By Patrick Osemene

New Effort to Use Public Rankings and Self-Regulation to Boost Food Fortification in Nigeria

Can self-regulation in the food industry deliver better nutrition for millions of Nigerians? A new initiative is showing that it can.

Self-regulation is an often overlooked mechanism for ensuring the adoption of—and adherence to—sustainable business practices, and it is an important enhancement to government oversight. Studies on the subject tend to arrive at the conclusion that personal self-regulation is one of the greatest attributes of good leadership, and more recent studies in industrial-organizational psychology similarly find that self-regulation by organizations serves to entrench core values and clearly establish a culture by asking questions, observing, and analyzing the key characteristics that define an entity.

As Nigeria grapples with increasing food insecurity and the highest malnutrition burden in Africa, a new innovation to improve nutrition and public-health outcomes through increased food fortification highlights the important role of self-regulation. The Micronutrient Fortification Index (MFI), set to launch publicly in September, is an industry-owned initiative to generate data and publicly share rankings of companies’ progress on fortifying their products with essential vitamins and minerals.  This self-regulatory system will incentivize food processors to meet government standards, inform corrective action, and ultimately deliver better nutrition for Nigerians.

The Malnutrition Challenge in Nigeria

The prevalence of various forms of malnutrition—stunting, wasting, and other vitamin and mineral deficiencies—in Nigeria is high. An estimated 361,000 Nigerian children die annually from malnutrition and other related diseases; every day, the country loses about 2,300 children below 5 years of age and 145 women of childbearing age. With an estimated 105 million Nigerians living below the poverty line, many households do not have access to the varied selection of nutritious foods that ordinarily constitute a balanced diet, relying instead primarily on grain and tuber foods that are often lacking in essential nutrients.

In 2002, the Nigerian government mandated the fortification of main staple foods, including flour, oil, maize, semolina and sugar. Despite this, figures from the National Demographic Health Survey conducted in 2018 show that Nigeria is lagging behind compared to its peers, with an unacceptable proportion of its population malnourished or undernourished. While regulatory compliance levels have varied with each staple food carrier, for a variety of reasons they have generally tended to be significantly below the legal requirements.

There is limited market or demand-driven incentives for compliance, as well as limited repercussions for non-compliance. For instance, research conducted by the international non profit organization, TechnoServe, on the edible oils sector demonstrates that 60-70% of all the vegetable oils consumed in Nigeria tend not to meet the quality and fortification measures stipulated by law.

An Industry-Led Solution

An initiative being implemented by TechnoServe through the Strengthening African Processors of Fortified Foods (SAPFF) programme, the MFI is an industry-led and -owned platform that consists of a self-assessment tool that allows companies to evaluate existing procedures and practices against national and global fortification standards. Other weighted components include a product-quality assessment of participating brands and validation through an independent body.

The MFI initially debuted with a pilot in 2019, and in initiating this commitment, many leading brands in the Nigerian food industry have chosen to adopt a sustainable business case for the production and distribution of nutritious, quality foods, benefitting both society and the companies’ long-term profitability.

These efforts to engage the private sector are already paying off, as SAPFF support areas have been shown to be playing a role in recent improvements, which TechnoServe has observed in Nigerian food fortification rates. In the five years since the SAPFF program began, the country’s supply of fortified wheat flour and sugar has increased by 68% and 200% respectively, enabling over 90% of Nigeria’s population to access this more nutritious food.

According to the Country Director of TechnoServe (Nigeria), Ms. Ayokanmi Ayuba, “The imminent public launch of the MFI scheme in September 2021 serves as an opportunity to recognise 18 brands that have already deployed it successfully in this first official annual cycle. They recognise it as a competitive asset that enables them to focus on readily identifiable improvement steps, whilst simultaneously demonstrating leadership by example, and enhancing integrity as a key characteristic of their organizations, which will also appeal to a broader consumer base as a result. “

The launch also allows the MFI initiative to showcase its improved technological solutions to make information more easily and efficiently accessed by users, whilst providing a secure channel for data. In time, it is expected to demonstrate an empirical correlation between consumer brand preference and food quality.

As stated by The Executive Secretary of The Flour Millers Association of Nigeria (FMAN), Alhaji Olalekan Saliu, “The next level of action for FMAN is that we envisage industry-wide application of the MFI.”

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