The African continent is alive with possibilities! That is the message sent out by the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) fellows who showcased their research ideas on 14 and 15 October 2021. The FSNet-Africa Research Symposium was the culmination of a 14-week online journey that fellows have embarked on since mid-July 2021.
With nearly 20% of the African population experiencing hunger, systems thinking along with multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary approaches are required to transform Africa’s food and hunger challenge. Food systems research remains a critical prerequisite for development and growth within the continent. It identifies pathways towards sustainable systems by highlighting challenges and the appropriate innovations needed to solve the challenges.
FSNet-Africa is a flagship programme of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems. FSNet-Africa is led by the University of Pretoria (UP) in collaboration with the University of Leeds (United Kingdom) and the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Network (FANRPAN). The project is funded under the partnership between the ARUA and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Global Challenges Research Fund. The project aims to transform the African food system by capacitating early career researchers to conduct transdisciplinary food systems research.
The fellows’ journey
Over the last 14 weeks, fellows have participated in structured training as part of the FSNet-Africa fellowship online orientation. Training topics included gender-responsive research, data management and monitoring and evaluation. The fellows, their mentors and a network of researchers at UP have worked together to conceptualise research projects. Fellows have engaged stakeholders to refine the relevance of their ideas to the needs of their countries and communities.
This symposium was an opportunity for fellows to showcase their research ideas.
One group of fellows will be conducting research to help ensure no one is left behind. They will look at the complexities of governance systems and what needs to change to ensure that communities become part of identifying solutions related to African food systems. The complexities of governance systems in food systems means that there are no silver bullet solutions. Inclusive and transparent governance processes are needed to identify priorities, define synergies and make decisions in the face of trade-offs and different values. This entails an understanding of coordination and power dynamics from stakeholders that are part of the food system.
Three fellows will focus on understanding how to reduce food waste – including post-harvest losses. Reducing global post-harvest losses could feed billions of hungry people and have a knock-on effect on environmental sustainability. The UN estimates that if food waste could be represented as its own country, it would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the United States. This speaks to the detrimental effects of food waste on the globe.
Another group of fellows will focus on improving the use of underutilised food crops, including indigenous crops. The benefits and value of indigenous and traditional foods (crops and livestock) within the African food systems context is not yet fully understood and synthesised. Exploring and analysing the agricultural value chains of indigenous crops will improve the focus on underutilised potential at different agricultural value chain nodes in Africa. Indigenous and traditional foods also provide greater diversity than exotic foods, with 7000 species used throughout human history as food sources and multiple other sources. Currently, nearly 80-90% of our dietary intake comes from 12-20 species, ensuring adequate calories but neglecting dietary diversity and nutrition. This emphasises the importance of indigenous and traditional foods towards strengthening African food systems.
Innovations, whether it be machinery, digital solutions, biotech, biodiversity, or other climate-smart agriculture practices, could be a game-changer for transforming Africa’s food systems. Another group of fellows will focus on innovations and how they contribute to sustainable and equitable African food systems. Although African agriculture is the least mechanised globally, the uptake of agricultural machinery has risen due to the rising cost of labour and animal traction. The private commercial mechanisation service providers have also promoted more economical innovative alternatives. More attention is, however, required for smallholder farmers and research from the fellows addresses this gap.
The last group of fellows will focus on agricultural value chains for more equitable and healthy diets in African food systems. Multisectoral, nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions are required across the food value chains and should include marginalised rural communities. Although the health sector has traditionally taken the lead in tackling malnutrition, it is now well established that a holistic food systems approach is required to drive change. In addition, a large number of people, in particular youth and women, continue to face socioeconomic barriers to fully participate in food value chains. Therefore, the research from the fellows will also take a gender lens to understand the gender dynamics associated with food systems in Africa and identify strategies for women and youth empowerment.
Africa’s challenges are complex and intricately linked. Much effort is needed to find a solution to the pandemic of hunger that persistently hinders our continent’s development. Like surgeons preparing for theatre, these researchers offer renewed hope that we solve these wicked problems that face our continent.
This year as we commemorate World Food Day, we celebrate the commitment of these 20 fellows, their mentors and the UP researchers they are collaborating with. Fellows will become the next generation of food systems research leaders – offering genuine hope and inspiration that Africa can realise zero hunger.