How to Make Nutritious Food Affordable for the 1 Billion Africans

The UN estimates that 74% of Africans cannot afford healthy diets. That is nearly 1 billion Africans. Credit: Busani Bafana/IPS

By Dr Lawrence Haddad and Josefa Leonel Correia Sacko
ADDIS ABABA, Sep 28 2020 – One of the biggest revelations of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that people with pre-existing, diet-related conditions such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, are more at risk of suffering severe forms of the disease leading to a need for intensive hospitalization.

In Kenya, for instance, the Ministry of Health in July reported that 16 percent of seriously ill COVID-19 patients had diabetes, while diabetes and hypertension alone accounted for 47 percent of the COVID-19 deaths linked to pre-existing conditions.

According to WHO data, these chronic diet-related conditions were among the main risk factors for illness and mortality in Africa prior to COVID-19. The current crisis is simply throwing fuel on the fire. It has highlighted the criticality of diet as the key determinant of health of individuals and populations, particularly in urban areas, where an increased uptake of highly-processed and unhealthy foods is increasingly undermining regional nutrition goals.

In fact, data from countries in East and Southern Africa published in the Journal of International Development show that highly-processed foods now account for more than one third of the purchased food market. Not all of these foods are unhealthy, but many are, and combined with the availability of cheap, convenient and tasty street foods, the result is cheap food that is high in saturated and trans fats, salt and sugar.

Long-term solutions must be sought, a process that demands the involvement of all the world’s leaders from communities, governments, civil society and the private sector. The challenge is clear: how to incentivize food producers, processors, distributors and marketers to make nutritious food more available and affordable? 

To change these devastating trends fresh foods such as vegetables, fruits, high-protein legumes, nuts, eggs and fish must become more widely available and much more affordable in Africa’s food markets. Healthy diets are often inaccessible to most of Africa’s population.

The UN estimates that 74% of Africans cannot afford healthy diets. That is nearly 1 billion Africans. This is shocking and unacceptable. These numbers are only likely to rise during this time of a pandemic, where job cuts have greatly reduced people’s spending power and lockdowns have broken food supply chains, further increasing food prices, especially the prices of perishable fresh foods.

Temporary and very partial workarounds include the expansion of social protection programmes such as in Nigeria providing targeted transfers to poor and vulnerable households. These financial packages help the vulnerable to meet their minimum dietary and nutritional needs, but they are not a complete or sustainable solution.

Long-term solutions must be sought, a process that demands the involvement of all the world’s leaders from communities, governments, civil society and the private sector. The challenge is clear: how to incentivize food producers, processors, distributors and marketers to make nutritious food more available and affordable?

First public policy needs to be aligned with this goal. Too many policies are working against this aim. For example too few food production and consumption subsidies are going to nutritious foods; too little public agricultural research development and farmer extension focuses on these foods; too often public food procurement disfavours these items and infrastructure development ignores cold chain development.

Agriculture in Africa is a key economic driver and supporter of livelihoods. Productivity needs to be increased, biodiversity promoted and climate resilience attained. Is this possible? Yes. Already, farmers in countries like Zambia are recording up to a 60 percent increase in yields through the application of ecosystem-based adaptation techniques.

Elsewhere, in Burkina Faso, farmers have reclaimed 200,000 to 300,000 hectares of degraded lands by digging shallow pots in barren land and filling them with organic matter. The reclaimed land now produces an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 additional tonnes of cereal for the Burkinabe. The challenge is to replicate these successes throughout the continent.

Second, private investment into these more nutritious foods needs to be incentivised. Of the $200 billion impact investment fund industry, GAIN estimates less than 0.3% goes to nutritious foods in Africa. Fund facilities that stimulate private investment in small and medium sized companies that produce nutritious foods for low income populations need to be established that offer loan rates that are lower than market while targeting nutrition outcomes.

Institutional investors such as pension funds need to signal to the bigger companies with extensive value chains in Africa that they will favour companies producing more nutritiously beneficial foods.

Third, consumer demand needs to be shifted towards healthy foods. Too often healthy food campaigns pale in comparison to private sector campaigns for highly processed foods: they lack imagination, humour and flair.

Healthy eating campaigns must be engaging, aspirational and memorable. Food environments—where consumers come face to face with food—are stacked against the consumption of healthy foods which are often consigned to unattractive spaces in markets and stores. This needs to change too.

Fourth, civil society campaigns can hold businesses and governments accountable for promoting healthy foods. Civil society activism is particularly essential to focus attention on silent crises such as unhealthy diets.

Together these four levers can incentivize businesses and other stakeholders to innovate and develop business models, products and services that make nutritious and safe foods more available, affordable, desirable, and sustainable. Africa cannot move ahead smoothly if 1 billion of its people cannot afford a healthy diet.

The approaches defined above are not exhaustive, but if well implemented will bring the continent closer to better nourishment, further improving the prospects of properly fighting emerging health challenges such as COVID-19, both from a health and economic perspective.

Q&A: How Fast Fashion Sits at the Crucial Intersection of Environmental & Gender Justice

Fast fashion consumes vast resources, often polluting and devastating the natural world. Pictured here are garment workers in Bangladesh. Credit: Obaidul Arif/IPS

Fast fashion consumes vast resources, often polluting and devastating the natural world. Pictured here are garment workers in Bangladesh. Credit: Obaidul Arif/IPS

By Samira Sadeque
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 28 2020 – Racism “keeps the global north oblivious to the effect of fast fashion addiction on the global south” say environmental and gender justice experts.

Organisers and activists came together last week to discuss how the fast fashion industry sits at the intersection of environmental and gender justice. The industry, which discriminates against women from the production cycle to the consumption of it, contributes to environmental degradation as two million tonnes of textile are discarded every year.

Beyond that, fashion also plays a crucial role for people of different genders to express themselves, panelists said at the United Nations General Assembly event “Subversive Catwalk: Women, Fast Fashion & Climate Justice”.

“We hoped to encourage people to look at the connection between women’s oppression – the pressure to look good, to be fashionable, that their bodies are not good enough – and the oppression of women worldwide in the garment sweatshops of the world,” Su Edwards, organiser of the panel, told IPS.

“We wanted to raise awareness of the vast resources consumed by fast fashion and the resulting pollution and devastation of the natural world,” she added.

The panel shed light on the importance of women from the global north creating a bridge to work in solidarity with women in the global south.

“We are very keen to emphasise the unity between groups that are often seen as having divergent interests,” Edwards said. “Fashion is a good place for women to find common interests and to begin to understand that their life choices may impact on their sisters in other places.”

The panel, however, lacked the presence of any Bangladeshi representative on the conversation of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,100 garment workers. Scores of garment workers were injured in the disaster, sparking off a massive global conversation on garment workers’ rights.

The only representative invited to speak about the issue was Sumedha Shivdas, a fashion designer  from India.

“We wanted to include at least one woman from the global south in our panel and Sumedha is part of our organisation,” Edwards said when this issue was addressed. “The point was that she had heard about the Rana Plaza disaster but was numb about it.”

On environment, panelists stated that it takes 12 years to get rid of waste that fast fashion makes in 24 hours.

Beyond environmental concerns, fashion also has a large role to play in one’s identity. One of the highlights of the panel was Josephine Carter, a queer artist-activist and panel member who spoke about the role fashion plays on the intersection of environmental justice, human rights, and identity. 

For Carter, identity is at the center of her activism. She is currently working on a poetry project honouring black men for Black History month in the United Kingdom.

“This work feels deeply relevant at the moment, as we’re once again reminded of how endangered black lives are, and of the particular forces of white supremacy which work to endanger black men particularly,” she told IPS.

This relevance is further deepened by the environmental concerns around the world.

“I am thinking, writing and working my way towards climate activism, and finding a way to make this inextricable with the activism work I already do, on race, gender, sex and class,” she said.

For the panel talk, her aim was to have her message reach women and have them engaged in the conversation on climate crisis, and for them to realise how urgent and relevant it is to their lives.
Another goal for her, as well as that of the workshop’s, was to convey the message that for activists, their emotions are very intricately linked with doing the work of climate justice. Understanding that link, and figuring out which measures work and what needs improvement, can help unlock opportunities for climate justice initiatives that are effective.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Inter Press Service (IPS): What role has fashion played for you in your identity?

Josephine Carter (JC): As a queer woman of colour, I got to explore how people with my identities get pushed in two different directions – to use fashion and dress as self-expression, or to use fashion and dress as a way to conform to a heteronormative and cisnormative society. Not only do big feelings about ourselves and our bodies come up as a result, there are also real-world consequences to conforming or not conforming.

IPS: The intersection of fast fashion, environment and the queer community aren’t usually examined together. What does this intersection tell society?

JC: The reality is that over consuming fast fashion clothing, either to stand out or to fit in, doesn’t come without environmental consequences. Once we accept that the ecologically degrading and exploitative fast fashion industry can’t be allowed to continue, for the sake of the planet and its people, we then have to reconsider our relationship to clothes and reckon more closely with the presence of homophobia and transphobia in our lives.

As mentioned in the workshop, a part of the work of achieving climate justice is the elimination of all oppressions. Bringing together the topics of fashion, environment and queerness (or other identities) shows that the climate crisis actually permeates all areas of our lives and experiences, even areas that might seem unrelated at first glance. It goes, I hope, a little way towards demonstrating that there are a thousand reasons for every person alive to be active in the fight for climate justice, including people who usually get left out of the climate movement.

IPS: What role do you believe fashion plays a role for queer and gender non-conforming communities?

JC: Experiences with fashion in queer and gender non-conforming communities are as diverse as the communities themselves. While I can’t speak for these communities as a whole – especially as a cisgender queer woman – I notice that fashion provides an opportunity for self-creation, for queer and trans people to reclaim their bodies from oppression and dysphoria. Because clothing is so gendered, it can be a useful tool for exploring and subverting the gender binary. It can also be an outlet for creativity, self-expression and sheer joy in queer lives which are so often marred by interpersonal and systematic homophobia and transphobia – from workplace discrimination to homelessness, from medical mistreatment to hate-motivated violence.

IPS: What other roles does fashion play in this conversation?

JC: Conversely, fashion can also play a role in keeping queer and trans identities hidden, especially when individuals have to conform to heteronormative and cisnormative gender roles because of an oppressive family environment, community or government. The necessity to stay hidden and the harshness of the punishment of visibly queer and trans people increases as homophobia and transphobia overlap with other systems of discrimination such as race, class and disability.

IPS: How has your identity as a queer person shaped your relationship with fashion?

JC: I use clothing to announce my queer identity and to hide it. Some of the pressure that is put on heterosexual women to look “feminine” and attractive according to our culture’s norms actually passes me by, and I love putting myself out in public as a weird, fat, butch, boxy, short, black queer woman when I wear dungarees, Doc Martens, men’s clothing, and the rainbow flag. It works as a way to signal to other people in the LBGTQ community that I’m here, that we see each other, that I stand in solidarity with a queer aesthetic and heritage.

I also sometimes get slurs yelled at me on the street, have disparaging comments made about my body by strangers, and am generally made aware that I don’t look how a woman “should” look. It’s interesting that the defining aesthetic categories for queer women, butch and femme, separate us out into who “looks like a woman” and who doesn’t. I remember many occasions as a teenager and young adult where I have tried and failed to look feminine, attractive and acceptable.

I use fashion as a way of constructing my queer identity, and fashion constantly reminds me that society’s idea of what’s acceptable for women’s lives is still very narrow.