How sharing nutrition research skills could help stamp out hunger in Africa

Could a shift from focusing on the quantity of food to producing more nutritious food help sub-Saharan Africa eradicate hunger by 2025?

A new programme designed by academics and policy stakeholders from the universities of Leeds and Pretoria will provide an opportunity for hands-on training in laboratory techniques and statistics. Photo: Food Analysis Laboratory, University of Leeds

Africa’s stated goal is to eradicate hunger by 2025 and achieve food and nutrition security, yet one in three people in sub-Saharan Africa is still malnourished.

Current policy focuses on alleviating under-nutrition by producing more food and improving access to it, rather than on producing the healthiest foods and changing people’s dietary habits.

Specific expertise is needed to measure key indicators of dietary health, but this is not an area that is well developed within the African research community. As a result, existing food interventions and agricultural programmes are rarely monitored from a nutritional standpoint.

In 2013, a comprehensive report commissioned by the UN found that there was a gap in nutrition-related research skills across low and middle-income countries, including some within Africa, from community levels up to academic levels.

Lamu, Kenya. Photo by Beks on Unsplash

Working with partners in Africa, our researchers are helping to address this gap with a new programme to train African scientists working in the agriculture and food production sectors.

Professor Caroline Orfila, Chair in Plant Biochemistry and Nutrition and Associate Director of the Global Food and Environment Institute at the University of Leeds, with colleagues Dr Hannah Ensaff from the School of Food Science and Nutrition and Dr Effie Papargyropoulou from the School of Earth and Environment have devised the programme.

They have worked in close collaboration with Professor Hettie Schönfeldt of the University of Pretoria, who is Director of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence for Food Security. Professor Schönfeldt advises the South African National Department of Health and is recognised internationally for research excellence in African food systems.

Also working closely with the course leaders is Ms Bertha Munthali of FANRPAN — a multi-national policy network that supports the development and implementation of better food, agriculture and national resources policies in Africa. Ms Munthali is a Nutrition Advisor and has conducted nutrition interventions in sub-Saharan Africa, including the Agriculture to Nutrition (ATONU) initiative in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

The training programme, which is funded by the BBSRC as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund, comprises activities that will equip scientists with the necessary skills to critically appraise, design, implement and evaluate nutrition-sensitive programmes in Africa.

Wemco Road, Nigeria. Photo by Ima Enoch on Unsplash

Professor Orfila said:

“For so long in the region the emphasis has been on producing sufficient food for everyone, hence the mass production of calorie-dense cereals, oils and seeds. It is really important that nutrition is put back on the research and policy agendas. For this purpose, people involved in the food system need to understand the nutritional impact of agricultural and food system interventions.”

Examining the impact of different food systems

The central component of the programme is a two-week massive open online course, or MOOC, which will cover ways to increase food diversification and to improve the nutrient content of food from crops and livestock.

Students will learn how to measure dietary quality and diversity, and how to evaluate consumer dietary behaviour. Facilitated activities will examine how more nutritionally-focused food systems can affect environmental sustainability, social inclusivity and economic development.

An important element of the course is women’s role in food systems, and whether this can lead to empowerment or be a burdensome addition to their other roles in society.

Professor Orfila notes:

“A large proportion of food consumed in Africa passes through the hands of women, yet they are not often the beneficiaries. A lot of nutrition-sensitive approaches tend to be implemented by women within their communities, since they often involve small-scale production of a small range of foods such as fruit and vegetables, whereas larger scale production is typically dominated by men.”

“Understanding the role of gender in the food system is important to ensure interventions benefit everyone.”

Once students have completed the online course they will be able to apply for the next element, a five-day ‘skills school’. This will enable 30 participants to visit experimental field trials at the University of Pretoria and other institutions. They will find out how farming practices impact the dietary content of plants and livestock, and will develop laboratory-based research skills. Training will also be provided in science engagement and communication.

Influencing future policy

The programme builds on work taking place under the GCRF-AFRICAP project, which is co-led by the University of Leeds and FANRPAN. AFRICAP works with governments and local organisations in South Africa, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia to build a broad evidence base to help improve country-specific policies in agriculture and food production.

The online course will be launched in spring 2021 through the FutureLearn platform. The content will be aimed at scientists who hold a scientific qualification such as a BSc or equivalent, and will be advertised through ARUA and the FANRPAN networks.

Professor Orfila said:

“After the training, we want to encourage scientists to continue exploring the importance of nutrition, whether that be in embarking on a related PhD, or to emphasise its importance when developing new policies. We hope that building research capacity among influential African scientists will mean that knowledge about nutrition is firmly established in future policy initiatives.”

Find out more about the Global Food and Environment Institute.

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