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Hunger is the most acute problem facing Africa’s children. As you read this, around 60m children across the continent suffer from it. Not the mildly uncomfortable hunger that comes from skipping the odd meal, but permanent, relentless malnourishment, stunting and wasting.
It is utterly unacceptable that lack of decent food is still killing African children on such a vast scale in the 21st century. Nine out of ten African children do not eat the minimum amount of calories with the desired degree of frequency. One in three is stunted. Two out of five do not get regular meals. Hunger is in decline worldwide, but in some parts of Africa it is getting worse. Between 2014 and 2017, 44m more people went hungry, most of them children.
This creates a huge economic impact. Stunting alone is estimated to have reduced Africa’s present gross domestic product by 10 per cent. In Ethiopia, for example, economic losses linked to children being undernourished and facing diminished lifetime earnings equal about 16.5 per cent of GDP. The resulting impact on cognitive and physical development has stunted the development of African societies.
It doesn’t have to be like this. As African governments decide where to spend their money, they must remember that here is a powerful economic argument for reducing child hunger. For every dollar invested in reducing stunting, there is a return of about $22 in Chad, $21 in Senegal and $17 in Niger and Uganda. The benefits are even higher if the investment is made early in a child’s life, ranging from $85 in Nigeria to $60 in Kenya. Halving rates of child stunting by 2025 could, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, lead to average annual savings ranging from $3m in Swaziland to $376m in Ethiopia.
Africa’s economic growth over the past two decades has been impressive, but it has had little impact on child hunger. Despite average 2 per cent annual GDP growth in Kenya, stunting increased by 2.5 per cent. And in Nigeria, 4 per cent average annual growth did not lead to any reduction in stunting at all.
Child hunger is fundamentally a political problem, the offspring of an unholy alliance of political indifference, unaccountable governance and economic mismanagement. It is driven by poverty and wealth and gender inequality — children from poor and rural backgrounds suffer most from hunger and women and girls are disproportionately affected. In some places, stunting rates are twice as high among rural children as among their urban counterparts.
In addition, the continent’s food system is broken. Increased food production has not resulted in better diets. Supply chains are unfit for serving rapidly expanding urban populations and the rural poor. Agricultural economic growth targets encourage the production of major cereal crops — often for export — instead of more nutritious foods like pulses, fruit and vegetables.
A policy conference in Addis Ababa last week sought to find ways out of Africa’s child hunger problems by holding governments to account. We urged politicians to adopt national economic and budgetary policies which put children first. They should invest in pro-poor policies, especially in rural areas; commit at least 10 per cent of annual public expenditure to agriculture development; establish safety net programmes; commit to universal access to a minimum diet and school-feeding programmes; and increase investment in data collection and analysis.
By 2050, if current population trends continue, Africa will be home to 40 per cent of the world’s children and young people. That’s 1bn angry, underfed, undereducated and underemployed people. Ensuring children have enough good food is the best investment Africa can make to build its human capital and assure its economic future.