The mood in Addis Ababa is a mix of anticipation and sheer optimism. Today, African and international leaders are meeting in a historic summit at the African Union headquarters in the Ethiopian capital with the sole mandate to meet their biggest challenge - to end hunger in Africa by 2025.
For a continent that has chronically battled hunger - where one out of every four persons is food insecure and where undernutrition is directly or indirectly responsible for 3.5 million child deaths every year - it is only too easy to dismiss this as yet another promise that will most certainly fail. From concerts to G8 pledges to end poverty, people in Africa are used to periodic revivals of global action to make their lives better.
Yet, with the huge burden of the languishing initiatives and unmet commitments, there is wave of confidence sweeping Africa. From Ouagadougou to Addis Ababa - cities, suburbs, small towns and villages are experiencing a rapid transformation fuelled by an unprecedented growth in economy and wealth across the African nations. The markets and businesses are doing brisk trade and in many places the demand is outstripping supply. According to the World Bank, growth has been widespread, with more than a third of countries posting annual growth rates of at least 6 percent in 2012 and another 40 percent growing between 4 and 6 percent.
Even in the most impoverished of places, the economic activity remains strong. There may not be enough food accessible to many, but mobile phone signals have reached the remotest of communities. Selling mobile top-up cards has reached scales of an industrial activity. The largely young population across Africa is driving the economic activity to new heights. Despite its crises, Africa is undergoing a phenomenal transition. The future may still be unsure, but one thing becoming increasingly certain - the growing confidence among the African nations. It is this sentiment that can prove pivotal in how Africa can join up together to address its most critical issues, beginning with hunger and malnutrition.
Malnutrition and food crisis are inseparable. They must be addressed together. Plan / Brian Sokol
Africa is the only region in the world that has seen hunger numbers grow since 1990. The impact of this is not just restricted to a huge human cost but also includes an enormous economic burden. Hunger and undernutrition is estimated to generate costs of up to 11 per cent to Africa's public system. Mortality rate due to undernutrition has reduced the current workforce by up to 8 per cent and cumulative losses associated with undernutrition are said to represent between 2 and 16 per cent of the GDP in African countries.
It is now being widely acknowledged that to end hunger in Africa or almost anywhere in the world, it will not be enough to simply increase the production of food. Access to food requires more than just availability. There is a need to address the many inter-connected factors that keep people from being food secure, including malnutrition, poverty and persistent social and economic inequalities.
The summit is making a sincere attempt to acknowledge these complex dynamics of hunger. The suggested remedies include opening the doors to import successful hunger reduction ideas from countries like Brazil, China and Vietnam. There is also a clear interest to learn from the progress made within Africa in nations like Ethiopia, Niger and Malawi where a number of community-based interventions have shown great results.
What is interesting from development perspective is that the hunger challenge is being extended beyond the governments by engaging with the non-state actors such as the farmers' bodies, private sector and the Civil Society to search for effective solutions. Community development organisation Plan International has successfully piloted innovative community-based approaches to tackle hunger and malnutrition in several places in Africa. In the Sahel, Plan has used organised micro-finance groups of women such as the Village Savings and Loans Associations to make the food accessible in times of need and to prevent malnutrition. The benefits extend far beyond just mitigating hunger such as it can allow children to stay at school; it can prevent children from being forced into labour; or it can prevent girls becoming child brides as in many cases parents tend to marry girls early during drought periods to reduce their food burden.
Strong political leadership is a critical requirement in ending hunger. Brazil's success story of ending hunger - being shared at the summit by former president Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva himself, is an example of how unwavering political commitment and leadership Is fundamental to ending hunger. Some examples are already there in Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations has recognised 11 African countries for meeting internationally agreed targets for halving the population of hungry people well before the 2015 deadline established by the Millennium Development Goals. The summit must galvanise the African governments widen this progress to cover the rest of the continent.
So, despite doubts and concerns, and a legacy of unmet promises, there is still hope for action in the African Union. Never before have the African nations enjoyed such economic strength and confidence to make change happen. The governments must now match it with political commitment. They must seize this opportunity to end hunger in Africa.