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Key Takeaways

  • Address immediate food needs and operate long-term programs simultaneously. While long-term nutrition and economic empowerment programs are important, infants, children, and adults must have their basic food and nutritional needs met in order to ensure proper brain development and to focus in school and at work. The Lagos Food Bank Initiative tackles both sides of this equation.
  • Think beyond production. While increased food production could help relieve food insecurity constraints in Lagos State, other pillars of food security—availability, access, utilization, and stability—must be considered and addressed. The Lagos Food Bank Initiative looks beyond production and distribution to address individual agency, institutional capacity, and the nutritional needs of mothers and infants.
  • Invest in multi-sectoral networks and partnerships. When the COVID-19 lockdown started, the Lagos Food Bank Initiative had the connections, trust, and infrastructure to scale its operations fast. These partnerships and support from volunteers are key to its operations.
  • Reform subsidy and incentive programs. Governments can play an active role in creating regulations around the cost and importation of essential foodstuff. Tax incentives can also be used to curb food loss and waste, significant environmental threats.
  • Draw from lived experiences. Personal passion is a powerful tool in creating change and building resilience.

Introduction

The Lagos Food Bank Initiative originated with a simple mission: feed vulnerable families in Nigeria’s Lagos State.

For Michael Sunbola, President and CEO of the Lagos Food Bank Initiative (LFBI), that mission is deeply personal. Growing up in Lagos, Michael and his family experienced food insecurity firsthand. He remembers the lengths he and his siblings would go to in order to afford a meal: carrying planks of wood from the local sawmill and foraging fruits that had fallen from trees. There were even times when Michael would sell his blood to the local blood bank. “It was such an unpleasant experience,” he says of that time. “This has been my drive, to be at the forefront of helping the most vulnerable families put food on the table, because I know what it feels like to not have that.” 

Today, Michael is a food systems activist, lawyer, and Managing Partner in his own legal firm. Driven by his personal passion and experience, Michael invested much of his law firm savings into the 2015 opening of LFBI. The food bank is Nigeria’s first, and its long-term initiatives go well-beyond the emergency food distribution provided by traditional institutions.

An estimated 14 million people call Lagos home, making it the most populous city in Nigeria and on the African continent. Despite Nigeria having the largest economy on the continent, an estimated one in five Lagosians subsist on less than $1.90 a day. 

Lagos is projected to become one of the world’s largest cities in the next century, compounding challenges further still. If food insecurity can be addressed at scale in Lagos, it can inspire systemic shifts elsewhere. 

The Lagos Food Bank Initiative network

Food banks are not common in Nigeria. 

While there are plenty of international aid programs that distribute food, what’s different about LFBI is that it’s Nigerian-run and distributes fresh and non-perishable goods to families on a monthly basis. The organization buys these products directly, has them donated, or works with farms and other processors to distribute excess bumper crops and products. With a main warehouse in Lagos, the initiative has also formed more than 50 partnerships across the state so various agencies can reach the communities they know best. 

The work of those partner agencies and LFBI’s team of 21 is supplemented by a network of nearly 10,000 dedicated volunteers. Many are young people who learned of the organization’s work through word of mouth, email campaigns, and social media (the organization has more than 53,000 Instagram followers). Michael says the majority volunteer because they’re keen to help people, but that a desire to professionally network or meet like minded friends are also motivating factors.

Though LFBI is a traditional food bank in the sense that it meets the immediate needs of its clients, Michael says the organization’s approach has shifted greatly since its founding. Based on feedback from community members, LFBI has launched initiatives that use nutrition, livelihood opportunities, and education to address the root causes of hunger. 

“We went back to the drawing board and started looking at how we can solve these more long-term problems,” says Michael of this period of change. “We have to look at the cost of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, and malnutrition is just part of that.”

The result was the creation of several new programs, each itself a sustainable solution that targets the causes of food insecurity within the broader context of peoples’ lives. A goal of these nutrition and economic empowerment programs is to build community resilience and move people beyond the point where they need the food bank’s services.

A suite of food security solutions

The organization’s first intervention is a Family Farming program that supports Lagosians, especially women, to establish their own household poultry, snail, or vegetable farm in order to ensure greater food security. 

Lagos State is estimated to produce just 3% of its total food needs. Though agriculture is prevalent in Nigeria’s countryside, Lagos’ quick-growing population means the sprawling mega-city encroaches on and limits nearby farmland. As a result, most food arrives at one of Lagos’ shipping ports—often subsidized imports that undermine local food production. Even food brought in from other states is often unaffordable, with demand pushing prices higher still.

By helping families produce directly on their property, the Family Farming program improves nutritional agency and creates an alternative value chain that lessens the reliance on expensive, imported goods. It also re-connects families with the process and pride of growing their own food. Over the next two years, the Family Farming program expects to support 2,000 households in growing nutritious food to eat and potentially sell to earn an income.

The second intervention is a job placement program that matches skilled community members with small businesses and large companies that might be in need of their services. By increasing their household income and financial autonomy, Michael says the program offers a more sustainable way to help people get out of poverty. 

Finally, there are LFBI’s nutritional interventions developed in collaboration with trained dieticians. The first is NUMEPLAN (Nutritious Meal Interventions for Vulnerable Mothers and Children), a program that ensures these groups get the diversity of nutrients they need to lead a healthy life. Mothers and infants receive nutritious food support every two weeks. Special attention is paid to infants in their first thousand days of life—the key period during which malnutrition and under-nutrition can lead to irreversible developmental damage. 

Another is NIDS (Nutrition Intervention for Diabetes Self-Management), which is targeted at food secure adults living with diabetes. Working in low-income communities, NIDS provides individuals with free diabetic-appropriate meals or foodstuff, plus nutritional advice on how to manage the disease.  

Similarly, LFBI’s school feeding program, Edufood, addresses food insecurity issues within low-cost private schools across Lagos State, helping kids get nutritious meals so they can better focus and learn. 

Diverse and ever-evolving, each of these programs connects to Zero Hunger, the second Sustainable Development Goal—as well as a number of intersecting SDGs, including No Poverty, Good Health and Well-being, Decent Work and Economic Growth, and Sustainable Cities and Communities. It’s a demonstration of the many co-benefits that can be gained through food systems transformation. 

Mobilizing to meet lockdown needs

The pandemic was a “game changer” for the Lagos Food Bank Initiative. “We had similar impacts [as in other parts of the world], only Lagos has no safety net system that could address the needs of people while in lockdown,” Michael explains. “The lockdown had a devastating impact on a whole lot of families and people trekked up to 20 kilometres to get food. They weren’t allowed on the road, but they did it anyway because this was about survival.”

LFBI was the only food bank given government permission to operate throughout the lockdown. In response, the organization mobilized its networks and created the COVID-19 Emergency Food Intervention Plan (CEFIP). Michael and his team brought together public and private stakeholders, forming new partnerships with NGOs across Lagos State and with multinational corporations such as Unilever Nigeria and General Electric. 

Trust and goodwill were paramount. Michael says partnerships with large private companies would not have been possible without LFBI’s five-year track record and careful annual reporting of its finances. Volunteers, though given accreditation to move freely when on food bank business, were willing to put themselves at risk because they knew of LFBI’s community impact.

Volunteers and staff travelled from community to community, providing door-to-door delivery of staple foods such as grains, fresh produce, rice, beans, fish, and meat. By the end of May, CEFIP had provided essential food relief for nearly 126,000 vulnerable families and frontline health workers across Lagos State. 

“We had built the system to respond swiftly to crisis,” Michael says of those busy weeks in March, April, and May. “Our connections and trust made all of this possible.”

Eyeing the future

Remaining responsive to the emergency food needs of community members, the Lagos Food Bank Initiative is also planning what comes next. In the long-run, Michael would like to see the Nigerian government implement some sort of regulation on the price of staple foods, and offer tax incentives for farmers or businesses to donate their food before it goes to waste. 

As for LFBI, one of Michael’s long-term goals is to see the organization become a social enterprise that could make food available to people at affordable rates. This could begin by encouraging farming as a way to kickstart the supply of locally-grown crops. For that, Michael says LFBI could turn to its large youth population—44% of Nigerians are under the age of 14.

Ultimately, Michael says the immediate needs satisfied by food banks should go hand-in-hand with empowerment and nutritional programs. By reducing some of the inequities faced by food insecure communities, initiatives like LFBI are rewriting traditional power norms and providing individuals and families with greater agency over not only their nutritional choices, but decisions in general. 

According to Michael, there’s also one more ingredient for impact: “Passion is key to everything. Ask yourself, ‘why are you solving this problem?’ For me, it’s my personal experience, and this went a long way in building resilience for me as a social entrepreneur.”

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