The noble task of eliminating hunger and malnutrition as set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the SDGs, as well as in the African Union 2025 Malabo Commitments, is actually a race against time towards delivering on the targets. There should really be a sense of urgency for concerted actions by all!
The latest statistics show that in Africa, over a quarter of a million people go to bed hungry. Many wake up baffled if there would ever be any hope for this precarious situation to change for the better.
Access to healthy and nutritious foods is a big issue as foodborne hazards cause a significant number of deaths and many more illnesses across the African continent—with children under five years of age and other vulnerable sections of the population bearing most of the burden.
We need to recognize that the heart of the development agenda ticks from the elimination of hunger and all forms of malnutrition. There are no chances of achieving the common vision of a safe, fair, peaceful and prosperous world when perennial hunger and not having access to nutritious and healthy foods mire millions of people in a punishing cycle.
The 2019 report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) confirms that hunger has been on the rise in almost all sub-regions of Africa, where the prevalence of undernourishment has reached levels of 22.8 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
It should be worrisome to note that the number of undernourished people has been increasing steadily in Africa over the last few years where it reached 256.1 million people in 2018; with a staggering 93 percent (237 million) of those living in sub-Saharan Africa.
The hardest hit is family and subsistence farmers in rural areas. The worsening food security situation was due to climate shocks, conflict, and economic slowdowns and downturns, many at times overlapping. These factors continue to be the main drivers of food and nutrition insecurity in the Africa region.
However, malnutrition is three-pronged; it encompasses under-nutrition, over-nutrition, and micronutrient deficiencies. Undernourishment, over-nourishment and micronutrient deficiency are referred to as the “triple burden of malnutrition”, and they can co-exist at the household level and even in a person’s lifetime.
Over-nutrition is often characterized by overweight and obesity, which fuels non-communicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks and some forms of cancer account for millions of deaths a year in Africa and put an extra burden on the continent’s fragile health systems. This is especially the case in urban areas.
This problem is strongly related to urban food systems and its drivers. Our diet directly affects our health. Almost one-quarter of the world’s children under five years of age that are overweight live in Africa. Eight of the twenty countries of the world with the fastest rising rates of adult obesity are in Africa.
The FAO report also painted this paradox, namely hunger, and obesity. Unhealthy diets that are rich in sugar, animal products, and fats, as well as lower levels of physical activity, are leading causes of overweight and obesity both in children and adults.
The change in diets from starchy staples, fruits, and vegetables to energy-dense foods including more fats and sugar and processed foods is termed the “nutrition transition” that is related to social and economic factors, like urbanizations, sedentary lifestyle and rises in income.
The silent killer, obesity is a risk factor for many non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some types of cancer. The growing rate of obesity is happening at a huge socio-economic cost. Estimates indicate that the global economic impact of obesity is about USD 2 trillion per year (2.8 percent of the global GDP). This is equivalent to the impacts of smoking or armed conflicts.
Eliminating all forms of hunger and malnutrition is at the heart of the FAO’s mandate and as the custodian of SDG 2 or Zero Hunger, FAO supports the efforts of the Member States and partners to improve food security, nutrition and promote healthy diets.
As the African region is grappling with multiple challenges that militate against food security and nutrition, we need to embrace a comprehensive approach oriented to the entire food chain to address these challenges.
This year’s World Food Day (WFD) echoes the collective call of action from all stakeholders, which is to make healthy diets available and affordable to all. With the theme, “Our actions are our future. Healthy diets for a #ZeroHunger world”—FAO will harness the power of partnerships, hand-in-hand, to buttress impactful concerted actions for healthy and nutritious diets for all.
There is no better time than now to act. Let our actions today dictate our future. Join us in as we celebrate World Food Day—we need healthy diets for a Zero Hunger Africa.
The author is Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations