Perhaps the most critical business lesson I have learnt is that a country’s most valuable resource isn’t the oil it sits on or the number of ports it builds — it’s its people.
In Africa, we have achieved impressive growth by extracting natural resources, like oil and minerals, and building out our physical infrastructure. But it is our young people that will drive our future success. By 2034, Africa will have the world’s largest workforce, standing at 1.1 billion people. And by 2050, Nigeria is projected to have the world’s third largest population, overtaking the United States’ in terms of population. For this generation to thrive as adults and drive economic progress in Africa, we need to invest in their health and wellbeing, and perhaps most critically, in their ability to learn and apply new skills in an ever-changing global economy.
Today, one of the biggest factors undermining our progress is malnutrition. Poor nutrition prevents children from realizing their full potential — stunting not only their physical and intellectual growth, but also their educational and employment opportunities. In my country, Nigeria, nearly one in three children is stunted, meaning that one child in three is less likely to learn in school and become a healthy and productive adult. Looking more broadly, more than one-third of all stunted children—approximately 59 million—live in Africa.
Employers today no doubt feel the consequences of malnutrition, already identifying an inadequately skilled workforce as a major constrain to their businesses.
But as corporate leaders, we can change this trend and prepare for our future — using tools already at our fingertips. One of the most powerful solutions for malnutrition is within the food processing industry: the fortification of staple foods such as wheat and maize flour, cooking oil, salt, and sugar with essential vitamins and minerals.
We’ve seen the impact of food fortification on industrialized countries, where fortification has been practiced for centuries. For example, the fortification of salt with iodine has virtually eliminated goiter, and the fortification of milk with vitamin D has effectively prevented rickets in the United States.
In Africa and other developing regions, however, food fortification has only been implemented over the last three decades. Due to advocacy efforts and collaboration between public health organizations, governments, and industry leaders, we’ve seen impressive progress: almost all countries in Sub-Saharan Africa now mandate fortification with one or more nutrients. The Nigerian government has been a leader in this, establishing food fortification legislation before most other African nations and achieving universal salt iodization before any other Sub-Saharan country.
Yet persistent gaps in quality leave vulnerable populations at risk. In Nigeria, for example, food fortification mandates of staple foods are on the books, yet many people are still deficient in one or more micronutrients. The most recent data shows that 30 percent of children under the age of five are deficient in vitamin A and 68 percent are anemic.
African food processors and millers can — and should — help drive down these numbers and the prevalence of micronutrient deficiency, but they, too, face obstacles. Though food fortification is incredibly cost-effective, it’s still a cost for food processors, many who operate on razor-thin margins. Additionally, many smaller and medium-scale processors do not have the resources or know-how to ensure consistent and adequate fortification.
Companies, however, are taking on these barriers with renewed energy and effort. For example, the Strengthening African Processors of Fortified Foods Initiative (SAPFF), a four-year, US$10m programme led by TechnoServe, in collaboration with Partners in Food Solutions (PFS), and funded by the Bill it’s the smart one too. To that end, the Aliko Dangote Foundation Integrated Nutrition (ADFIN) programme is embarking on a five-year, US$50m programme to treat one million severely acute malnourished children and reach one million vulnerable households.
As industry leaders, we can set an example by investing in our people. By taking a critical first step to help the next generation live up to its potential, we will help fuel Africa’s next stage of economic growth and can call on others to do the same.
I call on my fellow CEOs to pledge to ensure that we produce adequately fortified foods in line with government standards and put our own personal commitment behind ensuring safe, adequately fortified, and nutritious products reach the populations most in need—and ultimately build the minds and bodies of our next generation. Let us decide today to spur this ripple effect through a joint commitment. Let us, together, fortify Africa.
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