The complex insecurity of hunger in South Africa

FoodForward South Africa aims to reduce hunger by securing quality food and making it available to those who need it

FoodForward South Africa aims to reduce hunger by securing quality food and making it available to those who need it

The Statistics South Africa report on Early Childhood Development in South Africa found that a third of children in Gauteng and Free State were stunted as a result of chronic malnutrition. South Africa also has one of the highest incidences of low birth-weight rates in the world. This is hardly surprising when nearly 35% of pregnant women said they were unable to buy food for five or more days before the survey.

These statistics barely scrape the proverbial surface of the food security challenge that takes place against a backdrop of gross food wastage — around 10 million tonnes, according to the Food Loss and Waste: Facts and Futures report — there’s plenty of land but limited access to it, resulting in poor nutrition.

“Food security is a complex challenge as it sits amid a myriad of social problems that need to be addressed in our country,” says Andy du Plessis, managing director of FoodForward South Africa, an organisation that aims to reduce hunger by securing quality food and making it available to those who need it. “Poverty and unemployment are two leading factors and they are both complex to unpack and understand, much less address. This is further affected by housing issues, quality of education and social problems that are not being addressed. We are not seeing any big wins anywhere.”

Food security is a national crisis. The South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that, in urban areas, 28% of households were at risk of hunger while 26% were already experiencing hunger. In rural communities these statistics hit 32% and 36% respectively. Food security is more than just the arrival of a meal on the table; it spans a variety of factors that include malnutrition, obesity, hunger seasons and low dietary diversity. 

“We should be paying attention. Roughly 50% of our population is food insecure or at risk of food insecurity,” says Du Plessis. “People are hungry or at risk, skipping meals or going for days without food so they can survive.”

The World Food Programme (WFP) defines people as being food secure when “they have availability and adequate access at all times to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. To achieve this, food must be available, people need access and food needs to be prepared in a way that delivers on nutritional requirements. In South Africa, these three boxes are difficult to tick.

Andy du Plessis, managing director of FoodForward South Africa

“The biggest problem facing food security today is the increasing number of people who are food insecure with no intervention,” says Nolwazi Serero, chief executive of Selemo Sa Balemi, the name ‘The Farmer’s Harvest’ defining the role the company plays in creating value throughout the supply chain. “There are no subsidies to make food more affordable, no considerations around giving farmers incentives so that the value is passed down the chain. Then there is the issue of South Africa having become a net importer and not exporter, which means that food prices will continue to rise.”

For Serero, urbanisation and globalisation are putting the greatest pressure on food security. People are increasingly moving from rural into urban areas and their move is not only putting pressure on the urban supply chain, but it means fewer people are left in rural areas to drive subsistence farming and agriculture.

“The only way you can gain access to food in urban areas is to pay for it,” she says. “With an increasing number of people battling to find employment, particularly young people, this drives food insecurity. They no longer benefit from the harvest that comes from subsistence farming and both family and community managing supply and demand. This is further impacted by globalisation, as South African agriculture faces unfair competition from overseas.”

Access to land is a contentious issue, but it is one that has the potential to transform some of the challenges faced by South Africans who don’t have easy access to food or funds. However, in itself it is a complex equation that includes the limitations of land in the urban space and the access to viable land in the rural one.

“Access to space for people in vulnerable communities so they can grow enough food to sustain their dietary needs is critical,” says Orrin Barr, Food Security Programme head at Ekukhanyeni, a nongovernmental organisation that works with marginalised communities to build resilience to challenges such as food and nutrition insecurity.

“People living in 30-metre-square shacks with three or four families have no access to land to grow anything. We need to provide people with access to areas where they can grow their own food. In urban areas they don’t have access to food and often only get items that are going off already; in rural areas they are dealing with the legacy of abusive farming that has destroyed agriculture.”

For many, the trap that was sprung by poverty keeps them in a bleak grip of hunger and lack of opportunity. Children who suffer from malnutrition and hunger struggle to learn the skills that would allow them to break free and change their future.

“The poverty trap remains one of the leading causes of hunger,” says Tasniem Patel, head of communications at Bayer. “The unfortunate cycle that begins with poverty causes food insecurity, hunger and malnutrition, all negatively affecting physical and cognitive development, which leads to low productivity levels, ultimately trapping people.”

Change is critical. This is a space into which individuals, organisations and government need to step to effect real change. In addition to changing the lives of those who hang on the edge of their last meal, positive shifts in access to food, land and nutrition will fundamentally change the gross imbalances in South Africa.

“We believe that research and development are more important than ever to make agriculture more efficient and sustainable at the same time,” says Patel. “We believe that targeted support for smallholder farmers in Africa plays a key role in food production. Bayer is currently providing education to smallholders on best practice, pest and disease management and how to establish better links to the market.”

Bayer is not alone. Diageo, a global producer of spirits and beer, has committed to sourcing 80% of all produce for its beverages from African suppliers by 2020 and Kellogg’s South Africa has made a move to stop importing the majority of its ingredients, opting to use local suppliers and farmers. The role of the corporate is critical to making tangible changes as they can not only bring production back to South Africa, they can also contribute to job creation and the development of the agricultural sector as a whole.

“In our work we address short-term hunger and food insecurity in a different way,” says Du Plessis. “We take surplus food from the agriculture sector and retailers and use this to feed people. With the agricultural surplus we are involved with food processing alternatives and we work with unskilled people to teach them about agriculture. We want more big brands and manufacturers to come on board. Many are dumping their goods into landfills, but we can use that to feed so many people.”

FoodForward SA supports 600 beneficiary organisations and distributes around 4 400 000kg of food, feeding 250 000 people a day. It’s an organisation that builds a bridge over the chasm between South Africa’s staggering food waste and equally staggering food insecure population. It is one of many non-profit organisations that have stepped in to help mitigate the crisis.  However, it is not just FoodForward that’s making strides in changing the face of food security in South Africa.

“Government, through the education department, is helping through its School Nutrition Programme,” says Craig du Mont, director at RLabs. “Some of the bigger retailers such as Shoprite and Pick n Pay have experimented with initiatives to help underserved communities access food products and by making generous contributions to NGOs. Ultimately we need to focus on a multi-stakeholder approach that covers the entire supply chain and food systems so that the production and delivery of nutritious food can be improved alongside the affordability of food.”

The road that lies ahead is still rocky and largely fallow, but it seems the way forward is one that most stakeholders believe is the most sustainable — collaboration across industry, sector, institution and individual. This may redress the imbalances and shift South Africa’s hungry towards a better future.

The figures that shape our country

According to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s 2017 Global Food Security Index, South Africa is the most food secure country on the African continent. Its ranking of 44th out of 133 countries measured where it stands with regards to food affordability, availability, quality and safety.  It paints a pretty picture, one which doesn’t reveal that millions of South Africans face hunger every day.

A study funded by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security adds a far harsher edge. The study reviewed 169 research studies that took place between 1994 and 2014 and listed a litany of concerns that are not easily addressed nor easily fixed, from the cost-effectiveness of food with poor nutritional value to how the role women play in providing for the home is affected by exclusion and lack of access.

The Statistics South Africa General Household Survey found that 7.4 million people were experiencing hunger in 2016. It also reported that 1 760 946 households had an adult or child who had gone hungry in the past year. These figures are backed up by the South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which estimated that 26% of households were going hungry and that 28.3% were at risk of hunger.

The statistics gathered continue to point to a country that’s facing a hunger crisis. The numbers may be dropping — the statistics listed by Statistics South Africa above have dropped compared with previous years — but the country still remains in 55th position on the Global Hunger Index.

The impact on the country’s people and future is significant. A lack of nutrition and turning to cheap foods with poor nutritional value is linked to chronic illness, obesity and disease. This further reduces life expectancy and economic productivity for millions. It is linked to crime, social malaise and poverty. According to Statistics South Africa, the greatest threat to healthy childhood development is poverty and yet, as of 2015, more than 13 million children are living in poverty. The World Food Programme has said that reaching the world’s 66 million hungry school-age children will cost around R40-billion a year.

What makes this crisis worse is that South Africa has the food. It has the food that could potentially transform lives, and yet it throws away 10 million tonnes of food a year — fruit and vegetables, grains, meat, roots and tubers. According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research the cost of this food loss is approximately 2% of the country’s gross domestic product. In 2013 R71.4-billion was lost to inedible food waste.

Change is coming but it is slow, and far more needs to be done; creating access to nutritious food will have a huge influence on this country’s people, economy and future.