Humanitarian and sustainable food system activist, Michael Sunbola, says more Nigerians are plagued by food insecurity. Sunbola, a lawyer and founder of Lagos Food Bank Initiative was speaking in an interview with PLAC BEAM, a monthly magazine of Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC)
On how the food bank started:
We started out as the first indigenous food bank in Nigeria. The Lagos Food Bank is a hunger relief organisation based in Lagos, Nigeria. We work using the integrated food-banking system to help improve the nutrition of pregnant women and children, especially those who don’t have enough nutrition during breast feeding and pregnancy. I am a leadership enthusiast as well. Everything centred around leadership, community service. I have a flair for volunteering for service to humanity generally.
The Lagos Food Bank started in 2015. We are about curbing food waste and improving the nutrition of pregnant women and children. We also act as a frontline agency assisting those struggling with hunger and malnutrition across all the 20 local governments in Lagos. We also work outside Lagos. So far, we have since inception impacted more than 1.6 million people through six programmes that we run. They include a nutrition programme and a school-feeding programme that seeks to help reach children in low-cost private schools. We have this feeding programme in more than 50 schools currently in Lagos. We then have programmes that help cure the immediate hunger needs of people, and this we do across more than 135 communities.
We work also by training women on how to improve their income through backyard farming. We marry their skills with relevant job opportunities that can make them fend for themselves, so they don’t rely on the food bank. So, the point is that we are just an organisation that is about caring for the needs of people, especially centred around the SDG2 (Sustainable Development Goal 2). All of these we have been doing since 2015.
On what gave birth to it, the statistics are out there of the number of people who are hungry, the number of children who are malnourished in Nigeria. More than 2 million children under the age of five are malnourished, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). In Lagos there’s a lot of hidden hunger, malnutrition, and people who don’t know where the next meal will come from. For me personally, I was also a victim of food insecurity growing up. I went to school on several occasions without food, went to bed sometimes without food. Even at a very tender age, we started fending for ourselves and factors led to the family not having regular means of income. Growing up with this experience, I then realised that there are still several families caught in this ugly experience. What can we do to help cushion this effect on vulnerable families? Then the Food Bank started.
On the impact of the efforts:
So far, we have been able to help a whole number of people. Like I said, we have reached over 1.6 million people since inception. Central to the objective is curbing food waste, helping to improve the nutrition of pregnant women and children. We are also about food security, empowering women to grow their own food and earn a decent income. Pregnant women, children who are malnourished, our objectives are centred around helping them get back to a well-nourished state because malnutrition is directly linked to poverty. When the brain is not properly nourished at the age when it is supposed to develop, it becomes an issue. Such children don’t grow up to add meaningfully to the growth of the economy because of the damage that has been done when they were growing up. So that is the issue we are trying to address with our nutrition programmes across the communities we serve.
On the effect of Nigeria’s poverty statistics on the demand for their services:
A lot of factors have been responsible for people becoming hungry or food insecure. COVID-19 increased the chances of people going hungry because many have lost their jobs. This has also increased the number of people who seek for food to live. Over time, we have seen an upsurge of the number of people who come for food relief. Food prices have gone up and we have seen that a number of people who could ordinarily fend for themselves or not bother for any handouts are now coming to the Food Bank for assistance. What they’re earning can’t cater for them anymore because food prices have gone up. All of these put together have added to the reason why food isn’t so accessible to the people who are most vulnerable. COVID-19 has increased the possibility of people who would go hungry and this has put pressure on us.
Even the food prices that have gone up, I would say has affected our distribution as well because we are constrained to use our savings to purchase food at a higher cost. What we would use, for instance, to feed a thousand families is now what we use to feed 500 families.
So, we are also at the receiving end of the high cost of food. Looking at the statistics of those who are hungry, the higher food prices have also added to that. I was talking recently about the report published by the Institute of Development Studies that ranks Nigeria as the second poorest country in the world in terms of food affordability. The purchasing power of people to buy food that can help them cure hunger has drastically reduced and the cost of food has gone up as a result of a lot of factors that has affected our food systems; insecurity in the agricultural and food-producing zones. Farmers can’t go to their farms; all of these factors have led to food-price increases.
On funding and sourcing for food:
To serve people and continue our core objective of getting food to people who are most in need, we get food from two sources. First is through donations from individuals and corporate bodies, food processing companies, we work with companies in the food value chain. We approach them that some of their excesses could be channelled to the Food Bank to curb food waste because we know that those food items are still very much edible; probably one minor defect or damage shouldn’t make them inedible. So, we approach them to donate some of those items to us. The second source is through market purchases. We buy directly from the local farmers, small holder farmers, in States like Oyo State, Ogun State and some from the North. We buy our beans from the North. This also helps us to empower small-holder farmers.
On criteria for choosing beneficiaries:
We are very deliberate about it. We ensure that we reach the people who are most in need. For instance, we first of all identify most vulnerable communities. People who are living in the slums, people whose income are directly below $1 per day or $2 per day, and we register them. We profile them and after adding them to our data base, we then give them a voucher. The voucher is what gives them access to the food that they collect. This is the model we use. Then we work with volunteers in this regard as well, who help us to identify and profile these families. We work from one community to the other. Ordinarily, food banks are created to serve their immediate communities. Food banks are not supposed to be going from one community to the other. We should just have walk-in beneficiaries who are closer to the food bank. Because we have to move from one community to the other, it makes it more rigorous and it makes us call for more volunteers per time to reach these communities.
On those who show up uninvited:
These are what we call walk-in beneficiaries. They walk into the food bank telling us they don’t have what to eat and then we start asking them questions. If we are satisfied that yes, this person is truly vulnerable, they don’t go back empty handed. So yes, we have cases like that, and we continue to have cases like that. There are people we have also turned back because from the questions we’ve asked, they don’t fall into that category.
On the impact of the Lagos Food Bank:
The Lagos Food Bank has made a number of impacts since inception. We have developed six programmes. There is the family farming, school feeding, and nutrition programmes. There is also a meal plan for vulnerable mothers and children, an intervention for diabetes self-management, a job placement programme and a temporary emergency food assistance programme.
Our cumulative impact since day one is that so far, we have covered more than 1.6 million people on all these programmes. But mostly the chunk of the numbers is from the temporary emergency food assistance programme.
Most importantly, we have lifted more than 2,000 children from malnutrition. I can say that we have saved their lives and their future because if those interventions were not given at the time, some of them might not die, but the damage would’ve been done already. What we have done is to help them. Also, the nutrition of pregnant women is important. Imagine not having money to buy food during pregnancy. It also affects the baby. All of these we were able to address at the critical time. And then, we partner with Primary Health Care Centres – PHCs, who refer families to us. This is the impact we have made, and it cuts across the entire objectives of SDG2.
On what the family-farming programme hopes to achieve:
The family-farming programme started in 2019 as part of United Nations Decade of Family Farming. It’s still in a bid to curb food insecurity. The United Nations discovered that one of the surest ways to curb food insecurity is for families to grow their own food themselves in their backyard. Seed doesn’t cost much. Some of these livestock don’t cost much when they are small. When you grow them, that it when they become expensive. We keyed into that vision of the United Nations to encourage families to grow their own food. Lagos as a state produces just 3% of its food needs. Most of the food we get in Lagos are from outside Lagos. One of the most sustainable ways to help families feed themselves is through farming. The family-farming programme encourages backyard farming maintained by family labour and they are able to feed themselves and also sell part of what they have grown to improve their income. Mostly, we focus on women.
So far, this programme has been scaled across more than 500 households in Lagos. We do it in a way of a programme and graduate them. We set them up, we train them on how to start. A lot of them don’t have the resources to start or even buy seed, the birds, chickens and the cage. So, we invest into them, we set them up. When they sell, we don’t encourage them to spend the money; you have to invest it back into the business so that you can sustain it.
On what can be done about inflation and worsening poverty:
Poverty is a problem that has been with us and different governments have been trying to tackle this challenge till date, but it just looks like it keeps getting worse. The government has different schemes to lift people out of poverty, and I don’t even know what’s going on. Like it is not working. Millions of naira are going into these schemes. I can say that the government is doing what they can, but the system just needs to be fixed in the sense that when government shows its good intention to lift people out of poverty, the people that are meant to implement these programmes are supposed to be also tracked.
Who are the beneficiaries of these schemes? How do they identify the beneficiaries? How come we are not seeing the impact of these schemes? The schemes are there, the programmes are there rolling out all the time to help women, to help youths improve agriculture. A lot of money is being pumped into agriculture for people to go into agriculture, but world statistics keep rating us all the time as either the poverty capital of the world or the country with least purchasing power to buy food and all of that. So yes, it is just to address the systems and increase maybe some of the social safety net programmes to still do more and then identify the most vulnerable people, have the data base of the most vulnerable, find these people and then focus on them. Because if you don’t know the problem you have, you can’t fix it.
Look at what happened during the lockdown. The country didn’t have a comprehensive data base of most vulnerable people and I saw cash being given out to people queuing up. That isn’t going to help anything. Other advanced countries have these systems in place. Corruption too is part of it. The people who are in charge of these resources to help the most vulnerable, how are we sure it is getting to those who need them? These are systemic problems that need to be addressed. People of high integrity and character are those who should be in charge.
On major challenges the organization has faced:
We have had several challenges as a food bank. One of the first challenge was acceptability. Starting out as a food bank, a lot of people told us it isn’t going to work here, it won’t be sustainable, it can’t last. So, it took time before a number of people, even corporate organisations could be able to accept that we are actually solving a problem. We have evolved over time.
Funding was, and is, a challenge because of the demands and the number of people in need of our interventions. And, of course building infrastructure, human resource capacity to reach people, funding plays a huge role.
I would also say policies. If there are policies that help curb food waste, for instance, companies are not supposed to be throwing food away. I am saying this from what I know. Tonnes of food are being burnt. Materials that can be useful to most vulnerable people are being burnt when people are most in need. We just celebrated the International Day for Food Loss and Waste. Policies that can help curb food waste and mandate supermarkets, food processing companies to donate to food banks, should be put in place.
These are the challenges we face. How do we solve them? We have evolved over time to address some of these. We have approached some of these companies, sent letters to them, orientated them about food waste and why these foods are still very much edible to people in need. Foods labelled ‘best before’ are still edible (after those dates). We educate the organisations and let them know that these foods are actually still safe for consumption. We have also increased our capacity to raise funds.
On the organization’s biggest achievement:
Our biggest achievement was in 2020. It was a period that kind of catalysed, or showcased, the food bank to more people. We got introduced to Nivea, Beiersdorf, a company which supported us to a tune of almost $300,000, our biggest fund raising since we started. And they are still committed to supporting us further.
I would say that, personally for me, the biggest achievement has been the lives of people that have been transformed. The lives of malnourished children and families who get support daily from the food bank intervention in their communities.
On expansion plans:
Yes, we are planning to expand. In fact, as part of our three-year strategic plan, in fact, our 2021 goals are still there, and we have started that already. To get that implemented, we started working with partner organisations in other States. Once we have excess food donations, we call them to come pick up food to serve their communities. We are starting with the West, at least those ones that are closer to us. This is our direct intervention now, not with partners. We have partners across different States, but we have to go into other states ourselves. Oyo, Ogun States, we have started gradually, and we are hoping to expand to Abuja, Port Harcourt and some other states in the Eastern and Northern parts of the country.
There are a lot of problems the country is faced with and we have a role to play. As young people, we should try as much as possible to contribute our part to the development of our community and our country, rather than condemn. There is still hope. There are people who are most in need. We should start from people within our immediate community, play our part and not give up on the country.