AU Commissioner: Here’s our roadmap to putting lagging African nations back on track to 2025 nutrition targets

A vegetables market in Soroti, Uganda, on May 27, 2022.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group/AFP

The African Union (AU) designated year 2022 as the “Year of Nutrition”. In this respect, much effort was directed at what AU refers to as “strengthening resilience in nutrition and food security in the continent”. Towards this, AU focused on guiding nations to enhance agro-food systems, health, and social protection, geared to accelerating socio-economic development.

While picking the theme, the African Heads of State and Government were mindful of the fact that food security without improved nutrition would not deliver the desired inclusive socio-economic outcomes envisaged in Africa’s Agenda 2063, as the number of those affected by hunger and malnutrition had not quite decreased. In fact, many African nations are off-target in relation to the Malabo declaration.

AUCommissioner for Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development, H.E. Minata Samate Cessouma,discussed this topic in-depth through a Q&A, highlighting the strategies that AU is undertaking to improve the continent’s nutrition scenario. Here are excerpts:

Q. What does AU mean by the phrase, “strengthening resilience in nutrition and food security”? And how does nutrition impact human, social and economic capital development?

Nutrition is a foundation for development. Investments in nutrition are now considered a long-term investment in social, economic and human capital development. This has been clearly demonstrated by the findings of the African Union-led Cost of Hunger in Africa study, popularly known as COHA, which shows that when the population is well nourished, there are social, human and economic gains.

A well-nourished population is made up of healthier, well-educated citizens. This in turn leads to a productive society. The study further shows that child undernutrition is costing our continent a loss of approximately 1.9-16.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually.

Nutrition is also an input and output of resilience in that well-nourished individuals are healthy and can work harder. Hence, households which are food secure are able to endure and recover more from external shocks and vice versa. This has been demonstrated by the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has left many households in dire need. Hence the need to build more resilience. 

Nutrition is a timely topic as it comes at the time when the world is undergoing and recovering from the global health crisis brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has created major global health and economic shocks affecting people’s health, nutrition, and livelihoods through job losses, higher food prices, loss of remittances, reduced purchasing power, rationing of food and other basic goods, inadequate safety nets, and disruptions to health care services and education.

In addition to the Covid-19 pandemic, some parts of the continent are still experiencing humanitarian challenges associated with conflict, extreme weather variability and economic slowdown, all of which are affecting food security and nutrition.

Strengthening resilience in nutrition and food security is key if the African Union is to achieve the Agenda 2063 goals, and more specifically the Malabo targets of reducing stunting to 10 percent and underweight to five percent by 2025. Nutrition is both an input to and an outcome of strengthened resilience.

The subject recognises the key role of agriculture in addressing nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions, and in improving people’s diets by increasing the availability, affordability, and consumption of diverse, safe, and nutritious foods and diets.

Q. What are the goals of the AU in relation to strengthening health and social protection systems? What is the link with human, social and economic capital development? Please highlight the major successes and challenges to date.

The AU has prioritised nutrition in its policies, strategies and decisions throughout its history.

Aspiration 1 of Africa’s development framework, Agenda 2063, underlines the importance of nutrition to build “The Africa We Want”. Goal 1 of the Aspiration is “a high standard of living, quality of life, sound health and well-being” of African people, and Goal 3 on citizens is “healthy and well-nourished, and enjoying a life expectancy of above 75 years.”

Article 14 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child also calls for adequate nutrition and care to combat malnutrition and improve knowledge on nutrition, including breastfeeding and human capital development.

The African Regional Nutrition Strategy (ARNS) guides member states on nutrition policies and programmes so that they may achieve nutrition targets; and the ARNS 2015-2025 calls on all AU Member States to put together multi-sectoral nutrition action plans, budgets and expenditure tracking systems for effective implementation and monitoring of nutrition interventions. This is also complemented by the AUDA-NEPAD Nutrition and Food Systems Implementation Plan 2019-2025, which is aligned with the ARNS.

The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), one of the continental programmes initiatives under Agenda 2063, serves as the framework for action on agricultural transformation across Africa. CAADP helps member states to increase investment and productivity in the agricultural sector, and has in place regional and national programmes aimed at improving food systems, food security and nutrition.

As part of advocacy for nutrition, the AU endorsed the COHA study in collaboration with AUDA-NEPAD and the World Food Programme (WFP). It has further endorsed the AU Nutrition Champion and African Leaders for Nutrition (ALN) initiative to rally high-level political engagement to advance nutrition in Africa.

To promote multi-sectoral approaches in addressing hunger and malnutrition, the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (2016-2025) recognises the multiple benefits of the Home-Grown School Feeding Programme. In addition, AUDA-NEPAD launched the guidelines to design and reinforce the implementation of the Home Grown School Feeding Programme.

The AU has also published the first African Union Continental Nutrition Report as an accountability tool, to measure the progress of implementing key continental policies and strategies.

Q. What is the current status in terms of food security and nutrition in Africa, and where does Africa stand within the timeframes set by Agenda 2063?

Even if great progress can be noted over the years, food and nutrition insecurity remains one of the long-standing challenges in Africa. It hinders sustainable development. Africa has some of the highest cases of the triple burden of malnutrition globally, accounting for more than nine out of 10 of all children with stunting, more than nine out of 10 children with wasting, and more than seven out of 10 children who are overweight worldwide. Recent data highlights that 282 million people are undernourished in Africa, an increase of 49 million from 2019.

The Sub-Saharan Africa region is mostly affected, with 24.1 percent of the population being undernourished, while the North African sub-region has 7.1 percent undernourishment.

Q. Are we on course to meet the aspirations of the Heads of State and Government to end hunger by 2025?

According to the 3rd CAADP Biennial Review Report (March 2022), member states are not on track to attaining the Malabo targets of ending hunger and bringing down stunting to 10 percent and underweight to five percent by 2025. According to the report, out of the 22 member states that reported, only 13 countries are on track to bringing down undernourishment to five percent and below, while out of 23 that reported, only four are on track to attaining the stunting targets.

Q. How did the designation of 2022 as the year of nutrition assist in strengthening resilience in nutrition and food security on the continent?

The theme afforded nations the opportunity to recognise and preserve past nutrition gains while also safeguarding future efforts towards attaining the Malabo Declaration targets. It was also an opportunity to address the interconnected challenges of nutrition and enhance the resilience of communities to adapt and cope with existing nutrition and food security challenges.

The African Union recognises the multi-sectoral nature of addressing nutrition, and advocates for an inclusive approach. As such, in 2022, the AU worked closely with various stakeholders to raise awareness among all policymakers working on resilience-building, on the social, economic and human costs of malnutrition and ensure the inclusion of nutrition objectives in all sectors of development.

The AU Commission developed a comprehensive roadmap, which detailed objectives and identified key strategic partners towards strengthening resilience in nutrition and food security, guided by the following priorities:

  • Data management and information systems, knowledge generation and dissemination, to inform decision making.
  • Advocacy for increased commitment and investment in nutrition.
  • Partnerships and mutual accountability platforms for coherent and harmonised action and transparency.
  • Institutional capacity enhancement and enabling environment for intensified action and delivery of results and impact.

The AU Commission’s departments of Health and Humanitarian Affairs; Agriculture, Rural Development, Blue Economy and Sustainable Environment (ARBE); and Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (DESTI), are working closely with the AU Nutrition Champion, His Majesty King Letsie III of Lesotho; the African Union Development Agency (AUDA/NEPAD); and the Government of Cote d’Ivoire, to implement the action plan.