“A strong Africa is not only a win for Africa but a win for the world.”


Ms. Cristina Duarte, Special Adviser on Africa to the Secretary-General and Under-Secretary-General. © UN Photo/Manuel Elías

As we prepare to mark the Africa Day of School Feeding, Cristina Duarte, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa to the United Nations Secretary-General, shares her perspectives on the role of school feeding programmes in boosting resilience, strengthening peace and security and accelerating progress towards achieving Africa’s sustainable development.


The Special Adviser highlighted the multiplying effects of school feeding programmes, outlining key positions excerpted from Solving Paradoxes of Africa’s Development, the 2023 report of the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Africa (OSAA), which she leads. She re-iterates her call for African policymakers to leverage domestic resource mobilization as a game changer, energy as a driver and food systems as sources of resilience to power Africa’s socio-economic transformation.


Homegrown school feeding programmes are at the centre of such a multi-dimensional intervention, particularly when African countries – as they do now – tackle complex, multiple crises that undermine the continent’s development. In this context, Duarte highlights the nexus between school meals and durable peace and security in Africa, an essential factor as the continent reaffirms its leadership role on the global stage amid a transformation of the international multilateral and financial systems, in line with the call of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.


Q: Why is school feeding so important in Africa?


Cristina Duarte (CD): Allow me to start with a personal experience. When I was Minister of Finance in Cape Verde, I had the opportunity to witness the transformative power of school feeding and its potential to trigger a multiplying impact in various areas of development. Our government took over the total financing of our school feeding programme, leveraging the initiative to deliver tangible, sustainable development results for the country. Cape Verde achieved all the Millennium Development Goals—one of only four African countries to do so. The homegrown school feeding programme was one of the government’s initiatives that contributed most to that achievement.


Let’s now look at the data and explore figures that show the far-reaching impact of school feeding in Africa, highlighting the critical importance of our investments to provide millions of children with nutritious food in schools across the continent.


So far, only 15 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been delivered globally. Eighty per cent of the 140 targets are yet to be reached. This data shows that we have been unable to deliver development despite robust economic growth in specific regions or countries. This is undoubtedly the case in Africa, where instability and conflict also increased, indicating that we must tackle sustainable development to deliver durable peace.


My point is that being off track in achieving our SDG targets compels us to do more. School feeding programmes are one of the most effective tools for strengthening sustainable development, promoting social cohesion, and achieving peace and stability. In his reports on promoting durable peace and sustainable development in Africa, the United Nations Secretary-General proposed leveraging homegrown school feeding to boost state legitimacy and spur the transformative change needed to achieve the SDGs.


School feeding programmes alleviate the economic burden of vulnerable households, acting as an income distribution policy and, consequently, contributing to addressing inequality. School feeding also helps advance children’s health and nutrition. It is proven to reduce school dropout rates, increase girls’ inclusion and improve educational attainment, laying the foundations to harness Africa’s demographic dividend.


According to a 2023 report of the World Food Programme (WFP) titled Learn and Thrive: School Health and Nutrition around the World, homegrown school feeding generates a return of $9 per $1 invested and is a social protection programme that reduces public budget expenditures in the medium and long term. It can unlock local agricultural development and create more than 1,000 direct jobs per 100,000 children fed. In other words, if all primary school children in Africa benefitted from homegrown school feeding programmes, more than 2.5 million direct jobs would be created across the continent.


Besides these data, school feeding can be leveraged to promote sustainable development and peace in other less explored areas. For example, the community-based management of school feeding programmes can serve as a model to be replicated with other critical public services, such as energy access. Currently, the absence of locally based management structures is one of the main obstacles to the scale-up of off-grid energy solutions in Africa, which are the most cost-effective tools to address energy access in rural and remote areas. Imagine the progress we could make if we leverage school feeding programmes and their structures to this end.


Addressing energy access would automatically enhance climate adaptation capacities in the beneficiary communities. One of the main hurdles African countries face in adapting to climate change is the lack of energy to power technological solutions. From smart irrigation systems to fight droughts to cold chains and early warning systems, technological progress supports climate adaptation efforts around the world. African countries cannot leverage these solutions because they cannot access reliable energy to power them. Furthermore, reliable energy access would also reduce the reliance of African households on highly polluting fuels, which are responsible for up to one million deaths annually.


From this perspective, homegrown school feeding is also critical to trigger the transformation of African food systems. In addition to its potential to contribute to the adaptation of African communities to climate change, homegrown school feeding relies on local products and supports the emergence of local agricultural markets. By investing in homegrown school feeding, we are feeding children and helping African small-holder farmers enhance their production and, eventually, contribute to Africa’s food resilience.


Finally, school feeding can also be a tool for peace in a continent where conflict is unfortunately on the rise. The community-based management of school feeding programmes has been proven to increase social cohesion in many African countries. But beyond the local impact, school feeding programmes constitute the most basic public service that benefits the majority of the African population. By supporting African countries in delivering basic public services effectively, we are contributing to increasing trust in public institutions and, thus, strengthening the state’s legitimacy and preventing the emergence of non-state actors.


Q: What is your view of the progress African countries have made so far in school feeding? Do you think Africa is moving in the right direction?


CD: Several African countries have made inroads in implementing their homegrown school meals programmes, which, according to WFP’s The State of School Feeding Worldwide 2022, translates to increased school enrolment, improved nutrition among students, and positive impacts on academic performance.


For example, the data from this WFP report mentions Benin, where the country “committed to moving towards universal school meals coverage with a national budget increase from $79 million to $240 million over the next five years.” For its part, Rwanda announced in 2022 that school meals coverage increased from 660,000 to 3.8 million students, and the national budget dedicated to school meals increased from $33 million to $74 million. Overall, based on WFP data compiled in March 2023, “homegrown school feeding [programmes] reaches 66 million children in 54 African countries,” where 84 per cent of these programmes are funded by domestic budgets.


The data tells us that the needle is moving in a positive direction. However, African countries and their partners must work together to scale the progress towards achieving universal school feeding coverage on the continent. The key success criterion is the presence of reliable institutions and effective country systems that can provide inclusive public services. So, we must do everything we can to create the policy space to establish, nurture and expand such systems. First, by boosting external support to mobilize the funding needed to expand these programmes qualitatively and quantitatively. And then working with African countries to strengthen the capacities that will enable them to manage their programmes in an effective way to maximize their multiplying impact and ensure their financial sustainability. This is our top priority in OSAA and one of the focuses of our contribution to the School Meals Coalition.


Q: Looking at the fiscal pressures affecting scaling up and the quality of school meals in many African countries in Africa, what should governments prioritize in their homegrown school feeding programmes in 2024?


CD: We must endeavour to establish robust country systems in Africa, underpinned by effective governance and commitments – at the highest levels – to invest in relevant social protection mechanisms, including homegrown school meals, that cater to the realities on the ground. OSAA’s flagship report on the development challenges and opportunities impacting Africa focuses on the triple paradoxes of financing, energy, and food systems and how they undermine Africa’s progress. The report proposes policy recommendations to tackle the paradoxes that could be applied to boost the impact of homegrown school feeding programmes.


First, there is a financing aspect. Africa must look from within and mobilize domestic resources to finance development activities, including school meal programmes. The continent loses $500 to $600 billion annually through illicit financial flows, public spending inefficiencies, tax redundancies and missed opportunities to mobilize national financial flows. We must change our policies to stem these losses and re-direct resources to accelerate the continent’s development, including investments in national school feeding programmes.


Second, we need access to electricity. Africa is home to 17 per cent of the world’s population but represents only 3.3 per cent of primary energy consumption. In 2019, France and Germany consumed as much electricity as the African continent. Access to reliable electricity can, for example, streamline the preparation and storage of meals while reducing waste and establishing a resilient and consistent supply chain for school feeding programmes. And electricity provides opportunities to boost the use of technology in African schools, increasing their competitiveness.


Third, addressing the financial and energy paradoxes will allow governments to tackle the food systems paradox and transform African agriculture. The quality of homegrown school feeding programmes and African countries’ ability to implement them are linked to agricultural output. To unlock their agricultural potential, African countries must invest in agriculture-related infrastructure and harness opportunities that could unlock the full potential of agri-food value chains (e.g., technology, intra-African trade, etc.)


Q: Africa is showing commitment to school feeding, but there are many factors affecting countries progress. How can countries build more resilient and sustainable programmes? Share with us how Africa can continue to move forward and make good headway in its homegrown school feeding programmes?


CD: There are external factors impacting Africa’s development, including the ability of African countries to dedicate resources to implement or expand homegrown school feeding programmes. For example, unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change affect agricultural productivity and the availability of ingredients needed to prepare school meals. We also have financing challenges due to external economic shocks, creating fluctuations in global food prices or disrupting the flow of official development assistance.


To mitigate the impact of these external factors and boost the continent’s resilience, Africa must take the reins of its development. Last year, a strong call was issued at the SDG Summit to stop and reset our mindset. As Africans, we must search for the root causes of our sustainable development woes and stop implementing band-aid solutions. This applies to the efficacy of social protection mechanisms, including school feeding programmes.


Globally and in line with the calls of Secretary-General António Guterres, who has advocated for a more equitable multilateral system, including the global financial architecture, African countries must work together to push for change, leveraging the transformation to claim their rightful roles at the global leadership table and drive for Africa-centric policymaking. For their part, Africa’s partners have an opportunity to enhance the role that Official Development Assistance (ODA) plays in supporting the continent’s development in the short- and medium-term, harnessing it as a tool to tackle the root causes of poverty instead of its consequences. This can be done by focusing ODA to support the strengthening of public institutions, the primary enabler for African countries to own their path to development.


At the national and long-term level, we must leverage the game-changer available at our doorsteps: Domestic Resource Mobilization (DRM). We must shift from external financing, such as ODA, to DRM. To do so, we must establish and nurture effective and resilient country systems, including strengthening revenue collection, enhancing public spending efficiency, and generating predictable financing flows, which can be channelled to boost homegrown school feeding programmes.


Q: Inadequate or a lack of School meals financing is a big bottleneck in Africa. What financing innovations can African Governments explore to establish and scale up quality programmes?


CD: According to School Meal Programmes: A Missing Link in Food Systems Reform, a knowledge product prepared by the School Meals Coalition’s Sustainable Financing Initiative (SFI), which I chair, “sustainable funding is one of the key bottlenecks to scaling school meals to all children.” African governments can explore several financing mechanisms to boost homegrown school feeding programmes, as listed in Finance for School Feeding: Unlocking Opportunities for Learning, nutrition, and Food Security, a policy brief from the SFI. These include SDG bonds, debt swaps, guarantee-based instruments, engaging philanthropy, etc.


This policy brief on Finance for School Feeding highlights different financing innovations being leveraged across Africa. Senegal has been deploying its gas revenues. Benin has used an SDG bond. And several African governments are exploring the use of a “debt-for-school-feeding” swap mechanism to expand national school feeding programmes. Along the lines of existing debt swaps to finance environmental programmes, “debt-for-school-feeding” swaps have enormous potential, particularly as African governments are ready to invest the political capital needed to implement such transformation at home and internationally.


Africa’s partners also have a significant role to play, as outlined in SFI’s Missing Link paper that says, “[They] should help [African] governments to reschedule and reduce debts to release finance for vital social investments, including school meals. ‘Debt-for-school-meal’ swaps – like existing ‘debt-for-nature’ swaps – could be negotiated to provide direct financing for school meal programmes linked to wider food system reform initiatives.”


Q: Any last words?


CD: Because it is critical, allow me to reiterate that we must change our mindset and shift the financing paradigm from managing poverty to managing development. If we are serious about accelerating Africa’s development, enough with the band-aid solutions that kick the proverbial can down the road, passing the challenge to our children and their children’s children. Homegrown school feeding is a low-hanging fruit that can help us advance in this direction. A strong Africa is not only a win for Africa but a win for the world. That is the Africa we want, the Africa the world needs.