Addressing Food Security in West Africa

Nutrition insecurity affects a massive 40 million people in the Western African region, and fish theft and piracy is at an all time high. As the demand for fish increases, we must work together to find global solutions for food security and to enable broader, more sustainable and affordable access.

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At Plantish, we are committed to working with a diverse group of people. We are big believers in the idea that working with people from a variety of religions, races, and backgrounds breeds creativity and innovation. We were lucky enough to have an intern from South Sudan, who really opened our eyes as to what is happening in West Africa, in terms of food security. Nutrition insecurity affects a massive 40 million people in the Western African region and we’d like to explore why, and how we can try and overcome this.

South Sudan faces a famine threat as hunger deepens due to drought, floods and an uncertain political future. Credit: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

Food security is a measure of an individual’s ability to access food that is nutritious and sufficient in quality. I found out that assessing whether a region has food security involves looking at whether food is readily available, whether it is accessible (price), its nutritional components, and if there is a consistent stream of food access.

In West Africa, food is unfortunately not readily available. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the biggest threats to food security in this region is “human activities”. This is especially true in the coastal regions, where overfishing and piracy pose a huge threat to peoples’ sustenance as well as their livelihoods and income.

When we dug a little deeper into the role of fishing in all of this, we understood that the West African region has seen a huge amount of overfishing. Sadly the region is also notorious for fish theft and piracy. Large foreign industrial vessels come to the West African shores because they are some of the most fertile territories in the world. At this point, the fish population has shrunk tremendously due to overfishing and climate change. These vessels contribute to this depletion by using destructive fishing methods including bottom trawling, where huge nets are cast in the bottom of the sea, capturing many fish but also other marine life in that area. 

An illegal fishing vessel caught off the coast of Sierra Leone, a region where illegal fishing is a serious problem. Credit: Reuters

I also recognize that, even though this destruction mostly happens via foreign vessels and commercial trawlers, it’s West African locals who are left to deal with the adverse effects of such practices. The fish caught off the West African waters by these large vessels are intended for sale in other markets of the world which depletes the available sources of protein for the locals. This leaves very little for the Western African population where 40% rely on fish as their main source of protein. According to the UN’s Africa Renewal Report, 12.3 million people in this region depend on fishing for their income. As a result of the problems I’ve discussed, many find themselves needing to switch jobs or, even worse, needing to migrate to other places for better lives, which in itself is a daunting and often unfeasible task. On top of this, this lack of food security results in malnutrition and cognitive defects. Malnourished populations are also at a higher risk of depression, anxiety and sleep disorders.

KARI and FAO started a farm on school land in 2011 as an experimental test site to see if the new how new technologies can provide stronger food security, rather than the reliance of fishing and livestock. Credit: FAO

Having looked at the big picture, it seems that overfishing is driven by our incessant demand for more fish. It’s scary how, just by eating fish, we can become a participant in something that leads to so much destruction. As we become more aware of how we affect our environments, more start-ups and individuals are stepping up to the challenge of food security in the alternative-protein industry by being brave enough to disrupt the status quo. The industry is still young but has a lot of promise, especially in regions like West Africa where protein insufficiency is critical and fish consumption is at an all-time high.

We must work together to find global solutions for food security and to enable broader, more sustainable and affordable access.

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