Enablers for achieving food systems transformation in Africa

Enablers for achieving food systems transformation in Africa

Food insecurity ­ – which can be defined as a lack of access to sufficient healthy, high-quality, and culturally preferred foods – has increased for the fourth year in a row, with 9.8% of the global population affected by hunger in 2021 compared to 8% in 2019 and 9.3% in 2020. Economic recessions, health challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing costs of healthy diets are all factors contributing to the rise in food insecurity. Calls to identify and assess pathways for improving food security depend on inclusive and innovative food systems approaches.

Food systems frameworks are tools that allow for assessment, understanding, and improvement of food systems in order to address complex problems such as food insecurity. However, none of the existing frameworks are specific to the African context. The Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) has proposed a framework that speaks to the global sustainable development agenda and more specifically to African priorities. The framework provides a lens through which African food systems can be explored. This framework will evolve as informed by several factors, including ongoing food systems discourses, and it aims to achieve three important outcomes: (i) food and nutrition security and health, (ii) improved livelihoods, (iii) and environmental sustainability (i.e., having a positive or neutral impact on the natural environment).

The complex and interrelated challenges that constrain food systems transformation require novel approaches that transcend siloed research, policies, and practice. A new cadre of leaders in science, government, civil society, and the private sector needs to be capacitated with a range of skills that disrupt the norm of development approaches. Furthermore, these thought-leaders should prioritise collaborative thought exchange to engage with and find innovative solutions to the most pressing food systems problems.

To this end, the African Research Universities Alliance Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS) recently hosted the ARUA-SFS Science Days and High-level Colloquium from 24–25 August 2022. ARUA-SFS was established in 2018 as a partnership between the host institution – the University of Pretoria (UP) – and collaborating partner institutions – the University of Ghana and the University of Nairobi. The Centre aims to create an engaging global network of talented researchers to move institutions forward in finding solutions to Africa’s most wicked food systems challenges.

The theme for the event was titled “From Food Security to Sustainable Food Systems: Addressing the Challenges and Ensuring Institutional Alignment”. FSNet-Africa was invited to host two sessions during the event. The first session showcased the FSNet-Africa model. The second session formed part of the high-level colloquium and featured a panel discussion with experts giving their inputs on the enablers of food systems transformation in Africa.

Photo: ARUA-SFS High-Level Colloquium participants

(Credit: Mariki Uitenweerde)

The FSNet-Africa high-level colloquium session was convened by Prof. Frans Swanepoel (FSNet-Africa Director and Principal Investigator) and moderated by Prof. Lindiwe Majele Sibanda (ARUA-SFS Director and Chair). Dr Heide Hackman, the Interim Director of Future Africa, opened the session and welcomed participants. The highlights from the panel presentations on specific enablers are presented below.


Dr Thandi Mgwebi

DVC: Research, Innovation and Internationalisation, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University


  Gender-responsive African food systems

Gender-responsive African food systems require tailored approaches that cater to the needs and priorities of women and men of different ages. The different gender roles need to be clearly understood if we are to implement meaningful, effective strategies aimed at transformation of food systems. In particular, there is also a pressing need to address women’s access to resources such credit, extension services, education, and decision-making platforms.

Dr Stefano Marras

Director: Global Partnerships – UN Affairs, Bayer Crop Science


  The role of the private sector in food systems transformation

The private sector extends beyond large corporations or companies. Africa has the highest percentage of entrepreneurs, and 90% of them work in the private sector.  These entrepreneurs are mostly women and youth who are poor and have launched start-ups or small to medium enterprises (SMEs). There is a need to support such groups with targeted, appropriate support/investments so that they can enter into the formal economy. This support is not only financial but can also can be in the form of knowledge transfer and co-creation.


Ms Joyene Isaacs

Chairperson: Agricultural Research Council (ARC), SA


  Partnerships in African Food Systems Transformation

To achieve meaningful transformation, it is important to reflect on what partnerships mean and how to ensure that joint interests are central. Partners need to help and respect one another – whether it’s a woman in a rural village or the managing director of a company – and need to jointly address food systems challenges. The ARC pursues partnerships with various stakeholders and prioritises bringing useful, impactful research knowledge to people from all sectors of society. There is also a specific programme focus at the ARC on building the capacity of black businesswomen, as women are central to the partnerships needed to transform African food systems.


Dr Moses Osiru

Manager: Regional Coordination Unit (RCU) of the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF)


  Strengthening food systems research capacity in Africa

As a precondition to achieving excellence in research institutions – where research capacities are built, used, and shared – three things are critical. Firstly, we need to concentrate on talent, and grouping together people from different disciplines and backgrounds (i.e., transdisciplinarity). Secondly, favourable governance structures and a clear vision for the institution are needed. Thirdly, abundant resources are required, thus university staff should be trained to write proposals and manage projects. Capacity building is a cross-cutting contributor to all enablers of food systems transformation in Africa.


Dr Yemi Akinbamijo

Executive Director: Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA)


  Big data for food systems transformation

The world has entered a new era of the information economy, where data is one of the most crucial assets needed by organisations to make informed decisions and improve performance. With the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), big data has become a central feature of the technological innovations evidenced by, for example, rapidly progressing mobile technologies and the internet of things. 4IR necessitates increased capacity for gathering and analysing data to produce business intelligence that can be applied to help farmers make smart decisions. There is, however, a need for appropriate policies that can support the effective utilisation of artificial intelligence within food systems.


Prof. Richard Mkandawire

Director: Alliance for African Partnership (AAP)


  Influencing policy for food systems transformation

Influencing policy is extremely challenging, as  governments are slow to change and to implement reforms. Policy change requires very intentional efforts – specifically building alliances and forming coalitions/networks to promote the transformation agenda. Most institutions have failed to play a strong influencing role. All institutions need to build capacity for influencing – particularly smaller entities that must garner support and funding from larger organisations that can easily take a dominant position. Smaller and less influential institutions need to ensure that research and policy agendas are not driven by international institutions or corporates interests. Deliberate strategies are needed to ensure that institutions enter alliances with strategic government entities, champions within the system, and civil society.


Prof. Claire Quinn

Co-Director and Co-Investigator: FSNet-Africa

  International perspectives to inform African food systems transformation

A systems approach is critical to transforming African food systems. Working in silos is unsustainable and ineffective; rather, it is essential to break out of disciplinary boundaries and also to look beyond the production end of food systems. Although production is important, markets, supply chains, global processes, and policy investments should all be considered. There is a growing recognition that partnerships need to be equitable, sustainable, and led by partners in the Global South rather than being dominated by the Global North. Research capacity building and partnerships should be collaborative and should effectively apply resources as led by those within the African context. FSNet-Africa – an example of such a partnership between North and South – is led by the University of Pretoria, with support from the University of Leeds. We are building the next generation of research leaders, who will then also be capacitated to mentor the next generation.


Dr Aldo Stroebel, the Executive Director of the National Research Foundation (NRF), concluded the session by giving a synthesis of the High-Level Colloquium and outlining the levers (illustrated below) that are necessary for us to have the greatest impact in the quest for food systems transformation in Africa.

Levers for Food Systems Transformation

(Source: Presentation at ARUA-SFS High-Level Colloquium by Dr Aldo Stroebel, 25 August 2022)