World Food Day 2023 focuses on the importance of water for food security, but what jumps out to me is the tagline: leave no one behind.
‘Leave no one behind’ is central to the idea of the sustainable development goals, where the focus is on eradicating poverty and reducing inequalities. But leaving no one behind also matters in terms of the research and knowledge that underpins how we achieve the sustainable development goals and build resilient and sustainable food systems in Africa.
African researchers are consistently underrepresented in research publications on Africa. For example, in climate change research, 58% of papers on African climate had no African authors; in health research, only 52.9% of first authors were from the African country of focus; and one in five papers published on Covid-19 in Africa included no African-based authors.
This underrepresentation matters because it likely reflects a lack of funding and infrastructure for African researchers. It also means that local contexts and priorities will be missing from research that informs government policy and investment on the continent.
In the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) project, we are working in equitable partnerships to tackle the challenges of building sustainable food systems on the African continent. FSNet-Africa is both a capacity building (strengthening the research and leadership skills of academics) and research excellence (developing new knowledge and implementable solutions) project on African food systems.
The model that we are implementing in FSNet-Africa is one that puts early-career African researchers at the centre as FSNet-Africa fellows, surrounded by mentors from both the United Kingdom and the African continent. This model, co-developed by the key partners (University of Pretoria, University of Leeds, and FANRPAN), builds the fellows’ research and leadership capacity, while enabling mentors to work in more collaborative and supportive ways.
At the same time, FSNet-Africa is driven by the priorities and leadership of the African partners in collaboration with policymakers and communities in the countries where our fellows work, recognising that leaving no one behind also means working in close partnership with stakeholders who can make use of the research, or whose lives and livelihoods can be transformed by it. While FSNet-Africa supports African researchers tackling specifically African food system problems, we hope that the training and leadership skills provided will position our fellows as future leaders in food systems research, contributing to and developing our thinking on how the global food system can be transformed to be more equitable and sustainable.
This kind of model is not without its challenges. Equitable partnerships need time in the early stages to build the relationships and trust that are so important. It can be difficult to find that time when funding isn’t available for network building, and while online tools such as Teams and Zoom are helpful in maintaining relationships, getting together face-to-face at the beginning is really important. We also need to be mindful of the impact that long-distance travel, and the carbon emissions that it creates, can have on many of the challenges that collaborative research seeks to address. A mixture of face-to-face, hybrid and online ways of working will help to reduce the carbon emissions of collaborative research and so the contribution of research activities themselves to climate change.
Research funding is also a major challenge. There is a lack of funding for research from governments and donors in Africa, and not enough funding from the United Kingdom, United States, or Europe for research in Africa flows to researchers and their institutions on the continent. Ultimately, funders set the agenda for research, and currently, that agenda too often reflects the priorities of governments and donors based outside of the continent.
Despite these challenges, I strongly believe that how we are working together in FSNet-Africa provides a model that we and others can learn from. The way in which the network of FSNet-Africa partners has come together around the challenge of food systems transformation in Africa is a model that is transferable to other global challenges, including climate change, water, and health. However, the model is not just a framework for research; each of the partners is learning from the experience to inform their strategies and ways of working more broadly. As such, the legacy of FSNet-Africa will hopefully go beyond its contribution to food systems research excellence and leadership, to transform how the partners work together, and with others, such that equity is put at the heart of research.