Nourishing Futures: The Opportunity of Investing in Child Nutrition

Nourishing Futures: The Opportunity of Investing in Child Nutrition

Kenya, 26 March 2024 - 

“Be the voice of the children” - that was a key messages of a panel discussion held at the 2024 Sankalp Africa Summit on a sunny morning in Nairobi. It focused on how investors and those who work with them can adapt their approaches to better support children’s nutrition.

Among the five panellists — representing GAIN, the World Food Programme, UNICEF, Save the Children, and a local enterprise, Shalem Investment Limited — the motivation for doing this was clear. Children are the future, comprising nearly half of the African population at present and growing fast — expected to reach 1 billion by 2055. They thus have the potential to accelerate development not only in Africa but worldwide. But that potential is currently limited by malnutrition. 

Adequate nutrition during childhood is the bedrock for physical growth, cognitive development, and overall health, but at least one in three children under age 5 is overweight, wasted, or stunted. Worldwide, 372 million pre-school aged children are deficient in one or more vitamins and minerals, including 62% of young children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This malnutrition in childhood can have serious consequences, leading to increased risk of illness, poor growth, cognitive impairment, impaired motor development, low energy, anaemia, vision loss, and risk of early death. It also has lifetime consequences in terms of lower educational attainment, decreased work productivity, and increased risk of non-communicable diseases – and negative ramifications for economies and societies: malnutrition costs the global economy approximately US$3.5 trillion per year, or 5% of global GDP. Panellist Ismael Teta, Chief of Nutrition at UNICEF Kenya, emphasised how relevant the topic is in the Kenyan context, specifically: the return on child nutrition investments in Kenya has been estimated to be even higher than the global average, at 22 to 1.

Fortunately, there is something that investors can do to address the challenge of child malnutrition. Panellist Preeth Gowdar, Chief Investment Officer at Save the Children Global Ventures, explained that child-lens investment was motivated by the recognition that children are a major global constituency that, until recently, was almost universally ignored in investment decisions. Developed by Criterion Institute and UNICEF in 2023, child-lens investment is an emerging field that intentionally integrates considerations of child rights and wellbeing into investment processes. 

Child-lens investing recognises that there may be no greater leverage point for impact than children. There may also be no more powerful leverage point for child lens investment than nutrition: every US$1 invested in preventing malnutrition in children delivers US$16 in net social benefits.

In addition to these social motivations, the panellists all agreed that there were numerous reasons for investors to engage, and opportunities to do so. Panellist Radek Halamka, Innovative Finance Portfolio Lead at the World Food Programme (WFP), recognised the need for financing local food system companies’ innovation and shared their approach leveraging the recently launched WFP BRIDGE loan and guarantee facility, developed and managed in partnership with UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF). With these investments, companies can expand their production of nutritious foods, stimulate higher demand in regions in which they operate, and thus contribute to a virtuous cycle. The Nutritious Foods Financing Facility was also discussed as another blended finance approach to provide African nutritious food companies with financing. In doing so, it applies a child-lens in prioritising investments and monitoring their impacts. 

However, it was also acknowledged that there are challenges in this space. Dr Ruth Kinoti, CEO of Shalem Investment Limited, a processor of fortified flours and blended porridges in an underserved area of East-Central Kenya, clearly articulated these from the entrepreneur perspective. She highlighted both the operational difficulties – like insufficient quality in raw materials, such as maize with too high levels of the contaminant aflatoxin to be safe for inclusion in children’s food – and those related to accessing financing, such as the heavy and time-consuming requirements made by potential investors and banks. But Ruth also emphasised the opportunity, noting that the ability to turn a profit while supporting a social goal was what first attracted her company to producing products for children.

Sankalp Africa — one of the largest gatherings of entrepreneurs and investors in Africa, with a strong focus on social impact — offered a ready audience for discussing and acting on this message. Session presenters and attendees alike agreed that prioritising child nutrition could help foster a more equitable society, in which every child has the opportunity to reach her or his full potential.

This event was jointly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development; Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs; European Union; Canadian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD); Irish Aid through Development Cooperation and Africa Division (DCAD); and Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA). The findings, ideas, and conclusions contained within are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of any of GAIN’s funding partners.