TIME TO IMPROVE THE NIGERIAN FOOD PLAT

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Africa is big on agriculture. It has to be. It is the second-largest continent in the world. It is also the second most populous. So, there’s plenty of space to farm and over a billion mouths to feed.

It is no surprise therefore that an estimated 65 per cent of Africa’s population relies on subsistence farming. Subsistence farming, or smallholder agriculture, by definition, is when one family grows only enough to feed itself.

Nigeria is the most populous country on the continent. Although it depends heavily on the oil industry for its budgetary revenues, Nigeria is predominantly still an agricultural society. Reports indicate that approximately 70 per cent of the population engages in agricultural production at a subsistence level.

Sadly, with so many people engaged in farming across Africa, a large number of the population still don’t get enough to eat. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, in its State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report for 2020 revealed that one in five Africans is undernourished, with 250 million people or 19.1% of the population going to bed each night hungry across the continent.

However, the truly sad part is that 30% to 40% of the food produced on many farms in Africa never reach any plate – they go to waste! It is beyond disheartening. Imagine, if you can, food decomposing in farms while plates are empty a city away. It is not a pretty picture by any means.

So, the great task is to improve access to food for all, especially protein-rich nutritious foods.

The truth is that any effort to improve nutrition needs to involve the government. The government is the biggest business and enabler of business anywhere in the world.

In 2021, as governments consider how to ensure citizens get enough food and nutrition, the Nigerian government would do well to consider some sort of direct intervention.

Several options have been proposed to help the country improve the Nigerian food plate. Here are three exciting possibilities: first, the introduction of a protein-centred national nutrition policy; second, food complementation, especially with protein; and thirdly, widespread and structured nutrition education.

The introduction of a protein-centred national nutrition policy is a good place to start if the goal is to improve the Nigerian food plate. A keen advocate of the nutrition policy, Dr Adepeju Adeniran, public health expert and national chairperson Women in Global Health, Nigeria, noted that there is the need for a concerted effort in ensuring that the entire population enjoys a measure of good health.

A national nutrition policy should, therefore, at the minimum, provide the framework for addressing the problems of food and nutrition insecurity in Nigeria, from the individual, household, community and national levels.

Dr Adeniran explained that the policy should cover three key areas:

Education/ information: Public knowledge and education about the benefits of protein should not be limited to school education and theory only. Re-learning and a lifelong familiarity with proteins’ benefits to the homemaker should be continued in public spaces like hospitals, primary healthcare, community and even religious centres. Human education can be carried out by nurses, community health workers and community leaders.

Availability/supply chain: Supply chain support can be entrenched by import/export policies that prioritise protein-rich foods. Agricultural and food production policies can also support farmers by way of fertilizer and farm-to-market transport subsidies or government-initiated protein produce purchase. This will encourage farmers to produce protein-rich plants and animal farmers to be able to produce proteins at a cheap enough rate for the public to purchase and consume.

Affordability/price/subsidy: Product availability will, through market forces, drive down the protein product cost and address price. However, to further ensure household affordability, subsidies can be used to further cheapen the price of the protein foods to a price point that can easily be afforded by household planners and providers.

The next is food complementation with protein.

Now, this has become important with the nutrition transition from the consumption of natural local foods to the consumption of processed foreign/new foods, which are as a result of technological advancement. These processed foods are high in refined starch, fats and sugar.

This trend has been adopted more by the younger generation across all income groups and is now a fad. Little attention is paid to the nutritional adequacy of these foods, and the food processing industry has expanded with its seemingly economic benefits.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn, the consumption of these foods, popularly called ‘fast foods’, even among affluent families, has reduced, for economic reasons.

Dr Beatrice Oganah-Ikujenyo, a seasoned nutritionist and chief lecturer at the Adeniran Ogunsanya College of Education, noted that it is the time to adjust our food habits to begin consuming more of our locally produced natural foods, especially legumes – soybeans in particular – to boost protein intake and prevent protein deficiency among all age groups. This can be achieved if creative, exciting and innovative recipes are developed. This is where meal complementation with legumes is key.

Dr Oganah-Ikujenyo argued that this technique is more important now especially amid the pandemic when the cost of meat and seafood has increased astronomically, while the purchasing power of the populace has progressively reduced.

On how complementation would work in real life, she revealed that at the household level, soybean flour can be added during meal preparation to staple foods such as elubo, garri, semo, yam/sweet potatoes/plantain pottage; incorporated into soups, sauces and stews; use as soup thickeners in banga, nsala and black soups and as a composite with cowpea (beans) in making moi moi and akara balls.

At the industrial level, she noted that food processing companies can contribute to the fight against protein deficiency through research, development of composite self-raising flour containing soybean with comparable texture and quality that can be used to produce confectionery.

Noodles, Spaghetti and Macaroni can also be simulated from soybean composite flour to suit the nutrition transition trend of the young people and at the same time boost their quality protein intake. Food complementation will truly be a great way to improve the Nigerian food plate.

On wide-spread and structured nutrition education, Prof Henrietta Nkechi Ene-Obong of the Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Basic Medical Sciences, University of Calabar, Cross River State, contended that it is a key ingredient in the quest to reduce protein deficiency in Nigeria

To aid nutrition education at the national level, Prof Ene-Obong stated that there is an urgent need for the establishment of Home Economics and nutrition extension agents across the country. The agents would function much like an agricultural extension agent, only in the nutrition space.

Undoubtedly, the message about nutrition must be brought to the level of the people across all strata of the economy and where possible provided in the local languages in the quest to boost nutrition education.

According to Prof Ene-Obong, “Home economics and nutrition extension agents would be in the best position to simplify the nutrition message and bring it to the people to bring about the desired outcome in behaviour across the citizenry.”

The don equally supported calls for the introduction of nutrition education in schools, nursery, primary and secondary, as students can learn and equally be able to teach their parents at home.

Studies have shown that food consumption habits in Nigeria depend on the availability of food source, affordability of the food and knowledge of the nutrition value along with the personal choice or preference of the buyer. The task of improving the food plate is one that must be won.

It is possible to improve the Nigerian food plate. The issues are clear. The opportunities are available. And 2021 would be a good time to start.

Elvis Eromosele, a Corporate Communication professional and public affairs analyst lives in Lagos. 

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