AAUN unlocks new networks & opportunities for Pretoria and Sydney researchers

Photo: Prof. Hettie Schonfeldt (3rd from left) and colleagues from Africa and Asia were invited by Sydney’s A/Prof Robyn Alders (5th from left) for a workshop and conference in Australia. Hettie and Robyn met through AAUN and this meeting in December 2016 would lead to another successful PRDF bid.

Researcher Profile: Professor Hettie Schonfeldt, AAUN Researcher, University of Pretoria

Professor Hettie Schonfeldt is involved in two AAUN funded research projects in the area of food security. Read more about AAUN seed funding at the PRDF page. 

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest level of food insecurity in the world. An estimated 220 million people lack adequate nutrition. The nature of the problem is shifting rapidly, with overweight status and obesity emerging as new forms of food insecurity while malnutrition persists. But continental policy responses do not address this changing reality.

Food insecurity is the outcome of being too poor to grow or buy food. But it’s not just any food. According to the World Health Organization’s definition, people need:

… sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.

Current policy focuses on alleviating undernutrition through increased production and access to food. It does not focus on the systemic issues that inform the food choices people make. This may result in worsening food insecurity in the region.

The thinking around food security in Africa is stuck, even though there are calls for a more nuanced understanding of the problem. The common thought is that the food insecure are poor, hungry people who don’t have the means to grow or buy enough food.

Source: theconversation.com

Professor Schonfeldt’s PRDF research was set up to address issues in this arena through:

  • Developing a better understanding of the policy levers available to influence food supply for [African] households in order to promote healthier diets, local agriculture and a sustainable health system that supports food security (PRDF 2014)
  • Reviewing the available nutrient content data and populate this information on a single, internationally recognised database. This will serve as a comprehensive, open access reference platform to researchers, governments, development practitioners and others. Such data is essential to inform policies and programmes for improving the nutritional adequacy of diets in resource-poor communities, which is of particular concern in sub-Saharan Africa.

AAUN got in touch with Professor Schonfeldt for an update on her work and was curious about what drives her.

Why did you choose the area of food security?

Malnutrition in all its forms imposes unacceptable high direct and indirect costs on individuals, families and the nation. A sustained reduction in malnutrition will contribute significantly to poverty reduction. My main research area embraces food composition and nutrient quality including availability of nutrients of concern worldwide e.g. protein, vitamin A, iron and zinc. Converting this information into healthy affordable food choices in a developing country context is particularly challenging.

You are involved in two projects that were seed-funded by AAUN. Do you have any recommendations/experiences on how to successfully work in a global and multi-disciplinary setting?

The experience of working in a global and multi-disciplinary has broadened my knowledge of other related fields of research and enlighten my viewpoints through conversations and practices of international participants.

What do you see as the next steps in your projects?

My research will continue to focus predominantly on the nutrient quality of foods, and the role these foods play in a changing food system. As food systems change, the availability, access and diversity of foods (food baskets) also change. The ideal food basket describes the quantity of foods that represent a nutritious diet for individuals in various ages, gender, socioeconomic and cultural subgroups. Through dietary quality assessment and the evaluation of the nutrient density of foods in relation to their carbon footprint my team will produce knowledge that is of critical importance to national and global food security.

AAUN catalyst for research development
In 2017, Professor Hettie Schonfeldt has been awarded with a seed grant through the AAUN Partnership Research Development Fund (PRDF) for her project proposal ‘Food composition data for animal-source foods in sub-Saharan Africa’a collaboration with fellow researchers at the University of Sydney, the University of Nairobi and the University of Pretoria including Professor Robyn Alders and Dr Julia de Bruyn (Sydney) and Professor Eric Mitema (Nairobi).

A previous AAUN project ‘Where does your food comes from? Food supply in the context of trade, agriculture and nutrition’ not only resulted in a published article in the journal Public Health and Nutrition, but also acted as a springboard for the grant application success in 2017.

The 2014/15 project expanded Professor Schonfeldt’s network, introducing her to like-minded scientists from all over the world, including Sydney. It was through this network that the proposal for the AAUN Partnership Research Development Fund (PRDF) 2017 was created, in partnership with Professor Mitema in Nairobi.

Professor Schonfeldt was sponsored by AAUN to attend the AAUN Australia Forum, held on 4 September 2017 in Perth. This provided an excellent opportunity to also meet her colleagues at the University of Sydney to discuss future collaborations.

See article:
Public Health and Nutrition: Thow, A.M., Schönfeldt, H.C., De Kock, R., Viljoen, A., Du Rand, G., Gericke, G. and Negin, J. (2017) ‘Policy for the complex burden of malnutrition in Africa: a research agenda to bring consumers and supply chains together”, Public Health Nutrition, 20(6), 1135-1139.