Investment and innovation will build southern Africa’s food security

Market stall in Lesotho

Investing in good nutrition for the wellbeing of southern African individuals will have a knock-on effect on the economy of the region, say food security researchers.

“The benefit of investing in nutrition has been calculated as a 1 to 16 return on investment,” says Professor Hettie Schönfeldt. “Nutrition plays a fundamental role in the sustainable development of human capital.”
Schönfeldt is a SARCHi-chairholder and professor at the Department of Animal and Wildlife Sciences at the University of Pretoria. She studies what and how we eat, and how education about nutrition needs to be continuously updated according to the latest and best research.

The state of nutrition in Southern Africa varies depending on the scale, from the regional and national level, right down to the individual. Factors that determine the quality of food and nutrition relate to access to adequate nutrition in complex and unexpected ways.

For example, being economically advantaged does not necessarily mean better nutrition: in many cases such people suffer from diet-related non-communicable diseases like diabetes or heart disease. This can differ from poor families who find themselves in rural areas, but can access fresh, nutritious produce through subsistence farming.

“Making food systems more nutrition-enhancing so that food is available, accessible, diverse and nutritious is important, but so is assisting consumers in making healthy food choices,” says Schönfeldt.

Professor Riëtte de Kock is from the University of Pretoria’s Department of Consumer and Food Sciences. Her work is on taste and other sensory properties of food, which are key to what people choose to buy and eat, because food has functions beyond nutrition. “Food rewards, it give status, comfort, reduces hunger and thirst, and it can even take away pain and sadness,” she says.

South Africa might be a land of plenty, but Schönfeldt says malnutrition remains a problem in the country. She says that South Africa is going through a ‘nutrition transition’ where undernutrition continues to occur in a country with rising levels of obesity and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

As income levels rise and populations become more urban, diets high in complex carbohydrates and fibre are replaced with more energy-dense diets that are high in sugar, refinedd carbohydrates and fats.

“Rich people often live very busy lives that prevent them from finding time to source, prepare and consume food,” de Kock says. “Urban, poorer consumers are often dependent on public transport and need to commute long distances to work and home, similarly limiting time to source and prepare food.”

“Nutrition and health statuses of individuals are directly linked to their socioeconomic status and culture,” Prof Schönfeldt says. “However, specific data for each of the diverse population groups, ethnicities and cultures within South Africa is still lacking.”

A lot of food on Southern African plates can be considered non-nutritious ‘filler’ such as pap, white bread and sugar, staples of many households. Schönfeldt and de Kock are concerned about the effect this has on household nutrition, and hope it can be remedied by dietary education and other initiatives.

De Kock says fillers are still needed since those with poor food security depend on the staples as their main sources of nutrients. “The challenge is to enhance the nutritional value of fillers, particularly with regards to protein and micronutrients, in an affordable manner.”

For nutrition to become sustainable, both- researchers say that new ideas and new thinking are needed in the food sector, across the entire value chain from the farm to the plate.

“Food systems must improve to  enhance nutrition and assist consumers in making healthy food choices,” Schönfeldt says. “We should also try to influence behaviour to combat food waste and use resources more sustainably.”

“The agriculture and food industry has a very important role to play in providing food for consumers,” de Kock says. “We need bright young scientists and entrepreneurs in these fields to inform policy makers to harness the challenges of climate change, population growth, urbanisation and the wasting of resources.”

Through the BioFISA II Programme, NEPAD SANBio is currently helping tackle these challenges by funding several projects that will contribute to better nutrition in the SADC region.