Low fruit, vegetable intake in sub-Saharan Africa triggers alarm

Friday March 12 2021
Women sell vegetables.

Women come back from the fields to sell vegetables at a market in Bangui, Central African Republic. Expenditure for fruit and vegetables for countries in sub-Saharan Africa accounts for between three and 13 percent of the total household budget. PHOTO | AFP


We are not eating enough fruits and vegetables as is recommended by the World Health Organization, indicates a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Consumption of fruit and vegetables is particularly low in sub-Saharan Africa, FAO says in The International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, 2021, a report that details how much of these dietary essentials people in different regions are consuming.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which says some 3.9 million deaths worldwide were attributable to not eating enough fruit and vegetables, recommends consuming at least 400g each day to reap their health and nutrition benefits.

The WHO also says, “Insufficient intake of fruit and vegetables is estimated to cause around 14 percent of deaths from gastro-intestinal cancer worldwide, about 11 percent of those due to ischemic heart disease, and about nine percent of those caused by stroke.”

But according to the FAO report, on average, the world consumes only about two-thirds of the recommended minimum amounts of fruit and vegetables. Those in sub-Saharan Africa eat even less at about one-third. Residents of the Caribbean consume the most fruit, while those in southern Africa consume the least.

The report said a study in 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that the expenditure for fruit and vegetables accounts for between three and 13 percent of the total household budget, or between five and 16 percent of the food budget.


“Where incomes are generally low as in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, people are spending their limited food budget on cheaper staple foods. Cultural preferences and the low availability of fruit and vegetables may also play a role,” said the report.

“As household incomes rise, demand for fruit and vegetables also rises, but at a slower rate than the income. Households headed by women were found to spend more on fruit and vegetables than do those headed by men. Urban residents tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than do those in rural areas — because urban residents tend to have higher incomes,” said the report.

Interestingly, the report also suggests that better-educated people consume less fruit and vegetables than those with less education because the better-educated have an appetite for processed foods that contain less fruit and vegetables.

Worldwide production of both fruit and vegetables rose by about half between 2000 and 2018. The biggest absolute increase was in Asia, especially East Asia where China is by far the largest producer. In relative terms, the biggest increases were in Central Asia where production of both fruit and vegetables more than tripled.

In Africa, Central Africa nearly tripled the amount of fruit and double the volume of vegetables, though from a very low base. Production of vegetables also doubled in East and West Africa.

FAO says production in some regions like in Northern America and Southern and Western Europe for both fruit and vegetables, and in Northern Europe for vegetables has stagnated or even declined.

Worldwide, over 50 percent of fruits and vegetables are grown on farms smaller than 20 hectares. In developing countries, such farms grow the vast majority of horticultural produce – over 80 percent in most of Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and China

The United Nations has declared 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables to raise awareness of the nutritional and health benefits of consuming more fruits and vegetables as part of a diversified, balanced and healthy diet and lifestyle as well as to direct policy attention to reducing loss and waste of these highly perishable produce items.

“In declaring 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, the United Nations General Assembly aims to raise awareness of the nutritional and health benefits of fresh produce or minimally processed fruit and vegetables and their contribution to a balanced and healthy diet and lifestyle. It also hopes to draw attention to the need to reduce losses.