only as a key, leading nation in terms of the food systems challenges we are trying to fix, but also as a dynamic source of the innovative solutions that we need to fix it.

Dr Michael Ojo is Nigeria Country Director, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

*The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) is a Swiss-based foundation launched at the UN in 2002 to tackle the human suffering caused by malnutrition. Working with governments, businesses and civil society, we aim to transform food systems so that they deliver more nutritious food for all people, especially the most vulnerable.