There is much talk about spurring transformation of the food system globally and in Africa. About time. The importance of doing so is reinforced by the climatic challenges we face, severe biodiversity loss, and the need for huge growth in production of nutritious foods that can make them affordable for poor and wealthy alike, to combat a growing burden of disease caused by bad diets. One of the most important questions is: How might food system transformation take place sufficiently swiftly, to make a meaningful difference to human and planetary health? Several entry points exist:
Changing consumer behaviour is key. Coalitions are beginning to form aimed at influencing at scale. In the UK, major broadcaster ITV, and supermarkets ASDA, ALDI and the CO-OP, alongside others, have come together in VEGPOWER to build a public influencing campaign to make vegetables cool/hip/sick/ace, depending on your preferred lingo! More vegetables and less meat provide potentially double benefits to planet and people’s health, though I haven’t seen any evidence of impact or lessons from this yet. Other examples exist, but it feels like many more partnerships are necessary over sustained periods and in many countries, with savvy behaviour change approaches, to create and sustain real change in public perceptions to alter consumer demand.
In Africa, aid and financial investments are helping transition the food system too. International aid, development impact capital and venture capital are investing in young and mature agribusinesses that operate in value chains supplying everything from beans, to tea, to tomatoes, to quinoa, to a range of domestic and international markets.
For instance, AgDevCo has received more than £100m from UKAID to invest strategically in businesses capable of growing the availability of key food and cash crops that enhance employment and specifically engage hundreds of thousands of small-holder farmers in raising their income. Countless other examples exist, though it is a tough game to be in, given climate variability and a challenging enabling environment in terms of polices and infrastructure in many countries. GAIN’s marketplace for nutritious foods has been supporting companies in East Africa that specifically bring nutritious foods to the marketplace – great work – and there is a need to bring these approaches to a much greater scale. The Rockefeller Foundation’s new food systems strategy is focused in very large part on bringing much more nutritious foods into the market, through new knowledge and partnerships. Despite this and much else besides, the evidence continues to suggest that many small and medium size businesses are unable to access the kinds of finance they need to grow their businesses and bring food for the market at prices consumers can afford.
Other partnerships are being formed to create a much more supportive ecosystem for entrepreneurs in Africa that wish to develop and grow businesses in the African agri-food sector. Generation Africa showcases the best in African talent in a competition called Go-Gettaz. Improving the way agriculture is perceived in Africa is one of the key challenges. Alongside this, it provides an online capability to support entrepreneurs and works with a group of champions to influence policy, financing and other means of support for entrepreneurs. More ambitiously, it seeks to connect with other platforms to create systemic change through better orchestrated action for entrepreneurs across the continent.
However, despite all of these positive actions and others, there is one intervention relevant to transforming local food systems in countries in Africa that is not yet being considered sufficiently given its potential for local people in nearby markets across Africa.
What if aid seeking better living standards for very poor people can help produce a healthier and more nutritious food system? Surely that is a win-win. So, let us explore this some more.
‘Graduation from poverty’ programme investments in Asia and Africa have demonstrated how extreme levels of poverty can be overcome for many thousands of households, with a specific package of interventions providing support over 2-3-years. With this assistance, families form their own micro businesses and raise their own incomes from below 2USD a day to 3USD, 5USD and higher. Even the World Bank is an advocate of the approach through its Partnership for Economic Inclusion. The improvement in income enables families to make a big difference to their quality of life. Often this improvement is sustained into the future making them more resilient to future difficulties such as drought.
These programmes create many thousands of individual or family micro businesses within a defined area, and most of these are based on food or agriculture activities. Most businesses thrive, though some do not. Many of these businesses produce nutritious foods (e.g. eggs, vegetables, milk, meat) for local markets in countries such as Kenya, Uganda, India and Bangladesh. Some go on to grow bigger and employ others.
So far, the focus of international donors and agencies that support ‘graduation from poverty’ approaches to date has been on how poverty is reduced for the families. Little attention has been paid on how these businesses contribute to changes in the local food system, particularly if these graduation programmes operate at a good scale. The degree of positive change in the local food system may accelerate if such programmes were scaled up and were connected as they grow with market development programmes and improvements in infrastructure. I’m not yet aware of the availability of evidence assessing change in food systems from poverty graduation programmes – but we need it. And soon. The Government of Kenya is looking to pilot these approaches in 5 counties. Measurement of food system change could include year-round availability of nutritious foods in markets and gauging if affordability is improved.
Alongside a whole set of valuable investments and interventions being made in the Africa agri-food sector, scaling up graduation from poverty programmes could and probably should be seen as part of the armoury that donors and governments have in creating local jobs, prosperity and improving food systems locally. Undoubtedly, some of these micro-entrepreneurs, especially those starting young, have the potential to create larger businesses over time that employ others. A pipeline of entrepreneurs is important to steadily build the hundreds of thousands of businesses and tens of millions of jobs needed in Africa as the working population doubles in the next 25 years.