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Reflections Following Kenya’s Second Agri-nutrition conference

By Lillian Karanja-Odhiambo on 22 October 2018

Background:

I attended Kenya’s 2nd Agri-nutrition conference held in Nairobi from 11th – 13th of September 2018. The 3-day forum was co-hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Irrigation and the Ministry of Health, with support from USAID-Accelerated Value Chain Development Program and partners.1

The Conference’s objective was to provide a learning platform on the role of agriculture in improving nutritional outcomes, summarised in the conference theme: “Accelerating Nutritional Gains Through Agriculture”. ENN attended the conference to share learnings and disseminate the findings of an in-depth documentation exercise on multi-sector programming for nutrition - a sub-national study done in Kenya, Nepal and Senegal in 2017. Kenya’s case example had a strong agrinutrition bias and the agrinutrition forum was therefore a relevant forum to share the findings.

1. Increased convergence between agriculture and nutrition:

The fact that there was a conference whose sole agenda was to explore and enhance the linkages between agriculture and nutrition with over 400 people in attendance was evidence of increased synergy between the two sectors. In the Kenya context, the synergies between agriculture and nutrition were gradually being realized in some areas:

Common-level messaging: both the agriculture and nutrition sectors identified the need for contextually-developed behavior change communication messages at community levels. This idea was being extended through the development of the Community Dialogue Cards.

Common Policies: The Ministries of Health and Agriculture have developed common guidelines and strategies which will be adopted and implemented by both ministries. The conference was used as an opportunity to launch these guidelines: (1) the Community Dialogue Cards on Agrinutrition (a guideline initiated by the Ministry of Agriculture to guide Behavior Change Communication discussions at community level on agri-nutrition messages); (2) The Food Composition Table (a framework initiated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation to establish locally derived nutrient information for the foods found in Kenya. The Accompanying recipe book includes the nutrient composition of locally prepared diets from the different regions and cultures of Kenya including indigenous foods); (3) Healthy Diets and Physical Activities guidelines (initiated by the Ministry of Health to address diet and lifestyle-related morbidities with a focus on curbing the trends in overweight and obesity).

Another example of increased convergence can be seen in Kenya’s big four agenda. This is the current government’s priorities over the next five years. One of the four priorities is food security and nutrition which aims for increased access to nutritious foods for all Kenyans through multi-sector engagement. The nutrition aspects are advanced in this agenda through blending or mixing fortified staple flours like maize with underutilized and highly nutritious flours like sorghum. The aim is to increase the nutritious content of staple foods (a nutrition agenda) while reducing over-dependence on maize as the staple (an agriculture-related agenda) which then provides a win-win opportunity for both sectors.

2. and some missed opportunities:

While the convergence of these two sectors was touted as commendable, there was an increased emphasis on the missed opportunities.

Disconnect with the consumer: One missed opportunity was viewing food from a narrow professional perspective as opposed to it being part of a broader system that is highly influenced by other stakeholders. As one presenter noted: “Nutritionists, people eat food not nutrients! To the agriculture sector, people eat diets not crops!” The presenter went on to describe how a systems view on food actually begins with the consumer’s preference, knowledge, time and purchasing power as these four issues shape their choices. One question that remains in my mind is whether or not consumer preferences were taken into account within the big four agenda to develop blended flours.

Food safety:  a recurrent theme in the plenary and breakout sessions was the need for enforcing existing food safety legislation. One presenter submitted findings that demonstrated how toxins reduced overall food production as well as nutrient content, thus presenting an area of mutual interest for the agriculture and nutrition sectors. In addition, food safety is an issue where consumer interest and awareness could boost the advocacy efforts for enforcing legislation, creating more opportunity for convergence.

Operational research: another resounding theme focused on how to merge evidence with practice. It was obvious that there was a lot of ongoing academic research in-country coupled with many innovative implementation activities all with an agrinutrition theme but from the plenary discussions these appeared disconnected. One of the plenary hosts commented: “Too many cooks spoil the broth! There seems to be so much going on! How do we organize ourselves and begin to connect the little pieces of the puzzle to form one big picture?”

Perhaps what stood out for me were the comments made by key note address speakers. Dr Namukolo Covic for instance stressed the need for leadership to ensure the efforts of agriculture and nutrition are deliberately pulled together to build a coordinated national and sub-national momentum. She suggested a consolidated register for research projects across different themes and different regions. The Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Honourable Mwangi Kiunjuri, emphasized the need for looking at low-cost interventions that allow sectors to converge, for example school feeding and rearing poultry for eggs in schools.

Conclusions:

Halfway through the conference, the participants’ mood dramatically shifted. The question and answer sessions were getting longer, and the recurrent theme was the need to develop a concrete set of actions that will enable the two sectors, academia and private sector to leverage from each other more effectively. Dr. Romano of the, Chief of Party of the AVCD concluded with key takeaways:

  1. An Official Communique was shared that stressed on the way forward based on the recurring feedback. He stated that the food and nutrition security may have been improving in Kenya over the last few years but the progress urgently needed to be accelerated.
  2. He cited the 2018 Food and Nutrition Security Status that has just been issued by FAO and termed the finding as ‘disturbing’ for Kenya which had been cited 126 times in the report for both commendable and less commendable reasons. “The report is a yellow card for Kenya and for the East African countries”.
  3. He concluded with a memorable exhortation: “we now need to work on the mind and not just the bodies. Mindsets at all levels need ‘fixing’ and we need strategies that address mindsets. We can start by thinking prosperity and not just subsistence”.

That is definitely food for thought.


Other USAID partners, FAO, NI, Self Help Africa, amongst others.

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