Free school meals for learners crucial to Africa’s future, gathering in Nairobi told

NAIROBI, May 28, 2024 – African countries could scale up the provision of free school meals despite other economic challenges to combat the incalculable and harmful consequences of millions of children going to school across Africa every day with hungry bellies, participants in a key side event at the African Development Bank’s annual meetings in Nairobi, Kenya heard Monday.

The official theme of the side event was “Creating Fiscal Space for School Meals: Towards Agenda 2063, SDGs and Human Capital Development”.

The event, organized by the Rockefeller Foundation in collaboration with Global Partnership for Education [GPE] and the World Food Programme, focused on how countries could scale up the provision of free school meals to help meet the sustainable development goals and aspirations of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 –  termed the “Africa We Want.”

“Freedom from hunger is a human right… children who get a good meal will go back to school time and again, there is a link between hunger and the development of grey matter,” Dr Martin Fregene, Director of Agriculture and Agro-Industry at the African Development Bank told the high-level gathering of policymakers and decision-makers.

Fregene, who was addressing the gathering on behalf of African Development Bank Group [AfDB] President, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, stressed that food production created demand for farmers and secured markets for products assisting economic growth.

Across Africa, the stated aim of universal primary education, SDG 2, an initiative strongly supported by the Bank Group, has made a lot of progress, but Fregene stressed that to be realised it has to be accompanied with planet-friendly, homegrown school meals programmes.

AfDB Director Martin Fregene (far right) joins experts from the Rockefeller Foundation, Global Partnership for Education and the World Food Programme, to discuss the importance of providing school meals. The event was organised on the sidelines of the AfDB’s 2024 Annual Meetings in Narobi, Kenya (Internet photo).

He and other speakers pointed out that free meals helped children’s cognitive capacities, led to higher attendance levels, improved health and nutrition levels and general well-being.

“No child today should go to school hungry,” declared former Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, current Chair of the GPE. “New and innovative was to finance school meals need to be found.”

Given current economic circumstances, he called for Africa to turbo charge the continent’s drive to meet the SDGs with out of the box thinking and not fall further behind as school children were the guardians of Africa’s future and critical in achieving the “Africa We Want”.

Kikwete praised recent debt swop for education deals with partners, highlighting a recently concluded agreement between France and Ivory Coast and noted the multiplier effect every dollar spent on education, including the free meals initiative, had on overall GDP performances.

Noting that many African governments were grappling with the adverse economic impacts of the COVID- 19 pandemic, rising food inflation, and losses and damages associated with climate change-induced natural disasters, among other issues, Fregene said the Bank has supported healthy meals initiatives to the tune of some US$ 100 million so far.

Many African countries are also contending with constrained fiscal space exacerbated by rising debt service costs, creating a silent debt crisis. High debt service payments squeeze out spending on critical interventions that could accelerate Agenda 2063 and SDG implementation, speakers said.

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