Saturday, June 15, 2024

Building Resilience in Nutrition on the African Continent: Accelerate the Human Capital, Social and Economic Development


By Vera Songwe, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA)

Let me begin by wishing you all a happy and prosperous new year.

Allow me, in the name of the whole UN family, to welcome and congratulate the new commission.

Building Resilience

Crisis’ are a fork in the road, you can crumble under their weight or build solid resilience which propels you further into a more secure future.

Africa, like the rest of the world today needs to build resilience against a number of threats: climate change, cyber security risks and pandemics and infectious diseases, weak governance and conflict.

But for Africa these risks come on the heels of depressed growth, high levels of unemployment and an increasingly closing civic space.

The health pandemic caught Africa like the rest of the world unprepared.

Our insurance systems were not deep enough, and as a collective, we needed to come together to respond.

20 years after the birth of the African Union, created to reinforce solidarity, the continent was tested.

It was a time when there were no donors rushing to the aid of the continent.

It was a time when the masks of multilateralism and global solidarity were replaced by masks of nationalism and protectionism.

It was a time when our leaders and our most deprived citizens were on par with each other, dreading the wrath of the disease and equally shut out by others.

A most unwanted equalizer was visiting.

In the depth of the crisis Africa did what economists suggest you do. Optimize.

Africa pooled its risks and, relying on 20 years of building solidarity, it created the African Medical Supplies Platform to access protective equipment.

We once again pooled risks to create the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust and provide ourselves with the first large scale delivery of procured vaccines on the continent.

Both done under the leadership of the African Union special envoy, Africa CDC, AFREXIMBANK, and the ECA was honored to be part of the initiative.

Today our senses are awoken and the race to improve our health systems and manufacture locally is afoot.

Africa is surviving the health pandemic, but our economies are stretched and cracking.

The economic costs of managing the pandemic have been high. Debt to GDP has raced up. From 40 percent average debt to GDP in 2014 today we are at almost 70 percent.

While in 2014 only 4 countries were at high risk of debt distress, we have 17 countries at high risk of debt distress, and 4 already in debt distress.  Projected GDP growth of 3.9 percent in 2022 will do little to address this challenge. Double digit growth is now a necessity.

Compounding the economic challenges, we have another more devastating human crisis simmering.

The number of food insecure people on the continent has increased. COVID-19 worsened the situation.

Africa is not on track to meeting the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 targets to end hunger and ensure access by all people to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food all year round and to end all forms of malnutrition.

Sadly, almost one in five Africans goes hungry every day. The number of hungry people on the continent reached 282 million in 2020 and continues to rise.

Food prices have been on the rise, hitting the highest in a decade at 133.7 points by December 2021, according to FAO food price index. The rising food prices pose threats to the purchasing power of the poor that may provoke social unrest, as has been the case during the 2007/8 global spike in food price.

Nutrition is linked to early childhood development, better health, better educational outcomes, better labor force participation and high returns that increase economic output.

Undernourished children are a negative insurance policy on Africa’s future.

African economies lose between 3% and 16% of GDP annually due to malnutrition. Investment in nutrition is a smart economic investment and for every dollar invested in reducing chronic child undernutrition yields about $16 dollar return.

The pandemic demonstrated the importance of science and technology for building resilience. The West, the United States and Germany pooled brain power to develop the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine.

With over 250 million Africans going hungry, we weaken our capacity to use this human capital treasure trove for the benefit of the continent.

In 2050, one in every four people in the world will be an African but they must also be productive members of the society.

Building resilience is not about predicting the largest risks but about having the right technologies and strong institutions to solve for risk when they materialize. Our most powerful insurance policy is a healthy population capable of developing mitigating solutions for the impending nutrition and other risks.


Distinguished ladies and gentlemen

Addressing these challenges requires multiple partnership’s interventions in public and private sectors, at local, national, regional continental and global levels. We need to target interventions in key areas that include (a) climate resilience; (b) climate resilient infrastructure investments, especially in transport and telecommunications; (c) innovative financing including better insurance mechanisms; (d) leveraging the AfCFTA; (e) good governance.

On climate, Africa is in a race against time to build resilient food systems. The impact of climate change on food production in Africa cannot be underemphasised. Many of Africa’s staple foods are likely to be severely affected by climate change, with reductions in yields of up to 22% expected by 2050 according to the IPCC. For the countries in East Africa and the Sahel, droughts are already the new normal. We must use all insurance systems available to deal with shocks but use science to develop more resistant crop varieties.

On trade, importantly, ensuring adequate food availability requires improved trade.  Intra-regional trade can help improve stability of supply and even lower prices.  ECA analysis shows that Agri-food accounts for a substantial share of Africa’s trade with around 16% and 17% of the value of Africa’s total exports and imports, respectively.

Since 2000 Africa has turned into a net agri-food importer.  Moreover, the bulk of Africa’s imports and exports are oriented towards the rest of the world. 81% of Africa’s imports of agri-food come from outside the continent, and 78% of Africa’s exports are directed to the rest of the world.

In this context, it is important to leverage the AfCFTA. ECA estimates that following its full implementation, the AfCFTA is expected to boost intra-African trade in agri-foods by 42%, services by 40% and industry by 39%.

Reliable infrastructure – is a fundamental tool for building resilience. Africa’s internet economy has the potential to reach $180 billion by 2025, accounting for 5.2% of the continent’s GDP. By 2050, the projected potential contribution could reach $712 billion, 8.5% of the continent’s GDP.

These technologies are a tool for building resilience. Similar to Rwanda last year, the ECA worked with the government of Ethiopiaa few weeks ago to trade over 11200 packages to coffee in one second. These exercises provide resources to SME women businesses who, through such initiatives, can purchase satisfactory nutrition for their families. We are creating markets and building resilience through the power of technology.

To build on such initiatives Africa would need to improve transport and logistics infrastructure. Instruments such as the SAATM must be ratified and effective. Once again guarantee and risk mitigation measures will be needed to attract investors.

Financing: finally, to build robust insurance systems to help mitigate all the imminent risks the continent will need resources to build the right financial and physical infrastructure.

We saw how the world came together to issue Special drawing rights of over 650billion Special Drawing Rights equivalent. This was an insurance mechanism to support economies and businesses globally.

Africa, despite its important needs received 33.6 billion. But much more is needed. That is why we are calling for the onlending of SDRs to provide more liquidity to countries.

But Africa must strengthen its own financial institutions to respond to the urgency of the recovery. The civil unrest unleashed in many parts of the continent is a clear sign patience is running out.

Our pension funds, our infrastructure assets and much more can and must be part of the solution needed to bring about a robust and sustainable recovery.

As we seek to access foreign markets we must also build and strengthen our own capital markets and increase efforts towards financial inclusion.

Only then can Africa build sustainable resilience systems and achieve our common objectives.


We have shown 20 years ago, through the creation of the AU, we could pool our collective power to build a unified construct.

We demonstrated through the African Continental Free Trade Area three years ago in Niger and Kigali that we can.

We demonstrated recently with COVID-19 that we can.

We certainly can use these strengths to build more resilience and ensure Africa’s future has a solid insurance policy to deliver a prosperous Africa for all.

In building on our shared objectives for the Africa we want pooling our resources to protect our future is aiming for excellence while building resilience. Let us apply our energies to this.

I thank you for your attention.


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