Easter has finally come and many of us will have anticipated it eagerly, following the 40 days of fasting of the Orthodox Church. While it is not easy to withstand all the animal sourced foods during this period, many delicious alternatives are available in the Ethiopian cuisine. The vegetarian beyaynetu dish with a variety of vegetables, beans and pulses is a very attractive serving indeed. And then of course there is shiro, a sauce made of chick peas, which seems to become ever more popular. As all Orthodox believers follow the fasting, some more strict than others, refraining from alcohol for example as well, there is an effective social control mechanism that help people to stick to the principle. The fasting seems to have a health effect on many as well. I see friends and colleagues losing some weight while their faces become more shining. No doubt there are some hidden health effects as well. Today, the choice of vegetables in the shops and supermarkets, is much wider than a number of years ago and includes different lettuces, broccoli and cauliflower for example, while the supply of fruits has also increased over the years. In other words, the fasting season today offers a sufficiently wide variety of healthy foods. For those who can afford it, that is. One may expect that with an increase in supply, prices will go down, but this has not been so the case for fruits and vegetables. To the contrary, taking out the inflation factor, the real price of fresh fruits and vegetables and other nutritious foods has increased by 20% or more over a period of 10 years, according to a study by IFPRI (The rising costs of nutritious foods in Ethiopia – Fantu Nisrane Bachewe, Kalle Hirvonen, Bart Minten, Feiruz Yimer – 2017). In other words, while the availability of nutritious foods like fresh fruits and vegetable has improved, the affordability has gone down. It is therefore no wonder that households that can afford less, will end up buying and eating cheaper and often less nutritious foods. The availability of nutritious foods also differs per location in the country and we may assume that the family’s diet in more remote areas is much less varied, especially again when the family does not have a lot of money to spend. According to the same study, the real prices of less nutritious but energy rich foods have in contrast remained the same or have even gone down.
This has important consequences, as the development of children who are given less nutritious foods during their first years of life, remains behind (stunting) and therefor has personal but also national consequences. Improving nutrition is high on the policy agenda of the government of Ethiopia, as stated in the Growth and Transformation Plan II. Despite recent improvements, child stunting in Ethiopia remains widespread and Ethiopian children consume one of the least diverse diets in sub-Saharan Africa (Hirvonen 2016). At the household level, food consumption baskets are dominated by cereals and pulses, while the consumption of animal-source foods and fruits and Vitamin A-rich vegetables is rare, especially in rural areas. Such monotonous diets are regarded as a major contributor to non-communicable diseases in Ethiopia (Melaku et al. 2016). Recent research suggests that the poor dietary diversity in rural areas can be explained, at least partly, both by limited knowledge about the health benefits of diverse diets and by poor access to food markets. Households in areas in which food crop production is not very diverse but which have good access to markets are found to have more diverse diets than do households in such areas, but which have poor access to markets and, so, depend primarily on own production for the food they consume. Yet, even with sufficient access to markets and knowledge on the benefits of diverse diets, poor households may simply be un-able to afford nutritionally rich foods (Warren and Frongillo 2017).
So, is there anything that can be done to bring the prices of nutritious foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, down or at least stabilize them? Going back to the beginning of the column, these days I often pass some of the fruit & vegetables shops on my way home, to buy some fruits for the next day’s breakfast. Papaya, orange, mango and banana are some of my favorites, that make a nice fruit salad or juice. It is not easy to select the right fruits though. Which papaya is ripe? Which orange will be juicy enough? Which mango will be sweet enough? Trying to impress the shop attendant with my apparent insight in the quality of the fruits I intend to buy, I look at them, smell them, shake them and indeed, I squeeze them. How many customers before me in addition to the seller, will have already squeezed the papaya before deciding to take it or leave it? Many fruits end up bruised before they make it to the dining table. But this is only the last bruising they endure during their journey from the tree to the kitchen. Many don’t even make the last leg and end up in the juice blender of the same shop and quite a few don’t seem to make it at all. Post-harvest loss is the terminology used for all produce that get damaged and unfit for consumption during their journey from the moment of harvest to the end consumer. Studies suggest that 40% or more of tomatoes, papayas and mangos for example, don’t make it to the consumer. For bananas this is about 20%. With such losses, it seems no wonder to me, that prices are high and are likely to remain high. Much can be done to reduce food loss, as Post Harvest Loss studies of many items, suggest a wide range of measures that can be taken. Improvements can be made in production, harvesting techniques, infrastructure, packaging, processing and marketing. A cross sectoral and coordinated approach is required though if we want to see real results here. Done well, all stakeholders along the value chain will benefit: the producer, the transporter, the wholesaler, the retailer and finally the consumer. The aim in the end is to make nutritious food items more available and affordable. However, without education and creating awareness of the general public about nutritious and less nutritious food, consumers may still end up making wrong decisions, more especially in the towns and cities, where unhealthy food and drinks are becoming more available. Too much sugar and salt in processed foods and drinks have become a real problem in many countries and are becoming a problem in Ethiopia too, resulting in so called non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, etc. In conclusion, if the prices of nutritious food items keep going up, we will continue to see under-development of children and adults becoming ill. At what price?
Meanwhile, the fasting season has come to an end and many look forward to the traditional doro wot or tibs, they have refrained from eating for 40 days.