What does food, nutrition, and gender equity have in common for Africa and its diaspora?
Together they have the ability to transform the future of Africa’s food system by empowering women and girls who represent the vital engine of the economy.
Africa and its diaspora have a key opportunity to address the double burden of nutrition from diabetes, heart disease to malnutrition by promoting the health and beauty of African foods from teff, millet, moringa, baobab and hibiscus which can unlock economic potential and grow an emerging consumer market with the right policy, resources, infrastructure, packaging and promotion in place.
The World Economic Forum projected double-digit growth of Africa’s economy over the next 50 years. Like Asia and Latin America, the food and agricultural sectors will follow these projected trends.
Currently, a rise in Western fast-food chains has proliferated across the Continent in the name of job creation. Furthermore, the World Health Organization(WHO) reports heart disease and diabetes will outpace killing Africans more than AIDS.
Without a proper health care infrastructure to combat NCD, the economic returns from job creation in the fast food system will have to pay for the health of Africa’s people.
What shift can happen on the continent to ensure that public health and economic growth are not in conflict?
Academic researchers have documented the positive role of the African heritage diet; therefore economic opportunities are prime for investment in the indigenous foodways while preserving the heritage and supporting a climate-smart and nutrition-sensitive agricultural landscape.
In addition, scholarly works and visionary leadership matched with the public will can ensure that Africa is truly at the center of the plate for Africa and not just on the menu.
How have I come to this belief?
After attending the 2014 African Union Summit which has a theme on ‘food security,’ I was inspired and challenged with how to contribute to the AU Agenda 2063 to address youth opportunities.
Traversing across the continent, I had the esteemed pleasure to tour and speak to colleagues in the health care systems, nutrition systems, and academic institutions along with parents and students about diet and non-communicable diseases.
That’s why I created WANDA: Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture, to inspire a new generation of women and girls to lead in improving the food system for healthier, sustainable economies and communities in Africa and the Diaspora.
And our children’s generational icon is Little WANDA, a new girl character from the Diaspora, who uses her superpower of African foods to heal her communities with the help of women farmers, food producers, and nutritionists which we call them Big WANDAs.
By visiting the local markets in Ghana, I enjoyed the sights, sounds and buying from the entrepreneurial women selling their farm-fresh produce and packaged goods while I also concerned how the big box grocery stores may displace these micro food enterprises if we don’t see their value in our local food economy and tourism industry.
How can we build a food system that ensures local food entrepreneurs have equitable footing while multinational corporations join the food supply chain?
And what about Africa’s youth?
While giving a nutrition workshop with at a primary school in Nigeria, I saw the eagerness of the students to learn nutrition education after reading “Where’s WANDA?” bilingual book series.
One parent shared how her daughter shared healthy tips to help her Nana prevent diabetes; in a nutshell, she wanted to become food ‘shero’ like Little WANDA in the “Where’s WANDA?” series to help their Nana who has diabetes.
Over the last few decades, fast food chains with subsidized corn syrup, refined wheat and salts have become mainstay fixtures in urban diasporan communities with little healthy food access known as a ‘foodapartheidd,’ the same effect may happen in urban centers across Africa without intervention.
Proper comprehensive nutrition-centered agriculture policy preserving local foodways combined with nutrition edutainment, standardized food labeling, and promotional campaigns are key to keep at bay the unintended consequences particularly in middle-income countries with non-communicable diseases like hypertension while lowering health care costs.
If the African American experience is the ‘canary in the mine’ for Africa, what early intervention and visionary leadership can change the direction of this path?
In creating WANDA, it was clear that investing in women and girls will be fundamental for Africa’s future!
And men’s role as gate openers of opportunity is key to unlock the resources to build workforce and leadership and combat the historical nutrition inequities and the stigma in the food system.
For too long the world publicly shunned the nutritional value of Africa’s indigenous foodways while using Africa’s food and labor to build their economy. Training more women and youth in nutrition and agribusiness is critical in improving health and economic opportunities for all.
Decolonizing our diet is not only good for the economy but our local food ways.
And agriculture needs an image makeover to inspire a new generation of food leaders with characters like Little WANDA to set course on a proper pathway for a healthy and wealthy Africa.
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