Famine and drought are among the two key precursors to the devastating hunger crises that has ravaged many communities across Africa, signifying the scale and severity of food insecurity in the continent. Inarguably the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated food security in the continent pertinently triggered by the economic fallout that has left no country unscathed. According to a recently released multi-agency report, ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’, around a tenth of the global population an estimated 811million people were undernourished in 2020.
The report, jointly published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO); revealed that the sharpest rise in hunger was in Africa, where the estimated prevalence of undernourishment standing at 21% of the population which is a notch higher than that of any other region, with more than a third which translates to 282 million people in the continent, suffering from malnutrition. Furthermore, the report estimates that Goal 2 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aims to end world hunger by 2030 will be missed by a margin of nearly 660 million people; of this figure, some 30 million may be linked to the pandemic’s lasting effects.
In a series of conversations that commenced in April at the 2021 Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Youth Forum, one of the key priority areas highlighted by young participants was the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on food systems. The annual global platform is designated for candid dialogue among member states and young leaders from around the world, on solutions to challenges affecting youth wellbeing serving as a unique space for young people to share their vision and actions as well as provide youth perspectives on the implementation of the SDGs as part of the 2030 Agenda. As part of the official outcome recommendations young participants emphasized upon was the paramount importance of working towards more equitable food systems. In light of this, the need for youth contribution towards building resilient food systems was highlighted which formed the second phase of the discourse during the 2021 International Youth Day, where the theme was ‘Transforming Food Systems: Youth Innovation for Human and Planetary Health,’ set to underscore that the success of such a global effort will not be achieved without the meaningful participation of young people. The day was virtually convened by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) in partnership with FAO and the Major Group for Children and Youth. During the webinar, the need for solutions championed by youth leaders to tackle today’s food consumption patterns which need to be altered to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly was greatly accentuated.
The conversation shall further ensue at the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, which shall aim to crowdsource sustainable solutions to strengthen local and global food systems. The youth have been identified as key levers of change and play a major role in the achievement of the Food Systems Summit, which has laid out action tracks well aligned to its objectives such as: ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for all, shifting to sustainable consumption patterns, boosting nature-positive production, advancing equitable livelihoods and building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stresses. According to FAO, food security means having, at all times, both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life. Food systems encompass the cluster of activities involved in producing, processing, transporting and consuming food; they touch on every aspect of human existence. The health of our food systems profoundly affect the health of our bodies, environments, economies and cultures. Most of the world’s food systems are fragile, unexamined and vulnerable to collapse. The failure of food systems results in disorder that threatens the gains made in education, health, economy as well as human rights and security; which especially affects developing countries. It has been universally acknowledged that there is need for inclusive support mechanisms that ensure youth continue to amplify efforts collectively and individually, to restore the planet and protect life while integrating biodiversity in the transformation of food systems. The UN projects that by 2050, global populations will increase by approximately 2.5 billion people, with the majority occurring in the developing world. Much of this growth will be among youth, who are expected to make up half of the 2050 population. This positions the youth at the epicenter of food security and nutrition.
Existential Threats to Food Security in Africa
There are several factors that have been crippling food security in Africa such as extreme climatic events or erratic weather; from floods across Eastern and Central Africa, tropical storms, massive cyclones in Southern Africa, heat waves, volcanic eruptions with the recent being Mount Nyiragongo in Goma, DRC, to the plague of desert locusts in the Horn of Africa that have left a trail of destruction. Unresolved conflicts especially stemming from intercommunal grievances over control of land and resources, have been one of the leading causes of food insecurity in the continent; that continue to erode progress made to address the issue such as the situation in DRC, the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, Libya and Northern Mozambique. Terrorism spearheaded by groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia have also contributed to the dire food insecurity in the respective countries and ultimately the entire continent. Heightened corruption has also retrogressed food security, as funds allocated for this purpose in some countries have been siphoned to pad the pockets of unscrupulous leaders. Economic recessions have also played an enormous role in impeding the fruition of food security in the continent, consequently leading to soaring food prices rendering many Africans food-insecure.
State-of-Affairs of Food Systems in Africa
The fragility of African food systems is alarming and has had cascading effects, especially to children who have borne the brunt of the crisis. According to the aforementioned recently released multi-agency report, children are among the most affected, with more than 149 million under-fives estimated to be stunted, or too short for their age, which has lifelong consequences. Malnutrition is a major cause of high infant mortality rates and additionally leads to physical and mental development delays and disorders across Sub–Saharan Africa. Furthermore, prolonged undernourishment births stunted growth, increased susceptibility to illness along with severe health related issues.
South Sudan and Ethiopia were among the 10 countries with the worst food crises globally, with Burundi found to have the highest levels of chronic malnutrition. The escalating conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia remains a great concern with the crisis having pushed more than 350,000 people to face catastrophic food security outcomes. Similarly, in South Sudan, the months between April and July have seen 108,000 people in Pibor facing calamitous food security outcomes. Displaced populations have also greatly suffered. The pandemic led to reduced funding for humanitarian operations, resulting in food ration cuts for the refugee populace in Djibouti, South Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Data from the UN, estimate that 165 million children worldwide experience stunted growth due to chronic malnutrition and three quarters of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa, an equivalence of 40%. By the same token, child mortality rate in Sub-Sahara is one of the highest in the world; nearly every second death in children under the age of five is due to malnutrition, as it weakens the immune system and diseases such as pneumonia, malaria or diarrhea often lead to death especially with lack of proper medical intervention. For instance, in Sierra Leone, one in every six children dies before the age of five; this is the case in Nigeria and DRC as well.
Role of African Youth in Disrupting Food Insecurity
The youth are the heartbeat of Africa’s food system reformation but their value is undermined. African youth have fresh ideas and perspectives hence prioritizing youth empowerment and involvement in tackling food security is critical. Insight from today’s youth is urgently needed, in redesigning food systems to deliver safe and healthy food, livelihoods and environments for all; as they are instrumental in forging the future of the continent. In cognizance of the significance of youth towards food security and nutrition, inclusion of their views in policy formulation, as they are abreast of emerging trends is paramount. Equipped by mentoring and provision with adequate opportunities for development of knowledge, skills and capacity at all stages of food production, youth have the power to turn the tide of food security and nutrition. In addition, there is need for youth to make informed decisions on food choices through increasing global education, on the healthiest and most sustainable options for both individuals and the environment. Population health is vital in addressing food system challenges, especially as nutrition-related chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes are major contributors to the global burden of disease. The underlying responsibility on youth to work collectively to achieve a food-secure and well-nourished world must be accompanied by addressing and redress the challenges being faced by the youth.
By June Njoroge