Homo sapiens face an unprecedented challenge. It is the challenge of feeding a burgeoning population projected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100.
The number of chronically undernourished people globally increased from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016. According to the World Health Organization, undernutrition still persists in Africa. Twenty-five of the 47 countries in the WHO African Region have high (>30 per cent) or very high (40 per cent) rates of stunting.
According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, national food expenditure per month per adult equivalent in Kenya is estimated at Sh4,239, which is about 54 per cent of total monthly expenditure. In rural areas the monthly expenditure per adult equivalent is about 65 per cent. About 32 per cent or 14.5 million Kenyans were food poor or unable to consume the minimum daily caloric requirement of 2,250 Kcal in 2015-16.
These statistics underscore the need to move the conversation on national food and nutrition security beyond food production at the farm household level. We have to take a food system perspective.
A food system underpins all the dimensions of food security — availability, access, utilisation and stability. A food system comprises all the activities — growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, marketing, distributing, retailing, consuming and disposing of food, and the technologies and the environment (political, socioeconomic and biophysical) that support these activities.
Kenya’s food system is inextricably linked to the wealth and health of the nation. Agriculture contributes directly to 24 per cent of GDP growth and another 27 per cent indirectly, and accounts for 65 per cent of Kenya’s total exports. Agriculture also accounts for 60 per cent of informal sector employment and 65 per cent. Hence, actions, policies and investments in the agriculture sector should ensure that our food system spurs economic activity across multiple sectors and delivers equitable access to healthy and nutritious food for all Kenyans.
The capacity of Kenya’s food system to meet dietary and health needs as well as drive economic growth will be determined by factors such as climate change, land degradation (especially decline in soil fertility), rapid population growth and associated land fragmentation and conversion of agricultural land to settlement, under current trends of urbanisation.
Technology, especially the Internet of Things and Block Chain, could change how we produce, process and distribute food in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine.
The desirable outcome must be a nutritious, healthy and resilient food system where efficient utilisation of water, land and soil nutrients leads to increased productivity, and is supported by networks of markets, which leverage high production and efficient distribution to deliver accessible, affordable and nutritious food for all.
The big question, obviously, is how do we get there? Can we feed an estimated 65 million people in 2030, drive economic growth and still maintain a sustainable and resilient natural resource base? While our challenge is real and clear, our resolve is nebulous, and our plans are improbable.
Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University