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Public-Private Partnerships in Nutrition Ventures

Global Food for Thought by Samanta Dunford
Kansas State Research & Extension
Jagger Harvey, the director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss, and Jisang Yu assess chilies and peanuts for mycotoxin risk in Nepal.

Were the recommendations in the Center on Global Food and Agriculture's 2015 nutrition report successful? The Council examines this question in the third part of our 2021-22 series to find out.

In celebration of the Nutrition for Growth Summit (N4G), this is the third blog in our series retrospectively reflecting on the Council’s recommendations from our 2015 Healthy Food for a Healthy World report.

Three P's and Nutrition

The fourth recommendation in our Healthy Food for a Healthy World report focuses on increasing interest and engagement of public-private partnerships (PPP) directed toward nutrition-sensitive foods. The recommendation is divided into four sub-recommendations: (1) leverage private sector investment in post-harvest production and nutritional value of foods through the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN); (2) strengthen voluntary guidelines to limit marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children; (3) increase technical assistance on food safety through USAID Feed the Future (FTF) regional trade hubs; and (4) fund business accelerator programs to benefit nutrition-specific ventures.

Continuing Need for Private Sector Investment in Nutrition

The first sub-recommendation encourages much-needed private sector investment through the NAFSN. Created in 2012, this was a partnership between the G8 and ten African nations to spur private investment through regulatory and tax changes. NAFSN ultimately faltered in 2018 for numerous reasons: it was hampered by a scandal surrounding the validity World Bank's Doing Business Report, there was controversy over questions about the implied values of the Enabling the Business of Agriculture, and there were concerns about the incentives and negative impact of the initiative.

Data suggest additional barriers emerged for local and smallholder farmers after they were forced to compete with foreign corporations that have greater resources. African nations changed laws governing agriculture and business to favor private investors, which was alarming for Olivier de Schutter, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, and Zitto Kabwe, a Tanzanian parliamentary official. Land initially set aside for private investment for farming was instead used for non-food crops, counter to the original intent of dedicated resources allocated to increase food supply. Also, smallholder farmers were shut out of high-level negotiations and denied access to decision-makers.

Ultimately, NAFSN’s failure does not mean Western nations and private companies should stop trying to encourage investment. Western nations’ underinvestment in the continent created room for China to fill the foreign investment gap. China is now the top investor of infrastructure in Africa. Chinese investment through the Belt and Road Initiative is commonly made up of opaque, commercial interest loans leading to unstable debt-to-GDP ratios. Often, these projects are done through Chinese contractors and lack transparency. Transparent, reliable partnership on issues from infrastructure to business is necessary for successful value chain growth in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). For example, USAID’s regional trade hub initiated a new 5-year program, East Africa Market System Activity, in August 2020, which works closely with intergovernmental partners and the private sector to build resilience in the agricultural sector.

Rising Mycotoxin Contamination

Increased investment and regulation in the food value chain through the private sector and USAID FTF regional trade hubs is the focus of the report’s first and third sub-recommendations, with a particular focus on their potential to address dangerous levels of mycotoxin contamination. They have implemented value chain monitoring systems (increased sampling and testing), supported development of mitigation options, increased institutional learning of food safety issues, and expanded post-harvest extension, all in an effort to increase food safety by reducing mycotoxin exposure. Mycotoxins, naturally occurring toxins that are produced by mold on food, can occur at any time in the food value chain: pre- and post-harvest, storage, and even after food processing in certain situations. Drawn to humid climates and damp conditions, mycotoxins are challenging for farmers and the food industry as this is an issue they are constantly fighting. Standards regarding tolerable intake levels for human and livestock consumption have been developed and used by governments to determine maximum allowable levels of mycotoxin contamination. Mycotoxins are common, but mycotoxin types and levels can vary by location and show distinct regional trends. Mycotoxins are still above acceptable levels in some countries and can cause both acute illness and increase the risk of long-term disease.

Current investment levels have struggled to make an impact, in part due to an absence of urgency in the international community. Additional public investment in improved growing and harvesting practices, better processing infrastructure, and expanded technical assistance, such as Hubs, can reduce mycotoxin contamination. FTF has committed to a program of controlling Aflatoxin, a type of mycotoxin. Initial USDA research has evolved into Aflasafe, a mitigation product that is spread in a field to outcompete Aflatoxin fungi and ultimately reduce or eliminate its impact. Through continued CGIAR and USAID support, 10 country-specific Aflasafe products have been produced. A 10-year study in Nigeria has demonstrated that Alfasafe is a proven mitigation tool for harvesting crops with little to no Alfatoxin content. Wider investment in nutrition-specific ventures can also reduce the harm of mycotoxin exposure through increased diet diversity.

Problematic Advertising to Children

The report’s second sub-recommendation tackles unhealthy foods and the brands marketed directly to children. Companies target advertisements toward children to influence their long-term buying habits. While some industry action has taken place, two-thirds of food companies have no restrictions on the advertising of nutritionally low foods to children. Congressional action in 2009 led to a 2011 Interagency Working Group which produced voluntary, "These standards were widely rebuffed by the food and beverage industry who already had a set of voluntary standards." However, Congress and advocacy groups found industry standards to be insufficient.

Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) is an industry led body to develop voluntary standards. Nineteen companies who comprise most of the advertising aimed at children have pledged to meet the voluntary standards under the "Uniform Nutrition Criteria." In the 2018 CFBAI report, they produced a ‘Revised Criteria’ to fall in line with the FDA’s revised Nutritional Facts Label (NFP) guidelines. However, voluntary guidelines fail to address the significant shortfall in nutrition recommendations for foods targeted towards children. Voluntary guidelines have strengthened since 2015 and in the absence of federal legislation remain the best effort to reduce the unhealthy foods marketed to children.

Internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO) has developed a set of 12 recommendations to reduce the marketing of food with poor nutritional content. No comprehensive monitoring and evaluation plan has been developed to determine whether countries have taken these recommendations to heart. In a report on the progress of prevention and reduction of non-communicable diseases (NCD), the WHO found that children in LMICs are more likely to be obese or overweight compared with high-income countries. Added pressure in this area from the 2010 UN resolution on NCDs has been minimally impactful. However, the Nutrition for Growth Summit spurred some promising private sector commitments. The N4G Responsible Business Pledge includes responsible marketing as one of seven areas for private sector action, and the International Food and Beverage Alliance developed a policy to limit direct marketing to children under 13. This marks a significant step forward after six years of little progress, but the ultimate success of this sub-recommendation is still yet to be seen.

Flourishing Technical Assistance

The third sub-recommendation focuses on increasing technical assistance on food safety regulations through Hubs in Africa. These efforts have seen some success and remain ongoing. Hubs have engaged in specific plans to support agribusiness and create standardization across their coverage areas. However, no comprehensive plan exists to pursue an international food standard, because each Hub conducts its business independently.

In the most recent summary, published by the East African regional trade hub, the Hub evaluated its past, ongoing, and future efforts to improve food safety and quality standards. The East African Hub developed several sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) policy reforms in partnership with organizations, such as Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and East African Community. Reforms include standards for selected staple foods, guidelines for regional biopesticide registration, training on food safety import requirements, and improvement of SPS border inspection. Overall, the slow pace of progress is a sign of the thoughtful dialogue and participation engaged in by partner countries and other regional stakeholders.

The Business of Africa

Healthy Food for a Healthy World’s fourth sub recommendation focuses on scaling nutrition-oriented food accelerator programs. These programs have the potential to kick-start businesses and increase access and affordability to healthy foods. Our recommendation centered around the model of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

GAIN’s Marketplace for Nutritious Foods was supported by the Dutch Ministry for Foreign Affairs and USAID, which ran from 2013-20. It focused on small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), who produce, process, and sell most of the nutritious foods in sub-Saharan Africa. Through a two-pronged approach, SMEs were provided with technical and financial assistance as well as a network of knowledge and distribution support from larger firms and other stakeholders in an effort to increase the quantity and quality of nutritious food in the market.

GAIN has launched a new effort, the Nutritious Foods Financing Facility, to scale its original program. USAID’s FTF Partnerships for Innovation provides a similar kind of agribusiness support. However, it is difficult to measure the success of the program because of a lack of consumer and other market-specific data. To fully put our recommendation into effect, this issue should be taken into stronger consideration in future program design.

An Unstable Landscape for Change

Healthy Food for a Healthy World’s fourth recommendation argues for increased PPP engagement on nutrition issues. The recommendation has seen varied success, but it is still important six years later. New strategies for private investment have emerged, but they must avoid backroom dealing. Mycotoxin level standardization and regulatory harmonization is the first step in incentivizing greater investment in food safety. Reduction of diet-related risk to NCDs is possible through decreased advertising to children. Efforts remain ongoing to harmonize food safety standards in Africa. SME agribusinesses are seeing the results of technical and financial support, but more is needed. Private sector commitments at Nutrition for Growth show the interest of the business community to be a significant partner in government efforts to reduce global malnutrition. Success, however, will be determined by follow-through rather than intent, and the Council will continue to advocate for action-oriented public-private partnerships for global nutrition.

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About the Author
Samanta Dunford
Former Research Assistant, Center on Global Food and Agriculture
Samanta Dunford joined the Council in 2021 to support research and policy activities including engagement with key stakeholders in Washington, D.C.