Ending malnutrition to boost the brainpower and spur economic growth in Africa

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“The greatest contributor to economic growth is not physical infrastructure, but brainpower, or ‘gray matter infrastructure’”, says Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank. Malnourished children do not feed their brains or bodies, and “stunted children today leads to stunted economies tomorrow”, he said Saturday in Washington during an event on global nutrition organised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Fifty-eight million children in Africa under the age of five are too short for their age; and 14 million weigh too little for their height. UNICEF has estimated the annual cost of under-nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa at US $25 billion.

Adesina’s address set out the ways in which the African Development Bank is addressing Africa’s nutrition challenge. First, he said, it will launch a new strategy to ‘Feed Africa’, and turn a net food-importing continent into a self-sufficient food exporter within 10 years. Feeding children needs to be accompanied by supporting their mothers, he said. To address this, the Bank is launching the Affirmative Finance Action for Women to leverage US $3 billion specifically for women in Africa. It will also use its 2016 Annual Meetings (Lusaka, May 23-27) as a platform for the group of African Leaders for Nutrition to call for innovative and effective financing approaches to end malnutrition. “Note that I say ‘end’ malnutrition, not ‘reduce’ it”, he said.

“Now more than ever is the time invest in nutrition”, said Keith Hansen of the World Bank. If the world is to meet the six targets set out by the World Health Organization in 2012, the World Bank calculates that it need to spend US $7 billion a year for 10 years. “That is a fraction of what it currently spends on things like subsidies for farmers”, Hansen said. “Our current spending on nutrition amounts to just half of one penny in every dollar.” 

Adesina expanded on the idea of financing the fight against malnutrition, floating the idea of issuing nutrition social bonds. He stressed the importance of Health Ministers having the support of their Finance Ministers. He recalled his time as Minister of Agriculture for Nigeria. “I am not asking you [the Finance Minister] for more money for agriculture”, he had said. “I am in fact promising you more money from agriculture, if we turn it into agribusiness.” (The country leveraged US $5.66 billion for the agriculture sector, 2013-2015.) 

He also underscored the importance of using mobile technology to get food – and information about food – to women, and stressed the need for Africa to scale up its use of bio-fortified foods. Ninety-five per cent of these are currently imported, while the raw materials to create them, not least sorghum, are plentiful. “Again, Africa will manage its own development”, Adesina said.