Unhealthy diets pose a massive and growing health threat across the world. In Africa, traditional foods and inner-city farms could be the answer.
Unhealthy diets pose a bigger global health risk than unsafe sex, alcohol, drug and tobacco use combined. This is according a new report that estimates 820 million people are underfed and that many more consume low-quality diets that substantially increase the risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity.
To combat these problems, the EAT-Lancet Commission recommends a "planetary health diet" for everyone over the age of two. This consists of a daily intake of 2,500 calories made up of a "variety of plant-based foods, low amounts of animal-based foods, unsaturated rather than saturated fats, and few refined grains, highly processed foods and added sugars".
For Africa, achieving the planetary health diet will require a range of initiatives. It will involve investing in innovative farming techniques and educating communities on healthy eating, including of traditional African foods and fortified foods. Since the Lancet report cites urbanisation is a key reason for the rise in unhealthy eating, one part of the solution will also be for Africa to boost food production in its cities.
To do this, Africa must invest in innovative urban farming practices to ensure healthier foods are available to everyone. Some regions are already trying this. In South Africa, for example, the Western Cape Department of Agriculture actively encourages citizens to grow crops in urban areas. Meanwhile, in Kenya, backyard farming is becoming increasingly common despite negligible government support.
But much more must be done. To begin with, African governments need to get a better grasp of current farming practices. City officials, for instance, should map and publicise existing urban agriculture initiatives. This will help shape future policy, allow urban farmers to connect with each other, and make it easier for potential funders to identify promising initiatives.
Governments must also increase material, technical and informational support to urban farmers. This could include improving access to extension services, agricultural inputs, finance and insurance. Urban farmers could particularly benefit from help developing business plans and other technical advice. This could come from the government, NGOs, educational bodies or other organisations. A recent study in Accra, Ghana, for example, found that educating urban vegetable farmers on sources of agricultural information could be hugely significant.
Another strategy to promote urban farming would be to provide guaranteed markets. Governments could mandate public institutions such as hospitals and schools to buy a portion of their food from urban farmers. Meanwhile, non-profit and other organisations could partner with agricultural initiatives to grow locally-relevant, affordable and nutritional foods.
In these such initiatives, governments could provide particular incentives for farmers who cultivate native crops such as millet, sorghum, leafy vegetables and drought-tolerant protein-rich legumes such as cowpeas and mung beans. These foods have been eaten by many generations and are not only healthy and nutritious but better for the environment since they do not require a lot of agricultural inputs.
In fact, a study found that consuming traditional African vegetables can increase both household nutrition security and dietary diversity, particularly for children under five. This is especially important as, in 2017, there were 151 million children under age five who were stunted, 51 million wasted and 38 million overweight according to the World Health Organisation.
Among other things, these familiar foods could be used in the supplements that are incorporated into the foods mothers give children after six months of breastfeeding. These supplements are already made from peanuts, but it is possible that similar foodstuffs could be developed from other protein-rich legumes that grow well in much of Africa such as cowpeas. This could increase the range of products used to tackle the double burden of malnutrition and food insecurity. Women of child-bearing age would also benefit from the greater availability of foods that are rich in iron and folic acid, which are necessary for production of red blood cells and proper development of the foetus.
As Africa, and the world, faces the huge health threat from both the lack of food and poor diets, it is reassuring that a big part of the solution lies within the continent and its long and knowledge-rich agricultural history. But efforts to ensure people are well-nourished must be intensified. The challenges are steep, but with the right support and incentives along with a renewed focus on Africa's native crops, the continent has all the right tools to overcome them.