SADC at a crossroad as malnutrition and Covid-19 hit hard

Southern African Development Community (SADC)’s 16-member countries were already facing serious food and nutrition insecurity even before Covid-19 pandemic hit a last nail in the coffin.

This is a conclusion contained in the SADC Regional Vulnerability Assessment & Analysis (RVAA) Synthesis Report 2020. The report indicates that in 2019, an estimated 41.2 million people within the region were food insecure, which is one of the highest in decades.

In addition, in 2020 the number of people who were hungry reached 44.8 million.

“The region also faces the triple burden of malnutrition. Children under age 5 are fed predominantly poor diets: 9 Member States report stunting rates above 30 percent, while 4 Member States report obesity rates of above 10 percent,” reads the report.

Dr Agnes Kalibata

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations also gives the same verdict in its 2021 report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World: “Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were already not on track to meet our commitments to end world hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030. The current rate of progress on child stunting, exclusive breastfeeding and low birth weight is insufficient, and progress on child overweight, child wasting, anaemia in women of reproductive age and adult obesity is stalled or the situation is worsening.”

“Prior to the pandemic, more than 820 million people were already identified as chronically food insecure globally. With the pandemic hitting hard, obesity and Malnutrition are both on the rise and the healthcare burden of these on economies gives rise to the triple burden of malnutrition,” says Dr. Agnes Kalibata, UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit.

The question is: What went wrong?

“Our food systems are in a mess. Our imperative is to build back better,” says Kalibata.

In its Southern Africa Resilience Strategy (2018–2021), FAO points out three key factors that are contributing to food and nutrition crisis in the region. These are natural hazards and climate-related disasters; food chain crises; and conflicts and protracted crises.

Both SADC and FAO agree that Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation even though countries were already struggling to meet dietary needs for their population.

Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, says the lockdowns have increased food prices and limited food production, a situation he says is contributing to the rising levels of malnutrition especially in the poor countries.

He observes that Covid-19 pandemic has led to increased food insecurity through a number of factors which include the disruptions along food supply chains that complicate the transportation of food to markets and restrictions of movement that impact the access to markets by consumers.

Says Branca, “The pandemic has also led to price increases in particular in import-dependent countries, loss of jobs and incomes, school closures leading to missed meals and nutrition education and interruption or lack of social protection mechanisms.”

This, he says, has contributed to global stunting of children under the age of 5 in which 149.2 million of them have been affected. In addition, Branca, observes that the pandemic has affected 45.4 million children who are wasted and 39.8 million children being underweight.

The pandemic has disrupted not only the food supply chain but it has also disrupted its production. Because of job losses farmers could not afford to buy farm inputs which has led to increased levels of poverty and lack of incomes that causes under-nutrition.

According to FAO, SADC’s regional economy is partly dependent on agriculture which contributes to about 35 percent of GDP and about 70 percent of the regional population are farmers with about two-thirds of the population living in the rural areas.

Despite agriculture being one of the key economic survival of the region, food security and nutrition have remained the greatest challenge to “human welfare and economic growth.”

The SADC report also indicates that in 2020 food insecurity increased by almost 10% from 2019 which includes 33.6 million people living in rural areas and 11.1 million in urban areas. Statistics further indicate that 17 percent of the region’s rural population are “struggling to access food, either due to challenges in availability of foods or limited purchasing power induced by price hikes”.

FAO estimates that in 2019, 5.1 million people were undernourished representing 7.6 percent of the population in Southern Africa and in 2020 the numbers of people in the region that were undernourished hit 6.8 million representing a rise to 10.1 percent. The covid-19 pandemic is hitting hard, according to nutrition experts.

Dr. Kalibata says children are some of the most vulnerable groups affected by the covid-19 pandemic. She says as at June 2020 the figures showed that 368 million school children globally were missing out on daily school meals on which they depend.

Despite all the challenges countries are facing, some countries within the region are making some progress. Malawi, for example, has produced 4.4 million metric tons of maize staple in 2020, which is 42% above the five-year average and 29 percent above the estimated national requirement of 3.4 million metric tons, according to Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

The high yield production is a result of good rains and Affordable Input Programme which the government has implemented in which farmers bought inputs at reduced prices.

The Global Nutrition Report also shows that Malawi is on course to meet two targets for maternal, infant and young child nutrition although no progress has been made towards achieving the target of reducing anaemia among women of reproductive age, with 34.4 percent of women aged 15 to 49 years now affected.

“Meanwhile, there has also been some progress towards achieving the low birth weight target with 14.5% of infants having a low weight at birth,” says the report.

Possible solutions to sustain food and nutrition security

Production of enough yields, as Malawi and other countries in the region did, is not the only solution to sustaining food and nutrition security.

“Food production alone does not translate into better nutrition. Food systems must work properly and enough to help improve or reduce cases of malnutrition,” says Dr Martha Nyagaya, Nutrition International, Kenya Country Director

She says malnutrition problems are arising because many of the world’s food systems are failing – for people, for environment, and for our shared future.

She says policies to address these problems must be put in place and implemented.

“The priority actions should include making nutrition a pillar of every phase of covid-19 response and recovery and ensuring that food systems, social protection programmes and nutrition work together to improve nutrition and health,” she says.

Branca says transformative food systems must ensure that food is available, accessible, affordable and desirable. These, he says, will help to achieve sustainable diets.

Malawi’s president Lazarus Chakwera who is also the incoming chair of SADC says African countries need to work collaboratively and take bold steps aimed at addressing food systems and improve food security.

FAO observes that the major drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition are conflict, climate variability and extremes, and economic slowdowns and downturns and now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The UN agency, however, recommends six ways through which food systems could be transformed to address the major drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition and ensure access to affordable healthy diets for all, sustainably and inclusively.

These, says FAO in its 2021 report, are integrating humanitarian, development and peace-building policies in conflict-affected areas; scaling up climate resilience across food systems; strengthening the resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity; intervening along the food supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods; tackling poverty and structural inequalities, ensuring interventions are pro-poor and inclusive; and strengthening food environments and changing consumer behaviour to promote dietary patterns with positive impacts on human health and the environment.

“To achieve this,” says Dr. Nyagaya, “Countries must make food and nutrition security as a priority in their programmes and budgets.”

It now remains to be seen whether SADC in particular and the world in general will be able to meet their commitments to end hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030.

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