Our Food Systems are Under Massive Pressure
Food systems comprise all the processes, actors and policies involved in keeping us fed and nourished that operate against a backdrop of social, political, economic and natural environments. Over the past decade, the converging challenges of COVID-19, ongoing regional conflicts and climate change have prompted us to fundamentally shift the way we grow, distribute, consume, and dispose our food.
Recent global estimates reveal, that 1 in 2 children of pre-school age and 2 in 3 women of reproductive age, are at risk of micronutrient deficiencies. Micronutrients, that’s essential vitamins and minerals that are critical to our overall growth, well-being, development, and disease prevention.
Why Public Private Partnerships are Crucial
While the numbers are sobering, they present opportunities for both public and private actors to offer solutions to the most vulnerable. Businesses are the primary investors in our food systems; majority of the food consumed by most of the world’s population involves small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in agribusiness, processing, reformulation and packaging, meal manufacturers, as well as the advertising and marketing industry. In sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), SMEs provide 80% of the calories of total calories consumed, and more than 70% of foods are sold through SME channels. Moreover, the private sector drives innovation that determines how food systems operate and employs the largest share of a country’s workforce thus having a direct influence of the nutritional status of their employees.
Food-based SMEs that cater to low-income consumers can be game changers in addressing accessibility, affordability, awareness and acceptability of nutritious foods; but they are vulnerable to market disruptions and need to be supported with access to finance, information and digital technologies. The private sector has the capacity for market penetration far beyond that of the public sector and requires support from various government entities through data sharing, infrastructure and enabling policy mechanisms.
Concurrently, governments are mandated to ensure our food systems deliver on nutrition. Ending malnutrition has the potential to deliver massive economic and social gains to every African country that works to achieve as an imperative. The economic cost of stunting has been estimated to be as high as ~10% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of African countries. While the economic impact of malnutrition on the global economy has been estimated at USD 3.5 trillion. Thus, investing in initiatives to reduce childhood stunting, wasting and anaemia in girls and women will yield substantial gains on the continent.
Given the multi-faceted nature of nutrition, there is need for multiple interventions under the necessary guiding frameworks, along with the clear impact measures to incentivise actors to collaborate on changing nutrition outcomes especially in the form of public private partnerships in nutrition (PPPs).
Amplifying the Role of Partnerships in Food Systems Transformation
Partnerships between public and private actors are crucial in harnessing resources like finance and knowledge. Through various initiatives, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) has been technically supporting SMEs and acting as a convenor between stakeholders. For instance, the SUN Business Network (SBN) co-convened with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) mobilises the private sector to commit and invest in improved business practices that contribute to national nutrition priorities.
As a knowledge sharing platform, Nutrition Connect (also a GAIN initiative) works with SBN and other stakeholders in the nutrition space to facilitate dialogue and document key lessons from both sides individually and through their collaborative engagements. This involves convening, collaboration, and co-learning between the public and private sectors to ensure nutrition security.
Despite limited case studies and data, Nutrition Connect is committed to featuring the existing PPPs in nutrition to help market actors realise their potential and embrace positive engagements.
Currently PPPs in nutrition are hindered by:
- Goal misalignment: Some agri-food businesses promote foods that may be tasty but not necessarily nutritious. Moreover, hidden costs and market externalities such as population- wide ill health, ecological degradation are pressures bourne by the public sector and wider community, they can ill-afford. Efficient policy instruments and incentives better aligned with promoting public health, while creating opportunities for better livelihoods and improved incomes are thud required. Civil society and non-governmental organisations advising key decision-makers in the private sector and the governments for policy streamlining and better industry-wide benchmarking for improved accountability, in producing supplying and consuming healthier diets can support in better alignment of multi-sectoral goals. .
- Complex systems: Power imbalances and mistrust make it difficult to navigate both formal and informal public private engagements for impactful nutritional outcomes. Building trust through more open dialogues in forms of inclusive meetings, opinion pieces and viewpoints would be beneficial in ironing-out conflicts of interest and creating norms of technical acceptance of opposing opinions.
- Lack of accountability: Both public and private actors need to be more transparent in information disclosure and institute adequate frameworks and guidelines for such partnerships.
Through convening and facilitating dialogues, Nutrition Connect highlights emerging issues in food system transformation and helps identify ways to leverage public and private resources to improve nutrition security for all. Thus, providing examples of PPP models builds a better understanding of the rewards and perceived risks in these relationships and their mitigation measures, while ensuring transparency and providing insights.
“What is not measured, cannot be improved". Data remains a key barrier in co-creating food systems change. Nutrition Connect works with other GAIN-led data sharing initiatives such as the Global Diet Quality project (GDQP) and Food Systems Dashboard to highlight the latest nutrition data to bridge that gap and encourage evidence-based action.
For us to achieve a more sustainable food systems transformation, both public and private sector actors need to act in a concerted manner to achieve tangible results, for our shared prosperity.
This blog is an in-depth version of a presentation delivered at the Sankalp Africa 2023 Summit as part of a knowledge session with GAIN colleagues dubbed “Transforming Impact through Partnerships for Nutrition Development”.
Photo Credits: GAIN
Lilian Nyamongo is the Associate, Nutrition Connect based at the GAIN Nairobi Office. She graduated from University of Glasgow, Scotland with a Master's degree on International Development and holds a Bachelor of Commerce Degree in Finance from Strathmore University, Nairobi.