Five transformative ways to solve hunger in Africa
“Africa is the fastest-growing continent. Africa is getting educated now. Africa is where you need to be. Africa is where you (should) look to grow your food.”
That’s what Dr. Ruth Oniang’o, a keynote speaker at the 2021 Alltech ONE Ideas Conference (ONE), used to tell her fellow board members when she served on the board of Nestlé. A professor of nutrition and former member of Parliament in Kenya, Dr. Oniang’o has spent her career advocating for food and nutrition policies that will feed the world’s fastest-growing continent and increase access to food across Africa.
Over the past several decades, many African countries have made great strides in reducing chronic hunger, malnutrition and weight loss — but with one in five African people still “chronically undernourished,” including millions of children, there is much more work left to be done to help turn African communities into examples of food security.
Dr. Oniang’o’s approach is a holistic one. Beyond her focus on growing healthier crops and strengthening food assistance, her work is transforming society through avenues that most people may not think of when it comes to food and nutrition.
1. Empower women
The first step to transforming how Africa grows and eats is identifying who’s behind the continent’s current food production.
“In Africa, it’s mostly women who are producing food,” said Dr. Oniang’o during her keynote address at ONE. “And I said, ‘No wonder we are a hungry continent. Women are already overworked. They bring up children, many children. They have to farm. They have to feed them.’”
We cannot solve hunger in Africa without women, Dr. Oniang’o argued. By elevating their value in society and providing them with the education and resources they need to manage their farms, their families and their health, we can create conditions that will allow African women to grow more food, feed a greater number of people and share their knowledge with others.
2. Promote adult literacy
One major key to that empowerment is literacy. According to data from the United Nations, the adult literacy rate in sub-Saharan Africa is around 63% — meaning that one in three adults in the region, or some 182 million people, cannot read. And while some African countries have higher literacy rates, many are actually lower: South Sudan’s 35% literacy rate is among the lowest in the world.
Promoting adult literacy, both via governments and NGOs, leads to more educated adults across Africa, which has positive, long-term effects related to food, nutrition and families.
“Adult literacy is so important,” said Dr. Oniang’o, “because when women are educated, they will not want too many children. They'll want to do other things. They'll take good care of themselves, take care of their family, and therefore, their children will survive better. They want a better life for themselves, and they know what foods to provide to the family.”
3. Provide resources directly
No matter where they are in the world, farmers need resources of all kinds, from education and research to funds to help purchase seeds, nutrients and supplies. Providing resources directly to farmers is one of the fastest ways to improve their conditions and crop yields, as well as the health and nutrition of their families and communities. And providing resources to farmers doesn’t just help build individual and community food security — it can help alleviate poverty, too, since extreme poverty and hunger have “a cyclical relationship” in Africa, according to the United Nations. Hungry people have a hard time working, and people who can’t work have a hard time affording food.
“If we do agriculture properly — if we distribute our resources properly — we can get people out of poverty,” said Dr. Oniang’o. “As someone who has worked with farmers right on the ground, it doesn't take a whole lot. It doesn't take a whole lot to transform a community and to make them have more food and to have them eat better.”
4. Look after the soil
We can’t increase the production of food sources without addressing soil health. Unhealthy, malnourished soil leads to malnourished crops that wither instead of thriving. Finding ways to improve soil health — like rotating in legumes to boost the nitrogen in the soil and supplementing malnourished soils with nutrients — helps foster healthier crops and establishes farming practices that will be more sustainable over time.
Dr. Oniang’o first realized the importance of soil health when she saw crops that looked weak and frail, mirroring the effects of malnutrition in adults and children in Africa. She advocates for ways to help farmers improve their soil health, starting with technologies like rapid soil tests to help farmers identify deficiencies within their soils — a prerequisite to growing stronger, healthier crops. After all, as she said, “If the soils are not healthy, human beings cannot be healthy.”
5. Build and support smart partnerships
“Nobody can do this alone,” said Dr. Oniang’o. “(The) private sector has a role to play. Public-sector government has a role to play. Civil society has a role to play. Everyone has a role to play.”
Implementing change on a continental scale cannot be done alone. It takes local groups and national governments to put all of the practices outlined above into place in support of individuals, communities and countries. National and local governments, NGOs, scientists, farmers and private-sector companies all have a role to play. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that “increasing yields for staple crops (in Sub-Saharan Africa) will require greater investment, both domestically and through assistance from donors and international research organizations.”
Local groups across Africa know what local farmers need. By listening to these stakeholders, private companies, national governments and international collaborative efforts can find ways to be good partners, bringing about change on a scale that local groups can’t accomplish alone. These partnerships can help decrease food insecurity across Africa and transform the future of the continent for the long term.
The future of food in Africa
Imagine it: a farmer in Kenya learns to read. She’s able to take advantage of educational materials and research that help her grow her crops more efficiently, with higher yields and healthier soils for her specific growing conditions. She’s given the resources she needs to put these findings into practice, thanks to partnerships between her local government and private companies. She’s able to feed her family and even has a surplus to help feed others, contribute to a food bank or sell for a profit. She’s valued and respected as an expert; she shares her knowledge with other farmers nearby, and she helps build communities that are more food-secure — and the ripple effects continue to spread.
By investing in her, we invest in the future of Africa. That’s how we transform the future of food: one farmer at a time.