By Nuru Ahmed

African countries are making progress towards eradicating malnutrition and stunting by 2025 as timeframe set by United Nations (UN).

These remarks were made during the 33rd African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on 10th February, 2020.

Speakers at a meeting of the African Leaders for Nutrition (ALN) included the Heads of States of Madagascar, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, National Ministers of Health as well as African Development Bank and President Akinwumi Adesina, head of the African Development Bank.

Leaders acknowledged the scope of the challenge but sound a note of optimism. Mr Andy Rajoelina the president of Madagascar said “We can conquer hunger in Africa.” One of the African Leaders for Nutrition champions also said “I call on all our partners to continue to work with us to address hunger and malnutrition.”

Mr Alassane Ouattara the president of Ivory coast said leaders should take it a step further “I have proposed for the AU to focus on tackling malnutrition as a theme for 2021.” Stunting has reduced by eight percent across Africa since 2000 an improvement on one of the United Nation’s 2025 goals.

African countries have also presented sturdy advancement toward attaining the target of 50% of the world’s children being exclusively breastfed for the first six month of life. The other aims are; halting the epidemic of obesity; decreasing anemia in women of reproductive age; reducing low birth weight and reducing wasting.

The ALN, a partnership of the African Union (AU) and African Development Bank (ADB) brings together heads of state, Finance Ministers and other leaders to create awareness and accountability and emphasize investment by African governments to end malnutrition among children.

The ALN meeting held in Addis Ababa on Saturday presented an opportunity take stock of successes ahead of Nutrition for Growth Summit to be held in Tokyo in December.

Mr Adesina outlined initiatives by the Bank and AU to reduce malnutrition like the Continental Nutrition Accountability Scorecard, which gives African leaders a snapshot of nutrition related advancements and gaps.

During his speech, Adesina highlighted the paradox of African malnutrition. “We have 65 percent of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land. We have an abundance of freshwater and about 300 days of sunshine a year. There’s no reason for anyone to go hungry,” the Bank chief said.

The meeting also offered recommendations for governments to strengthen African nutrition outcomes: promote a multi-sectorial approach; position nutrition within food systems; and spend more to combat malnutrition.

In addition to Rajoelina, current nutrition champions are King Letsie III of Lesotho, who addressed the meeting by video; Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, President of Burkina Faso; Rebecca Akufo-Addo, the First Lady of Ghana; and Professor Howarth Bouis of Harvest Plus.

It is disturbing that Africa is the only continent in the world where children are both fat and stunted. According to the 2017 Global Nutrition report, the continent faces serious nutrition relate challenges stemming from both a deficiency in nutrients and obesity. Despite a decrease in the prevalence of stunting globally, about 60 million African children under five are not growing properly.

 At least 10 million others are also classified as overweight posing both a severe health burden on countries and hampering broader development efforts. The report, which studied nutrition in 140 countries, said that population growth was a key contributing factor to stunting in the African continent. Many households about 30% also face food insecurity given the limited resources to purchase food.

Even with expanding economies, increased food production and mounting food waste, for many Africans, that haven’t translated into the provision of healthy nutrients and food necessary for growth. The lack of nutritious food has come at a huge cost for African nations, affecting not only human well-being but also economic progress and infrastructure development.

For children, improved nutrition advances one of the most essential forms of infrastructure, better known as “grey matter infrastructure” or brain power.

Six million children are affected by life-threatening severe acute malnutrition in West and Central Africa. Multiple factors including land and crop degradation, periodic droughts and weather-related shocks, poverty, limited access to basic food staples and essential services, and population growth, contribute to emergency levels of malnutrition in the region.

Malnutrition is not only about lack of food; a combination of other causes lead to malnutrition in children, including:  diet at home, illnesses such as malaria and water-borne diseases, limited access to clean water and sanitation infrastructure, and knowledge about safe hygiene practices, lack of access to health services, and inadequate child feeding practices.

Malnutrition puts children’s lives and future at risk. Timely treatment can save children’s lives however; those who remain untreated are at risk of dying, delayed growth and impaired brain development which impacts learning capacity, school performance, and labor force participation.

Malnourished children also become more vulnerable to childhood diseases such as diarrhea and acute respiratory infections and may grow dependent of a lifetime of health care.

However, ending malnutrition and improving dietary intake could help reverse this problem. The nutrition report says governments need to place nutrition at the heart of their efforts to end poverty, fight disease, raise educational standards, and tackle climate change.

In Africa, this will include creating databases that track nutrition across different countries. Governments could also actively focus on agricultural diversity, ensuring that farmers produce more food with a lot more nutrients.