Our food systems must become more nourishing, sustainable, equitable and resilient. This is the imperative set by the United Nations Food Systems Summit taking place on 23 September 2021.
Food systems touch every aspect of human existence, affecting the health of our bodies, our environment, our economies, and our cultures. Every day, each person on the planet plays their part in nourishing humanity; and, within decades, we must feed nine billion people.
This endeavour is a miracle of human collaboration, and yet, in critical ways, we are failing. Too many are underfed, overfed or poorly fed. We are degrading vital natural capital and biodiversity. We are ill-prepared for shocks such as pandemics and a changing climate.
Poverty is a daily burden for so many who labour to provide our food. Over the last year, the Summit process has brought the world together to ask how we must collectively act to transform the way we produce, consume and think about food.
Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) constitute at least half the food system. Each country is different, but SMEs usually make up over 90% of businesses in the agri-food sector, create half the sector’s economic value, provide more than half its jobs, and handle more than half the food consumed. They are incredibly diverse, from bakeries to farm suppliers, coffee co-ops to digital start-ups. Some will grow exponentially to become renowned giants, but the vast majority are hidden heroes labouring to provide food from their niche in the food system.
SMEs must be at the heart of efforts to provide “Good Food for All”. Lift the lid on the food system, and SMEs are everywhere. Sector transformation is simply unimaginable without them. At the centre of SMEs are entrepreneurs, who together make billions of decisions that shape the future of food.
They are pioneers, innovators, and influencers. On a daily basis, they acutely feel the global tensions: how do we provide our end-consumers with affordable food, whilst ensuring it is nutritious, paying fair wages, maintaining our natural capital, and being ready for shocks?
On behalf of the United Nations, Wasafiri was contracted to ensure the needs and potential of SMEs were brought into the Summit process. We asked thousands of food SMEs and their expert supporters, “How to boost the role of SMEs in providing good food for all?” Their response, with input from 137 countries, was inspiring and compelling.
Food SMEs revealed themselves as quiet revolutionaries, working tirelessly to transform food systems in every corner of the planet. Listening carefully, we heard a shared vision for rebalanced food systems that sustain past efficiency gains, whilst no longer compromising nutrition, natural capital, equity, and resilience. Their stories tell of their collective commitment to drive positive change in multiple ways:
Integrating markets to reduce poverty and hunger. Creating opportunities that improve equity.
Innovating and scaling solutions for nutrition and sustainability.
Elevating resilience to shocks, through embedded yet agile business models.
Influencing to passionately shape the future of food.
SMEs are ready to reshape our food systems for the better, but this is a formidable challenge. They will only fulfil their potential when support systems, market incentives, power dynamics, and cultural norms shift in their favour. The ask by SMEs is for cross-sector actors to create conditions for purpose-driven SMEs to flourish.
Every country and value chain is different, and so are the constraints they present to SMEs. Hence, SMEs need the Food System Summit to catalyse action by coalitions working at national-level or within specific value chains. Listening to the SMEs in each discrete context will highlight priority actions to boost their contribution as change agents. Three pathways need considering when integrating food SMEs into the prioritisation, design and governance of efforts to transform food systems.
Pathway 1: Create a business ecosystem in which food SMEs thrive
The food sector is often burdensome for SMEs. Running a food SME is hard, and market elements are frequently wrong-sized for them. When food entrepreneurs have a business environment that gives them a fair chance to compete in the market, they then thrive to the benefit of consumers, producers, communities, nature, and investors.
Opportunities to act:
Reduce the cost of doing business by improving physical and digital infrastructure, regulations, and the rule of law.
Improve access to finance.
Ease SME graduation from the informal to the formal sector.
Leverage the power of large market actors.
Target business support at food SMEs.
Pathway 2: Incentivise businesses to provide “Good Food for All”
The best businesses are not always the most competitive, so they struggle to scale up. Most consumers currently prioritise price above all other factors, and good businesses cannot out-compete those who deliver their products whilst externalising their cost to public health, natural capital, or social equity. The food system will continue to fail us until these incentives change.
Opportunities to act:
Ensure prices reflect the true cost of food, while safeguarding affordability.
Create consumer demand for “good food”.
Fast-track innovative entrepreneurs.
Pathway 3: Increase the power of food SMEs within sector planning
Small businesses have quiet and isolated voices. Compared to government or large businesses, they are relatively underpowered in their ability to collectively influence decision-making, regulations, resource allocation, and cultural values within food systems. Only once power dynamics change can we expect to make progress on rebalancing food systems in favour of the SMEs pioneering good food for all.
Opportunities to act:
Elevate the voice of SMEs.
Structure SMEs into dynamic networks.
Plan and invest according to context-specific priorities.
These messages were presented by Wasafiri in the report “A Small Business Agenda” and in a session at the Pre-Summit that is available to watch.
The Summit convenes imminently. UN member states will share plans to forge better food systems. They are far more likely to achieve their worthy goals if they work in partnership with the small businesses that are already revolutionising our food day-in-day-out.
The world is not short of models for systems change. Many of these models are right and a few of them are useful. The World Business Council for Sustainability (WBCS) has just published a brief on ‘Unlocking systems transformation’ (LINK here) – which falls well into the ‘useful’ category.
Since inception, Wasafiri has understood profit as a goal secondary to achieving wider social value. Through the rigorous B-Corp certification process, this has now been formally recognised, joining the ranks of highly respected companies such as Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s.