Bulawayo, Zimbabwe — Oluwaseun Sangoleye's son developed rickets after rejecting baby formula. So she started a business to make natural baby cereal from locally-sourced ingredients in Nigeria.
"My personal experience opened me up to the dearth of nutrient dense, affordable meal solutions for infants and young children," Sangoleye told IPS. Baby Grubz products are targeted at low and middle-income women with children aged six months to three years.
Sangoleye is one of a small but growing number of women who are heading up agribusinesses in Africa, some of which are producing innovative products to combat malnutrition.
While there are no conclusive figures on the number of women participating in agribusinesses across the continent, the African Women in Agribusiness Network (AWAN) states it works in 42 African countries, linking 1,600 women's networks in different sectors.
In the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) says healthy diets, including fruits; vegetables and protein-rich foods cost more than $1.90 a day -- the global poverty threshold. Estimates show than more than three billion people cannot afford a healthy diet and in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, 57 percent of the population is affected.
Since opening Shais Foods in 2014, Mirriam Nalomba has sought to transform grain-based mono-diets in Zambia by offering baby cereals from millet, sorghum, cassava, soya bean and Vitamin A orange maize.
"We cannot use imported foods to combat malnutrition; locally-grown crops will produce nutritious foods," Nalomba told IPS.
The Food Sustainability Index (FSI) developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition (BCFN), shows that Zambia has high prevalence of malnutrition and stunting for children under five years of age as scored under nutritional challenges, one of the three pillars of the FSI.
Chronic malnutrition affects 39 percent of children under five years in Zambia, according to the FAO.
Nalomba's business model of using locally-grown crops has proved foresightful as COVID-19 lockdowns have disrupted markets across the continent. But she lamented that COVID-19 restrictions have affected her plans of expanding her market. Nalomba has started selling her products online.
Sangoleye told IPS that while the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to access quality raw materials, she had gained more customers during the lockdown. It's also led her to start innovating in other areas of packaging.
"One of our distributors shared an emotional story of how three women bought a jar of Grubz and shared it into three equal parts for their babies to augment their breast milk," Sangoleye said.
"This has challenged us to start looking into the production of smaller packs that are more affordable and guarantees food safety for the children with compliance to physical distancing."
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a 10 percent decrease in sales for Sanavita, a Tanzanian social enterprise, which supports more than 1,000 smallholder farmers growing Orange Fleshed Sweetpotato (OFSP), pro vitamin A maize, and iron and zinc-fortified beans, which are processed into nutritious flours.
Sanavita sells about 1,000 kg of flour each month and estimates that it has about 10,000 customers.
"We are aiming to end hidden hunger in Tanzania and this means growth for us," Sanavita founder Jolenta Joseph told IPS. In October, the FAO listed Tanzania as one of the African countries to be hardest-hit by adverse weather in the coming years. The low-income country is currently listed by the U.N. agency as not having achieved its hunger target of halving the proportion of the chronically undernourished with "lack of progress of deterioration".
Malnutrition on the rise but COVID-19 will make it worse
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of current food systems and has amplified poverty, inequalities and food insecurity, according to the BCFN, which has outlined 10 bold interdisciplinary actions for the transformation of food systems.
In an earlier interview with IPS, Dr. Marta Antonelli, head of research at BCFN, and Katarzyna Dembska, a researcher at BCFN, said the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the ability of those who are food insecure to buy food. As a result there is a risk in the decline of dietary quality as a result of compromise employment and the revocation of schemes such as school deeding programmes and shock as a result of the breakdown of food markets.
COVID-19 has impacted on food systems, increased food prices have a direct impact on the quality of diets, preventing access to fresh fruits and vegetables as well as dairy, meat and fish as a result of people failing to reach wholesale and retail markets, the researchers said.
Debisi Araba, a public policy and strategy specialist and managing director at the Alliance for a Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), told IPS humanity has been innovating for a long time to ensure people are nourished. It is important to promote agriculture innovation in technologies, processes, programmes and systems in private enterprise and public policy.
With the current COVID-19 crisis, health and nutrition is suffering from multiple shocks, Lawrence Haddad, executive director of Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), told IPS.
"SMEs across Africa and Asia are vital in the pandemic response but their ability to operate is being put under increasing strain," Haddad said, adding that SMEs need continued support and investment to adapt and innovate.
Investing in agriculture innovation
But COVID-19 has not been the only obstacle to the growth of these women-led agribusinesses.
Amandla Ooko-Ombaka, economist and associate partner at global management firm McKinsey, told IPS that women face a combination of challenges in starting and running an agribusiness because of their disproportionate access to information and technology to access agronomic advice and payments. She added that women consistently have less access to capital to increase their productivity and are 50 percent less likely than men to own their land.
In sub-Saharan Africa, women constitute the highest average agriculture labour force participation rate in the world of more than 50 percent in many countries, especially in West Africa, according to the FAO.
"Food systems worldwide are decades behind other sectors in adopting digital technology and innovation," Ooko-Ombaka added.
"The growth of mobile access has been an important unlock for innovation in African agriculture for most of our countries 70-90 percent of land is held by smallholder farmers. If we cannot reach them, the impact in the sector is muted," Ooko-Ombaka told IPS via e-mail.
Ooko-Ombaka said in sub-Saharan Africa about 400 digital agriculture solutions have come to market -- 60 percent of which came to market only in the last two years -- serving user needs, including financial services, market linkages, supply chain management, advisory and information and business intelligence.
An analysis by McKinsey notes that the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted food systems in Africa but continues to open the gap for innovation.
Ooko-Ombaka says the agriculture value chain can benefit from innovation, particularly in the COVID-19 era where profound shifts are projected around marketplaces, making it critical for farmers to have access to markets.
"With restrictions on movement, interacting with farmers and value-chain partners digitally may become more important," Ooko-Ombaka said, predicting that food-distribution chains, particularly in urban areas, are very likely to become more digitised.
Farmers may increasingly seek e-advice, digital savings products, or access to government subsidies that might be offered through digital wallets, she said adding that agricultural players can explore digital services, including marketing, extension to farmers, financial products and supply chain tracking.
Determination and perseverance needed
Despite the obstacles the women are positive and committed to their work.
"It is not easy running a woman-led business, but hard work, passion, commitment and the ability to plan and set priorities are keys for success," Sanavita founder Joseph said.
Maame Akua Manful, founder of a Ghanaian social enterprise Fieldswhite Co. Ltd, which makes OFSP yoghurt, concurs that running a woman-led agribusiness comes with a lot of sacrifice and spontaneous decision-making.
"It is not easy learning how to manage a team of men and communicate in a way that they would understand, but I feel that with determination and perseverance every woman can bring out that entrepreneurial ability in her to make things work," she told IPS.