Lack of dietary diversity in Ethiopia is tied to limited access to a variety of foods and affordability, new research finds

A rural market in Ethiopia
Many rural markets in Ethiopia lack certain foods and/or some nutritious foods are too expensive for many households, new research shows. All photos: Victor Pinga, Alive & Thrive.

Many Ethiopians have little variety in their diets because foods such as meats and poultry and some fruits and vegetables are unavailable or too expensive, according to new research.

Researchers looked at consumption, production, availability, and affordability in six regions of Ethiopia, to understand how well the regions’ food systems—from farm inputs to food distribution – were aligned with the nutritional needs of the people.

The studies are part of Alive & Thrive’s work with stakeholders to promote nutrition-sensitive agriculture (NSA), an approach that seeks to maximize agriculture’s contribution to nutrition. NSA involves linking agriculture to sectors that address other causes of malnutrition, namely education, health and social protection.

The findings varied by region and were cause for concern, the researchers said. The research was undertaken by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) with funding from Alive & Thrive, an initiative supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Afar, Amhara, Oromia, SNNP, Somali and Tigray regions were the focus of the research.

The full reports and briefs, which include an overview of the data and summarize the key points, are available here.

“While there are many factors affecting the consumption of healthy diverse diets, what is available and affordable in local rural food markets often shape the food choices of consumers – for example, poultry, fish and meat are very expensive for most households in Ethiopia, hence consumption in rural areas is low,” said Victor Pinga, a member of the research team. “Meanwhile, there are many inexpensive foods that are available within the rural food environment, and yet consumption is low. This research showed us which potential food groups offer promise in diversifying diets.”

Vegetables on sale at market
A&T’s studies of nutrition-sensitive agriculture incorporated data on the types of foods, like fruits and vegetables, that can be purchased in rural markets.

Dr. Abdulaziz Oumer, director of A&T’s program in Ethiopia, said the studies revealed significant dietary issues.

“Children aged 6 months to 2 years are expected to consume at least four food groups every day, but the majority of these children in the six regions consume only two food groups,” Dr. Oumer said. “Even the consumption of the relatively cheaper food groups, like legumes and nuts and Vitamin A-rich vegetables, is low. This is a good indicator that not only price affects consumption – knowledge and desirability of the foods may contribute.”

The situation in Tigray Region illustrates these points. In Tigray, children eat from less than two food groups daily, on average, and mothers eat from less than three. The average person gets the bulk of their calories from carbohydrates. The average family would have to spend 59 percent of its income to eat a healthy diet beyond carbohydrates and the poorest would have to spend 153 percent of its income.

Aligning food systems with the nutritional needs of the population would likely lead to improved health and nutritional status, and the reports are intended to help stakeholders in their efforts to do so. For example, in Oromia, the most readily available and affordable food groups include: legumes and nuts; other fruits and vegetables; Vitamin A-rich fruits and vegetables; and, eggs. Making these value chains a priority—by increasing availability and improving affordability, price stability, and safety in all local food markets—offers promise for moving toward a more diverse diet, when combined with increasing demand for these foods.

“Together, these reports highlight significant variation in diet content, and in the availability and affordability of nutritious foods across the six regions,” said Dr. Kalle Hirvonen, a Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI. “There is no ‘one-size fits all’. Instead, strategies to improve food systems need to be carefully tailored to the context.”

Poor dietary quality is one of the leading causes of premature death and diseases globally. In Ethiopia specifically, adults and children get between 60-80 percent of their energy from carbohydrates, which is particularly worrying given that a carbohydrate intake greater than 60 percent increases an individual’s risk of cardiovascular disease—one of the country’s most common causes of premature mortality.