Ronnie Kaddu could hardly believe the numbers. As a physician working in public health in Kenya, he had long been confronted with the region’s discouraging rates of malnutrition. Over time, and as certain foods became easier to access, he started to see the pendulum swing. Fewer people were starving. But upon receiving the results from a 12-year joint study from the World Bank and UNICEF, he saw that rates of stunting and other forms of malnutrition had stayed the same.
“Fewer people were starving, but just as many were stunting as before,” he said. “That means that people aren’t eating right and aren’t getting the right nutrition. They’re eating too many carbs, and their diets are becoming influenced by consumerism” and cheap, packaged foods.
“Growing up, I would go to the local markets with my family,” he said. “Today, we have these hyper malls, and fewer people are going to markets. When they do, they’re unable to get healthy foods because they’re expensive. So, how do you address this?,” he said. “You need to get people back to farming to grow and consume healthy foods that they are able to make money selling. We have trained farmers to be dependent on commercial farming, but we need greater influence on encouraging the growth of foods that can sustain human health through micronutrients.”
What Ronnie speaks to is the direct public health challenges that have, in part, been created from the current farming systems. Season after season, year after year, smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan continue to reap and sow the same crops. Common rainfed, grain crops, like maize and soy, are on high rotation, given their potential for resale in the local markets. But while farmers have a valid concern in focusing their farming efforts to meet the market, the lack of crop diversity in the region creates many problems, both for the land and for human health.
At the World Food Bank, one of our main goals is to ensure that our farmers, and those who are learning from us, understand the benefits and need for crop diversity. At our farm sites in Uganda, and soon elsewhere, we are building out to produce a commercial volume of “staples”, like maize and soy, while ensuring a blend of other highly-marketable crops, like vegetables, for nutrition. The reasons for this are many, but, in short, crop diversity is good for both the land and the people.
When it comes to the land, crop diversity allows for the natural occurrence of healthy soils, as each new crop provides the soil with different nutrients and microorganisms needed to maintain fertile ground. When farmers plant the same seed over and over again, soils become depleted of nutrients and breeding grounds for toxic fungi, like aflatoxin, are created. Crop failure rates then become much higher, and the food produced contains a lower nutritional profile and can even be harmful.
When it comes to human health, as many of us know, a diet heavy on cheap grains alone leads to malnutrition. We all need to balance our diets with a variety of foods, notably fruits and vegetables, to achieve good physical health. Many of the health issues plaguing countries in Africa can be resolved through dietary measures, and, therefore, good farming practices and creating viable markets for affordable, healthy foods are undoubtedly public health concerns.
At our farms, and through the work of our team members like Ronnie, we ensure that we are planting a sizeable mix of crops like sweet potatoes, beans, and citrus, and then getting these products into the local markets at affordable prices, creating a demand for a new staple.
Through repeated effort and education, we can improve the resiliency of both the land and the people throughout Africa and beyond.