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03 January 2013

Patrick Kolsteren: A homegrown African research agenda for tackling malnutrition

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Professor Patrick Kolsteren is a researcher contributing to the establishment of research in sustainable nutrition in Africa

Professor Patrick Kolsteren is a researcher at the Unit of Nutrition and Child Health at the Institute of Tropical Medicine Antwerp is the general coordinator of the EU funded SUNRAY research project. It is designed to contribute to the establishment of research in sustainable nutrition in Africa.  Talking to, he explains how the project team identified the needs of nutrition researchers in Africa by focusing on  all countries south of the Sahara, such as Benin, Tanzania and Uganda.

What is the aim of the SUNRAY project?
This project aim was to find an answer to the question: what research is needed for eradicating malnutrition in Africa, more specifically, sub-Saharan Africa? We went looking for what the thematic priorities are, in which research we should invest, and what are the needs of the local researchers.

Who did you approach in Africa?
We acted on several levels.  The core of the project was to sit down with local researchers from various countries located south of the Sahara and discuss problems and priorities.  We surveyed about sixty researchers and policy makers from existing networks, such as the African Nutrition Leadership Programme, or the Federation of African Nutrition Societies. The second action consisted of the interviewing of stakeholders. That is people with an interest in nutrition, such as representatives from industry, politics, and non-governmental organisations.

What other source of information did you seek?
We also analysed research papers on nutrition in Africa from international journals that were published over the last ten years. This allowed us to gain insight into the research topics and the types of research that have been explored to date.  What we wanted to find out is whether this research can serve as the basis for policy. We also consulted international experts for their views on the future of nutrition in Africa.

Were your findings surprising?
This information allowed us to define the subjects for three three-day workshop held in Tanzania, Benin, and South Africa.  We found that there is not enough research on ways to prevent malnutrition.  We also found that research was too ‘donor driven’ because it is easier for researchers from the North to obtain funding for research projects. Although African researchers collaborate in these projects, they have a minor role in formulating research agendas.  This is why we created a research agenda, based on the needs expressed by researchers on the ground, for tackling the nutritional problems in Africa.  In particular, the nutrition research is dependent on issues related to climate change, markets, demography, social dynamics, water and political dynamics and governance.

What are the consequences of a nutrition research agenda driven by developed countries?
Quick-fix ideas and research subjects supported by northern countries don’t always correspond to the priorities perceived locally in Africa. For example, we need more studies on the link between changes in demographics and nutritional problems. We also found that in countries with water shortages, problems will be exacerbated by the export of agricultural produce. The export of food is in fact the export of water.


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