Dr. Lawrence Haddad, GAIN’s executive director, answers a question during the “Strengthening Public-Private Dialogue for Improved Nutrition in Kenya,” as other panelists look on. Photo by: CIAT

For decades now, there has been one constant question on food security: How do we feed the world?

There is a more compelling question to ask, according to Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

“It should be how do we nourish the world?” Haddad remarked during a seminar recently hosted by the CIAT-Africa office.

Ensuring the availability of and access to nutritious food lies at the heart of fixing our food systems to make them sustainable.

Sustainable food systems, as per CIAT’s definition, “are those food systems that aim at achieving food and nutrition security and healthy diets while limiting negative environmental impacts and improving socio-economic welfare.”

Haddad suggested that there are three major questions that we need to answer in order to nourish the world and create sustainable food systems.

Question #1. How do we build the demand for nutritious food?

For businesses to deliver nutritious food to markets, there must be a demand for it. The demand typically comes from consumers.

To know what consumers would want, it’s important to understand not only what they are eating but also why they are eating what they eat.

“We cannot dictate what consumers take on,” said Gerald Owino, managing director of The Grass Company, a consumer insights and marketing firm in Nairobi, Kenya, during a panel discussion as part of the seminar. “Gone are the days when science are put before you, and you push a product to them.”

Owino noted about the need to change the way we look at consumers, who are often depicted as receivers of products and to be always complaining about available products in the market.

He added that there are many active, aspirational consumers, who are great sources of innovative ideas. He called them “prosumers.” Companies would be wise to collaborate with them.

Doing a food consumption survey is another way to gain an insight into consumer food choices.

Haddad noted that Kenya has not had a national food consumptions survey since 1994. The way Kenyans eat has likely changed since then.

Question #2. How do we make nutritious food more available and affordable?

In Kenya, some social entrepreneurs are striving to offer nutritious food to consumers. One example is Smart Logistics Solutions.

Supported by GAIN, Smart Logistics Solutions makes and markets pre-cooked, dehydrated beans. In the panel discussion, Rose Mutuku, the social enterprise’s CEO and founder, revealed that she first thought of coming up with the innovative product during her involvement in the Cultivate Africa’s Future project.

The beans take only 15 minutes to cook and will “cook” without using heat if soaked for about 10 minutes.

A 100 gram pack of those beans sells for 25 Kenyan shillings. But because the beans when cooked would expand threefold, the buyer actually gets 300 grams of beans.

According to Mutuku, her company’s biggest challenge is how to scale up its efforts. That would need, she said, investment, especially from the development world.

She also said she and her team would need the support of nutritionists and researchers to find out which different varieties of bean they can use and which other similar products they could develop.

They also require support on how to push their products to markets and directly to mothers, especially in low-income areas.

“Low-income people just eat whatever is presented to them so long as it’s affordable; they’re not going out to search for nutritious food,” Mutuku said. “[But] sometimes, they’ll try to. I’ve seen mothers in the slum areas trying to blend beans with omena [a type of fish] to make porridge for their children.”

Question #3. How do we create the enabling environment so there’ll be more affordable nutritious food in the market?

Governments have a big role to play to build an enabling environment so affordable nutritious food will be within the reach of all.

First, they could incentivize companies to sell healthy food — which typically commands a higher price than its unhealthy counterpart — by offering “virtue” subsidies, or by imposing “sin” taxes on food that contains too much sugar, salt or fat.

Second, they could develop policies that promote food safety and fortification of food with essential vitamins and minerals.

According to Gladys Mugambi, who heads the Nutrition and Dietetics Unit at the Kenyan Ministry of Health, any policy the government issues, such as food safety standards, needs to have the backing of evidence.

“We need researchers … to tell us that the standards we are coming up with is based on research,” Mugambi said during the panel discussion.

The challenge doesn’t end there. She said that after devising a policy, the government disseminates it to all counties. She acknowledged the difficulty of reaching everyone, so “we need people who can do it and do it better.”

Regardless of the question, it all points to a need for further research. There’s a need for more evidence on what motivates businesses beyond just profit to offer nutritious food to consumers; what innovative solutions can be made so there’ll be more healthy food choices; and in what ways governments can enable their citizens to have healthy but inexpensive diets.

CIAT can fill the gap. It conducts research and develops tools for decision-makers using a sustainable food systems lens. Nutrition is a key theme under its 2018 business plan. In Africa, specifically, it is a core component of CIAT-Africa’s current strategy, “CIAT in Africa Roadmap 2017-2020: Four themes for impact.”

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