Solving Dietary Issues Through Public Private Partnerships: An Example from the Field

Every October World Food Day is celebrated around the globe.  Unfortunately, hunger is increasing, not decreasing.” After a period of decline, world hunger is on the rise again. Today, over 820 million people are suffering chronic undernourishment.”[i]  While the reasons for the rise in hunger are complex, the role of the private sector, while acknowledged to be a key component in solving hunger-related issues, continues to be debated.  This piece will present one of many personal experiences with the role of public private partnerships in addressing hunger.

Since 1979, I have been involved with the implementation of multi-million-dollar agriculture field programs around the world that had, as their aim, to improve food security either indirectly through income generation through agro-related activities and or directly with farming households through improving productivity and dietary diversity for their own consumption. Private sector involvement has always been integral part of these programs.

Private sector engagement in food security is nothing new. It has been around since the domestication of agricultural crops and livestock. Today ‘s global food supply chain networks impact local food systems everywhere both positively and negatively.

In recent years the international development community of practice has focused in on the role of the private sector in improving dietary quality, especially at-risk vulnerable populations.  Data from food insecure countries show diet related micronutrient malnutrition, especially vitamin A and iron, to be serious issues impacting maternal and child health.

Many food insecure countries have limited financial and human resources to combat micronutrient malnutrition so using their limited assets strategically is a high priority. Countries grapple with a key question around private sector engagement: How do governments serve as a big picture market enabler and stop undertaking actions that the private sector already does? I will share with you briefly how this question was addressed in one country.

I recently facilitated a discussion group on this very topic as part of a long-term advisory assignment in Sub-Sahara Africa. The country was in the process of developing its next multi-year plan for agriculture. Our discussion group consisted of private sector actors from throughout the agriculture supply chain (small growers, input suppliers, buyers, and processors) NGO’s, as well as public sector actors from the ministry of agriculture including policy maker and key personnel in charge of outreach. One of the big changes the government was committed to in the new plan was phasing out as a market” maker” and serving as a market enabler. The government also wanted to concentrate more on how to solve dietary issues, especially micro-nutrient malnutrition, through the marketplace as an enabler.

The group selected iron fortified beans as the case study to illustrate how the enabler process could be achieved.  First we started with recent data that showed women in this country who consumed iron fortified beans significantly improved iron levels in 128 days[ii] Next, the group agreed that the type of bean tested in the consumption trial is consumed widely and is easily grown in  traditional mixed cropping systems. Next, we asked the food processor who stated his company was in the final stages of setting up a processing line for canned beans using locally grown beans. The group then put this question to him, would his company consider using the iron fortified beans. He said he could see the competitive advantage of marketing highly nutritious beans in a country where diet related iron deficiency was so prevalent.  As long as the iron fortified beans did not cost him more than conventual beans he would consider buying them. At that point the group turned to the public sector participants from the ministry of agriculture. The outreach/extension director stated that if the buyer was committed to buying iron fortified beans and since beans are traditionally grown, the extension team could come up with an outreach plan to provide the productivity enhancement skills throughout the supply chain to produce the quantity and quality required. NGO’s attending the discussion indicated that they would support demand creation for iron rich beans through their behavioral change communications work. Finally, the policy maker spoke.  He now understood how an identified dietary gap could be used to drive an agriculture supply chain. He understood the role of the ministry as market enabler for the private sector instead of market maker in creating demand for nutrient dense foods that should have a positive impact on micronutrient malnutrition.

This example highlights how nutrition driven value chains present opportunities in which key actors identify a common interest and then proceed to build a public–private partnership to resolve the issue.

Share your thoughts

What has been your experience with the role of public private partnerships in addressing hunger related issues?  What worked? What didn’t?

[i]FAO 2018 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World Report.

[ii] The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 146, Issue 8, 1 August 2016,