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Four things we can do to enable the production of more nutritious foods

Daniel Alberts, Senior Manager, Agriculture and Nutrition, GAIN

If you were asked “What does a farmer do?” you might reply that “A farmer grows crops.” But you’d be wrong. In fact, crops grow themselves. The farmer’s job is to create an environment in which the crops will grow—and, ideally, thrive.

A farmer can’t force a seed to germinate, she can’t force maize to tassel, he can’t convince soybeans to take up micronutrients from the soil. But a farmer can ensure that the soil is tilled, that the weeds and pests are kept at bay, and that seeds are planted in the right place at the right time. Rainfall and sunshine are factors beyond the farmer’s control.

Given the right environment, crops (like animals, including humans) will grow to achieve their full potential.

Enterprises, too, will grow to achieve their potential, as long as the environment that surrounds them enables them to do so. The success of an organisation depends on a multitude of factors—internal as well as external. In general, however, businesses will rise to meet consumers’ needs once there is an environment that enables them to do so, and as long as there are rewarding incentives for doing so.

For more than three years, GAIN’s Marketplace for Nutritious Foods has supported small and medium enterprises (SMEs) whose innovative products increase local consumers’ ability to access diverse, nutritious foods. We’re increasing consumers’ access to poultry in Kenya, to protein-rich peanut butter in Mozambique, and to animal-sourced foods, like pork and eggs, in Rwanda.

Our targeted support to individual, innovative companies has been transformative and impactful. The companies we’re supporting have put over 16 million servings of nutritious foods in markets that serve low-income consumers. Increased domestic production of nutritious foods benefits African countries in many ways: economically, by creating jobs and cutting imports; nutritionally, by adding nutritious foods and replacing unhealthy food options; and agriculturally, by making use of crops that can be produced by the country’s own farmers.

However, to achieve impact at even greater scale we will have to increase and broaden our efforts. To realise the gains that the battle against malnutrition requires of us, we’ll need to focus not only on individual enterprises, but on the entire ecosystem in which such enterprises operate, and on the food system that they comprise.

‘Access to finance’ is always a problem for SME’s, but leaving that discussion aside for now, there are a few things we can do to create an environment that supports inclusive businesses’ ability to make nutritious foods available to low-income consumers:

 

  • Support companies to put safe, high-quality food on the market by providing access to testing, certification, and labelling for foods that are nutritious and that meet food quality standards.

We must cooperate to ensure that businesses sell products that are not harmful to consumers, and that products live up to advertising and labelling claims. In many poor countries, small businesses lack the technical knowledge and funding to ensure their products meet food safety and quality standards, while governments lack the financial and human resources to design, implement, and enforce systems that ensure that foods are safe and that they live up to their claims. We must build laboratories, train chemists, and create systems that sensitise and inform consumers that the foods they’re consuming are tested and safe.

 

  • Create a regulatory environment that rewards, rather than penalises, companies who operate “by the book”.

Africa’s large informal market flies beneath the radar of most regulatory bodies. While the informal sector does fill a niche in providing goods, services, and employment for much of Africa, we should not reward businesses for avoiding tax and regulation. The current system—in which formal businesses are subject to taxation, inspection, and regulation—creates financial and bureaucratic disincentives for companies who formalise their operations. We must cooperate to create a system that allows the informal sector to occupy its niche, without penalising companies who operate ‘by the book’.

 

  • Build capacity within the government, private sector, and consumers to differentiate between nutritious, non-nutritious, and unhealthy foods.

Often, consumers make food choices based on what’s available, what tastes good, and what they can afford. Processed and packaged foods excel against these criteria. Sadly, processed foods are often not only low in micronutrients, but also high in salt, fat, and sugar. Consumers should be sensitised to the importance of better nutrition. Private sector food companies should be held accountable for the nutrition quality and proven health risks of foods that they produce and sell. We must educate our society on the importance of a nutritious diet. We must not allow industry’s quest for profitability to outweigh society’s reliance on the food industry as a source of human nourishment. Africa, at a crossroads in development and urbanisation, has the opportunity to learn from mistakes made in more developed countries—now is the time to put in place measures that reward the production of nutritious food, and to avoid over-nutrition, obesity, and lethal consequences thereof.

 

  • Reduce inefficiencies within the food system.

Initiatives that reduce inefficiencies in the food system (i.e. infrastructure projects or IT applications that reduce post-harvest loss and waste) would ensure that more food reaches the market. Within Africa, roughly 40% of perishable produce does not reach the intended consumer. (In developed countries, a similar percentage is purchased but never consumed!) Such inefficiency benefits no one. By cutting waste, we can increase returns for farmers and transporters while reducing the cost of nutritious foods to consumers. We must propose and implement innovative solutions to aggregate and speed up transport, to make local markets more efficient and transparent, and to develop distribution networks that allow for fast, efficient distribution of perishable fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.

The challenge of addressing malnutrition is huge. But so are the opportunities, if we collaborate to effect practical, systemic changes in support of businesses that produce nutritious foods.

 

The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) is a global, Swiss-based foundation that mobilises public-private partnerships and provides financial and technical support to deliver nutritious foods to those people most at risk of malnutrition. For more information on our programs, visit www.gainhealth.org and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Information about GAIN’s Marketplace for Nutritious Foods can be found at www.gainmarketplace.com.

 

This blog is part of the December 2016 series on Inclusive Business models delivering nutrition, in partnership with DFID and GAIN. Don’t miss the webinar series in January 2017 on Marketing nutrition to the BOP.

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