Horticulture Fellow Annette Nyangaresi believes that biofortification could provide a much-needed solution to the food crisis that has put millions in the country at the risk of malnutrition. In this interview, she also lets us in on the exciting projects she is working on and why being an African Food Fellow is so important to her.
Who is Annette, the food systems leader?
Annette is an experienced professional in the agriculture and food sector, wearing two hats as a food scientist and an environmental advocate. She sees healthy food systems as being irrevocably linked to healthy soils. She appreciates different perspectives and technologies around biological production and environmental conservation and how they are linked to food and nutrition security.
Tell us about your work at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. What are your responsibilities?
At GAIN, I am a technical specialist supporting fortification and biofortification programmes. Largely, I am involved in designing programmes, monitoring and evaluation, and curating knowledge and disseminating it. I am also a member of the Environmental Working Group at GAIN that is trying to align environmental issues with GAIN’s nutrition agenda.
What is the most exciting thing you are working on currently?
I am supporting the development and implementation of a digital system to enhance fortification quality in edible oil in Africa and Asia. It is an exciting project that is now at the pilot phase, and we expect that its going to greatly contribute to the improvement of fortification quality across the value chain and help various actors including regulators and governments in decision making. Overall, industrial fortification and biofortification have great potential as sustainable and cost-effective food-based strategies and play a complementary role in combating micronutrient deficiencies.
Kenya, especially in urban areas, has a double burden of under and over nutrition. In what ways can efficient food systems address this problem and create a healthier society?
The burden is even triple now because of the high prevalence of micronutrient deficiencies (hidden hunger). There is a lot that can be done but I think what a priority would be is to make nutritious food more accessible and affordable, and create incentives that would drive changed behaviour around food choice and consumption patterns. When faced with shocks like droughts and pandemics, coupled with factors such as inflation and unemployment, the urban poor are most affected, and they give up on foods rich in proteins and micronutrients as a coping strategy. On the other hand, the mid- and high- income earning groups have access to convenient but unhealthy foods rich in fat and sugars.
There needs to be a check and a balance between these two groups. One way of doing this is that government should have a tax regime that discourages the production, purchase and consumption of unhealthy foods and creates incentives and enabling environments to promote the consumption of healthy foods. In addition, social protection policies that protect the poor and marginalized should be put in place to protect those consumers that cannot afford nutrient-dense meals. Examples of social protection strategies that have worked is the inclusion of the School Feeding Programmes and Public Distribution Systems at the national level.
If you were president of Kenya for a day, which is the one issue or challenge in your industry that you would solve immediately?
I would prioritize the rising food prices issue that has left many vulnerable Kenyans unable to afford nutritious foods, forcing them to replace protein and micronutrient dense foods with energy dense food. This is a huge threat to the population especially for women and young children. It is sad that nothing is in place to protect the Kenyan consumers against the rising food prices, other than well-wishers coming together to distribute food to those that cannot afford.
What are some of your greatest achievements as a health and nutrition researcher?
I am proud of many achievements, but the one that has really impacted my professional path is that I have been privileged to work with so many brilliant minds across the globe and this has broadened my perspectives and thinking, as a researcher. I am also proud that through these networks and collaborative efforts, we have positively impacted the lives and health of many vulnerable people, directly and indirectly.
Looking back on your journey as a food systems leader, what would you do differently?
I am a strong believer that leadership of whatever kind is not born but nurtured and my journey had been that of learning, unlearning, and growth through mentorship. What I would do different is that I would be more intentional about leading the change I wanted to see in the food system. I am glad that the African Food Fellowship is giving me the opportunity and skills to do that now.
You have just joined the African Food Fellowship. What are you most looking forward to in your journey with us?
I am looking forward to getting a deeper understanding of how we can collaboratively take actions to transform the Kenyan food system. We are analyzing the priorities for food systems action and ways to monitor the impacts of action on the wider food system. I also hope to grow my network through interaction with the faculty and Fellows.