New light on sub-Saharan nutrition research
Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa still suffer from high rates of malnutrition, despite international efforts to address the issue. An EU-funded project brought together African researchers and stakeholder organisations to define research priorities that could improve results and strengthen the continent's capacity in this field.
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Malnutrition is a major concern for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Although a 2000 Millennium Development Goal was to cut hunger in half, nutrition initiatives in this part of the world have not had the success seen elsewhere. The SUNRAY project brought together African nutrition researchers and stakeholders to re-think action for the region.
Together they identified gaps in current research and proposed new focus areas that could produce better outcomes. They also proposed ways of increasing African research capacity so that nutrition policies are more responsive to local contexts.
There is a big divide between the external research agenda and African needs, says SUNRAY project coordinator Patrick Kolsteren, previously at the Prince Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine and now at Ghent University, both in Belgium. He adds that African researchers are in a unique position to correctly identify underlying causes of malnutrition and potential solutions.
Adjusting the focus
The projects analysis of research on sub-Saharan nutrition showed that although much is published by African researchers, it is rarely directly applicable to policy development and there is little cross-border collaboration within Africa. Meanwhile, internationally-led research emphasises treatment and technical solutions for malnutrition crises and is far removed from priorities suggested by African research.
SUNRAY participants proposed that research into community-based malnutrition prevention, promotion of changes in behaviour that impacts food use and interventions for food and nutrition security could improve nutrition more sustainably.
Concrete actions could include promotion of traditional African foods, food systems and farming models, microcredit and social protection programmes and local strategies to cope with volatile food markets and climate change, they suggested.
To increase African input into nutrition research for the region, they called on the continents governments to give the topic a higher priority, develop country-specific research agendas and international funding and support local researchers with theme-specific training. They also urged funding agencies to better include local peoples priorities in their plans.
They reached their conclusions through three regional workshops in Africa that brought together nearly 120 researchers and policymakers from 40 African countries, as well as follow-on consultations with other stakeholders such as NGOs, government officials, UN agencies, SMEs and industry representatives.
Recommendations were followed up with a proposed research and funding roadmap for better nutrition action, which was shared with the workshop participants and around 60 non-African stakeholders from academia, donors, the International Union of Nutrition Societies and specialist projects for sub-Saharan nutrition.
In addition to the workshops and consultations, SUNRAY strengthened African research capacity by creating:
SUNRAY helped empower African researchers to develop an African response to nutrition challenges, says Kolsteren. It could also help them develop strategies to mitigate nutrition impacts of environmental challenges.
The project has also helped promote greater focus on evidence-based nutrition policy and build up a network of African researchers, with follow-on developments such as:
Kolsteren argues for continued support for research for Africa by Africans.
There is a lot of potential but we are not seeing it, he says, adding that SUNRAYs collaborative approach was very productive. It generated more creative thinking, a broader view and was more focused than a top-down approach.