Priorities for a better fed Africa

African countries have made progress across a range of issues, but recognizing that time and resources are limited, it is essential to prioritize and focus on the areas that offer the greatest opportunity for impact. The African Science, Technology and Innovation Priorities (ASP) programme coordinated by the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) and the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) convenes diverse scientists to review the scientific priorities set by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), African Union Agenda 2063, Science Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA 2024) and National Development Plans (NDPs), and then helps the policy makers to build consensus around which top scientific priorities will give African countries the greatest return on investment while catalyzing food system transformation. Ultimately, the aim is to direct resources towards discovering, developing and delivering game-changing interventions in priority areas that will help most people access sustainable healthier diets, sooner.

In this blog, Grace Mwaura, the programme’s manager at the African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and Namukolo Covic, Senior Research Coordinator at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) and a member of the steering committee for food security and nutrition priority area, discuss the ongoing priority setting exercise in part two of the blog series. Read more on the African Science, Technology and Innovation priorities by the AAS and AUDA-NEPAD.

Consulting a multidisciplinary expert group

In June 2020, the AAS/AESA convened a diverse group of experts from across Africa to deliberate on research and development priorities to achieve Africa’s food security and nutrition targets. The virtual consultation was part of a series of consultative expert meetings held by AAS/AESA and AUDA-NEPAD to engage scientific leaders in Africa to review development priorities of SDGs, Agenda 2063 and STISA 2024. The prioritization exercises seek to build consensus on those research and development priorities that will give African countries the greatest return on investment from the discovery, development, and delivery of game-changing interventions for meeting Africa’s development agenda and transforming African agrifood systems for better nutrition and health.

Five priorities have been identified through a process of gathering opinions from experts through a survey and then through in-depth literature synthesis and policy analysis. In summary, these priorities cover:

Climate-smart agriculture

Climate and other shocks are impacting food security and nutrition in Africa. Higher levels of carbon dioxide could lead to reduced micronutrients in crops and potentially exacerbate some micronutrient deficiencies such as zinc. On the other hand, natural disasters, such as the floods in Mozambique and Zimbabwe in late 2019 to early 2020, and the locust infestation in Eastern Africa in 2020 have had adverse effects on food systems that have been further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. These effects include disruption of food supply chains, food wastage, and loss of livelihoods. This calls for evidence informed preparedness strategies and response to crises that interfere with attaining adequate food security and nutrition. This includes practices such as climate-smart agriculture that mitigate against climate change and focus on the health of our ecosystems hence protecting biodiversity, while also spurring innovations and generating meaningful livelihoods.

Regenerative practices to boost food production

To achieve climate-resilient food systems in Africa, there is need to promote the adoption of regenerative practices to boost the production of diverse and nutritious foods, while also protecting land, water, and agrobiodiversity, and creating employment opportunities especially for the youthful yet unemployed workforce in Africa. Regenerative practices focus on improving the quality of the soil and include composting and crop rotation.

Use of open data in agricultural extension services

Harnessing open data would accelerate the achievement of food security and nutrition targets by facilitating efficiency in agri-food decision support services, infrastructure development, disaster preparedness and market access. Importantly, this would bridge the digital divide by involving a new generation of actors in the agri-food value chains and spurring circular economies. The quick adoption of cell phone technology for diverse types of economic transactions in Africa is a positive example of what is possible when innovations meet needs of consumers in an accessible manor. The digitization of food systems must be underpinned by an aspiration to match the cultures and tastes of African consumers. Market-based innovations, and especially those being driven by data and other fourth industrial revolution options, offer Africa an opportunity to advance food system transformation and marketing practices that promote healthier consumption patterns for better nutrition and health outcomes.

Indigenous and traditional food

For a long time, Africa has derived multiple benefits of its indigenous and traditional food for food security and nutrition and better health outcomes of its population. The continent needs to increase investment in research on African food systems that promote food, plants and animals with medicinal properties. Such efforts should include advancing related research and innovation capacity, building value chains, and establishing regulatory and standards frameworks and other policy instruments relevant to commercialization of these efforts. A good example has been the efforts to promote insect rearing as an alternative source of proteins which also offers multiple benefits such as minimal land use, good feed conversion ratio, minimal water footprint, and an edible share superior to chicken, pork, and beef.

Diversifying African diets

To address the multiple burdens of poor nutrition, Africa needs to research on improving and diversifying African diets by providing for an accessible, affordable nutrient dense food basket and mitigate against all forms of malnutrition, undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, overweight and obesity and diet related non-communicable diseases. Africa’s limited health systems are negatively impacted by obesity, related non-communicable diseases and COVID-19 adding to existing health burdens such as HIV/AIS and other infectious diseases, necessitating this type of research. Diversifying diets should include the use of traditionally grown vegetables, such as managu in Kenya and insects.

A multidisciplinary approach to research

To achieve Africa’s nutrition targets promote positive food system transformation across the continent, multidisciplinary research is an important pre-requisite to ensure synergy and alignment across food systems to address the multiplex food and nutrition challenges. The multidisciplinary approach must also leverage existing institutional frameworks to strengthen capacities for transforming to resilient agri-food systems. Recent publications on challenging the status quo and making practical use of food system frameworks offer useful approaches.

The Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), created through a partnership between the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) and global partners, today announced new funding for innovations to improve food security and nutrition. Read the call here

The African Academy of Sciences is a non-aligned, non-political, not-for-profit pan African organisation.

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