Nutrition programmes by foreign donors in Africa are generally focused on treatment and technical solutions, like vitamin and mineral supplementation. But African researchers and policy makers ask for community-based interventions to prevent, rather than only remedy, nutritional problems. They also want Africa to take charge of research priorities to beat malnutrition and hunger. These are the findings of the two-year EU-funded SUNRAY ('Sustainable nutrition research for Africa in the years to come') project, which will be published in PLOS Medicine.
"In Benin, for example, international agencies implement programmes intended to solve acute malnutrition. However, the real malnutrition problem in the country is chronic malnourishment," said Dr. Eunice Nago Koukoubou of the Université d'Abomey-Calavi in Benin. According to demographic and health surveys in this West-African country, the prevalence of stunting among children aged less than 5 years increased from 25% (1990) to 45% (2011). Nearly one out of three of these children suffered from the severe form. While malnutrition rates are in decline globally, most African countries lag behind.
African researchers also warn that the current nutrition research agenda is driven mainly by funding bodies from outside Africa. They call for additional efforts to promote cross-African networking of researchers, as well as interactions between researchers and policymakers.
"Africa needs to take charge of research priorities if it is to beat hunger and malnutrition. African research is mostly descriptive and generates too little new evidence. Most of it is driven by a donor-defined agenda and performed in collaboration with researchers from developed countries, while collaboration within Africa remains very poor," added Nago Koukoubou.
If donor countries and organisations, including the European Union, want to beat food insecurity and malnutrition, they need to change their approach. That is the conclusion of the coordinator of the SUNRAY project, Prof. Patrick Kolsteren of the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp:
"We need to shake up nutritional research in Africa and turn it upside down," said Prof. Kolsteren. "Currently, researchers from developed countries search African partners for joint research based on funding and research priorities defined outside Africa. Instead, the research agenda should be based on needs identified within the continent. Calls for research proposals of donors should match this agenda."