Read, Debate: Engage.

Will food banks nourish Africa's future?

September 19, 2023
topic:Food Security
tags:#food security, #Ukraine war, #Sustainable Agriculture, #food waste
located:Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana
by:Bob Koigi
Inside the attempt to end the vicious cycle of food waste and hunger.

Imagine this: more than 800 million people worldwide are grappling with hunger and malnutrition, a number having surged by a record-122 million between 2019 and 2022 due to COVID-related disruptions and the impact the Ukrainian war had on global food supplies. 

All the while, close to one third of food produced in the world is lost or wasted

The burden of hunger

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the situation is particularly acute, with an estimated 146 million people facing severe food insecurity occasioned by a confluence of factors such as climate change, prolonged droughts, conflict, global economic shocks and, more recently, COVID-19. East Africa and the Horn of Africa, for instance, are grappling with phenomena they haven’t experienced in decades, including a locust invasions that decimate harvests in a matter of minutes. 

Notably, the majority of East African countries have appeared in the recent ‘Hunger Hotspots’ report of the UN, which highlight nations where food insecurity is acute and is likely to worsen. 

Ironically, many of the countries in this region lose up to 40 per cent of their food supply due to poor harvesting and storage methods and a lack of infrastructure to transport produce.

"The [worsening] climate crisis coupled with ,global shocks are exacerbating an already dire situation," said Nelson Maina, a communications manager at the Kenya-based agriculture firm Elgon Kenya. "There is emergence of new climate-related diseases and the prolonged dry spells or floods that sometimes take a toll on food producers."

He added, "But even when the farmers get good harvests, there seems to be broken systems that do not ensure movement of that food from farm to markets seamlessly and in a way that benefits the producer and the consumer." 

Banking on food redistribution

Alive to this gap, private entities and community-based organisations have come up with an innovative food redistribution model aimed at reducing food waste and guaranteeing access to those most in need. 

Food banking, a concept that has long been practised globally, is now quickly gaining momentum in Africa, with organisations mobilising to rescue hundreds of tonnes of food that would otherwise be wasted and distribute it to those in need. 

Food banks operate on a community-based approach, sourcing surplus food from farms, markets and households and sharing it with food insecure people in heir vicinity. Food bank organisations partner with local companies and leaders to identify excess food products that are likely to be discarded. Furthermore, since food banks are locally-run, they are able to pin-point hunger hotspots and determine where the need is greatest and how to efficiently deliver food to those locations. 

In certain cases, food banks have been credited with supporting school feeding programmes, enabling children who might have otherwise skipped school due to food scarcity to remain in the classroom. 

Taming emissions

Globally, food banks have helped the agriculture sector reduce its carbon footprint at a time when food loss and waste is responsible for 8 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gases emissions from food landfills, experts say, are of such magnitude that if they were considered a separate entity, they would rank as the third largest emitter globally, right below the United States and China. 

Food banks across the world have stepped up their resolve to tackle this crisis. From the first one that was established in the early 1960s to the thousands currently operating in over 80 countries worldwide, they have served as a first line of defense against hunger and have helped reduce pollution rates by minimising food waste.

In 2019. for instance, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, food banks across the world distributed an estimated 3.7 million tonnes of excess food from landfills, reaching 66.5 million people who were facing hunger. This prevented the emission of roughly 12.39 billion kilograms of greenhouse gases. 

A Global food banking movement 

Most food bank organisations operate under the umbrella Global FoodBanking Network (GFN), which includes 700 community-based food banks spread across close to 50 countries with over 400,000 volunteers. The organisation works to support community-led solutions to alleviate hunger through advocacy, research, strengthening partnerships, training and financial support.

There are seven members of GFN in Africa currently. 

"What makes the food bank model effective in addressing hunger is the community-basis in which food banks are established and supported to address local food insecurity needs," said Douglas O’Brien, Vice President of Programmes at the Global FoodBanking Network.

"Rooted in the socio-economic and cultural context of the communities in which they are formed, food banks have proven an essential lifeline to millions of vulnerable people at risk of hunger around the globe."

In 2022, members under the GFN banner reached 32 million people with healthy, nutritious foods. 

In addition to receiving support from the Global FoodBanking Network, the organisations secure financial assistance through a combinaiton of fundraising, donor support, partnerships with private and public entities and contributions from individuals.   

"Food banks have faced enormous pressure over the last several years, most notably driven by COVID, and in the past two years the lingering effect of supply chain disruptions, food and energy price spike and the cost-of-living crisis, conflict and other emergencies," Douglas said. "In fact, of the 42 emerging and developing economy countries served by GFN members, seven are deemed WFP Hunger Hotspots."

Food Banking Kenya (FBK) is one of the network's member organisations. Established in 2017, the NGO has rolled out various interventions targeting vulnerable communities through its mobile food banking service. 

Working with farmers who produce excess food, it collects food products ranging from vegetables to cereals and uses its refrigerated trucks to reach a vast food insecure population by identifying  hunger hotspots with the help of its volunteers.  

The organisation maintains food banking depots in strategic areas of the country, which serve as central points for food collection, sorting, storage and distribution of food items.

Through its Agricultural Recovery Programme, FBK partners with smallholder farmers, large scale commercial farms and pack-houses near a major airport in Kenya and collects excess food at a subsidised rate, which it later redistributes to vulnerable people. The NGO has reportedly prevented more than 400 tonnes of fruits and vegetables from going to waste in 2021 through this programme. 

The organisation also runs a school feeding programme that so far granted over 7,000 children in informal settlements in Nairobi access to nutritious food while keeping them in school. 

FBK has also provided emergency aid to livestock-rearing communities by distributing food items like maize, rice, fresh fruits, and vegetables and assisting them in adopting climate-resilient farming techniques.

As of this reporting, the organisation has reached over 3.5 million people with over 500 tonnes of food.

"Food banks need continuous support and commitment to ensure their long-term sustainability and address challenges like logistics and distribution, " said Teresiah Muiruri, a food banker at FBK. "Without ongoing financial and operational support, food banks may struggle to meet the increasing demand for food assistance."

Kanana Gitoga, Muiruri colleague, added: "Overall, addressing these challenges requires a collaborative and multi-stakeholder approach involving government agencies, NGOs, businesses and local communities.

"By working together, these challenges can be overcome, allowing food banks to effectively provide food assistance to those in need."

Meanwhile in Nigeria, the Lagos Food Bank operates nutrition-focused and self-sustenance programmes that address issues of malnutrition, hunger, unemployment and poverty through its interventions. It currently runs eight different programmes serving specific vulnerable groups such as women, children and widows, among others.

The programmes include the school feeding, Temporary Food Assistance and The Nutritious Meal Plan Intervention for Vulnerable Mothers and Children among others. 

The organisation claims to have reached over 2,000,000 beneficiaries across 170 communities with a manpower of over 24,000 volunteers as of this reporting. In 2022, it received over 109,000 first-time beneficiary visits and more than 200,000 repeat beneficiaries’ visits at its food bank alone.

"The intervention programmes have a success rate of 98 per cent. We have come across acutely malnourished mothers and children who were enrolled into the programme being discharged within two months of enrollment with over 550 served in the year 2022," said Dr Michael A. Sunbola, the executive director of Lagos Food Bank.

"We have also established over 500 beneficiaries with their small-scale agricultural ventures,with over 100 of them becoming self-employed and financially secure. On average each year, we impact the lives of over 300,000 individuals directly through our community intervention programmes."

Over in Ghana, FoodForAllAfrica, a network established in 2015, currently manages a range of food-related initiatives. These include a children's feeding programme, an emergency relief programme that offers support to Ghanaians during crises through the distribution of essential food items and relief supplies and an Agricultural Food Loss Recovery project. The latter focuses on mitigating food loss within the agricultural supply chain by collaborating with farmers and various organisations.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the organisation has reached over 150,000 beneficiaries, among them more than 80,000 children with regular food supply amounting to over 400 tons. 

"As the first and largest food bank in Ghana, we often collaborate with other organisations to address the root causes of hunger and advocate for long-term solutions to food security challenges," said Barbara Ofori-Darko, a fundraising officer at FoodForAllAfrica.

"At a time when humanitarian budgets are being slashed and donors are redistributing their funding to cater to other pressing needs even as the world, and especially developing countries, continue to be buffeted by emerging shocks, food banks are positioning themselves as an efficient alternative in tackling the twin challenges of food insecurity and climate change," said Maina from the agriculture firm Elgon Kenya. 

'Handouts will only fan poverty'

But there are those who argue against the food bank model, claiming it is unsustainable.

"At a time when the food system is facing enormous pressure, we should be encouraging everyone to produce food, looking for innovative farming mechanisms and streamlining the value chain from farm to folk to ensure we are producing more and it is getting to everyone," Meshack Kung’u, the head of Green Hope Farmers Network, a Kenyan community-based agriculture organisation, said. "The culture of giving people free food and handouts only fans poverty and is not sustainable in the long run."

As climate-related challenges increasingly strain food production, global economic disruptions impact supply chains and a growing population results in more mouths to feed, models such as food banking have shown their effectiveness at food redistribution. But can they be counted on in the long run?

Image by Joel Muniz.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Kenya Nigeria Ghana
Embed from Getty Images
In Sub Saharan Africa, an estimated 146 million people face severe food insecurity.
Embed from Getty Images
Food banking, a concept that has long been practised globally, is gaining momentum in Africa.
Embed from Getty Images
In addition to receiving support from the Global FoodBanking Network, the organisations secure financial assistance through a combinaiton of fundraising, donor support, partnerships with private and public entities and contributions from individuals.