Insights for food systems transformation from southern Africa

This photo essay illustrates key themes and recommendations that emerged from these SARA engagements, with a focus on addressing barriers and unlocking important actions to transform food systems in southern Africa.

Written by: Sabrina Chesterman, Maike Hamann, Albert Norström
GRP Areas of work: Knowledge Theme: Agriculture, nutrition and food security

Food systems are complex and multi-dimensional. They encompass not only the production of food but also processing, transport, and consumption. The millions of people involved in food systems include farmers, laborers, fishers, processors, transporters, warehouse workers, shopkeepers, marketing professionals, regulators, and consumers, among many others.

Across all these dimensions, current systems are shaped by incentives, power dynamics, mental models, and institutions. This complex weave of people, places, and politics is the messy reality of food systems on our planet. While highly productive, evidence is becoming ever clearer on how destructive our current food systems are to the natural environment.

In southern Africa, agricultural and food security are heavily dependent on predictable and sufficient rainfall events. As a result, changing rainfall patterns, increasing temperatures, and more frequent extreme weather events (including heavy rainfall and drought) are having a devastating impact on regional food systems. This impact is compounded by agriculture’s role as the economic backbone of most southern African countries.

Transformation is needed to move southern Africa’s current food systems into a space that is climate-resilient, responsive to future uncertainties,  and environmentally and socially sustainable.

The Southern African Resilience Academy (SARA) is an initiative of the Global Resilience Partnership (GRP), supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). In 2021, SARA unpacked the complexities around food systems transformation through three linked virtual workshops, attended by diverse stakeholders from across the region.

This photo essay illustrates key themes and recommendations that emerged from these SARA engagements, with a focus on addressing barriers and unlocking important actions to transform food systems in southern Africa. Delve further into SARA’s engagements and outcomes in Insights for food systems transformation from southern Africa: Outcomes of the Southern Africa Resilience Academy and Insights for food systems transformation from southern Africa: Overview of the southern Africa context.

A market seller in Chongwe, Zambia prepares fresh lettuce for sale

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

A commercial bee keeping enterprise in the Western Cape. South Africa. An employee maintains the hives, which are located in the local endemic fynbos vegetation.

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

‘’Transformative change sometimes requires radically new interventions, policies and partnerships. It moves us beyond incremental change and results in major long-term changes in the way systems operate.” Sabrina Chesterman

A commercial farmer in Western Zambia tracks seedling production

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Changing the way information ecosystems work.

‘We need to change the way the information ecosystem works; we need to look at who is empowered by information….’’- Steven Brooks, Resilient Waters Programme.

Transformation should begin with engaging the production, distribution and access of data, knowledge and information. Current information ecosystems are not only dominated by large corporate organizations, but are predominantly supply-led and in English.

Capacity development and training session for women on a commercial farm in Zambia

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Changing mindsets, working at the systems level, and focusing on nexus issues.

‘’The food system is extremely broad and cross-cutting. There is too much work still being done in siloes, and not enough integration and harmonisation. We need to improve efficiencies and support coordinated messaging.” –  Sherwin Gabriel, IFPRI

Government, private sector, community stakeholders and broader civil society all have a role to play in supporting change. Strategic conversations on food systems transformations are key to building trust and supporting shared action on multiple levels. Such strategic conversations build trust and support shared action. Community-based forums can support such strategic conversations at the local level, but barriers to participation must be addressed to ensure forums remain inclusive. Mechanisms can be developed to institutionalise participation and bottom-up approaches within policy development and governance systems.

Core to innovative water and energy solutions, and supporting the decarbonisation of food systems that incentivises sustainable and equitable water access for the production, processing and preservation of healthy and safe foods is the WEF nexus approach. To ensure scale at an integrated approach, we need to guide sector planning, policy, investment and technology decisions. The approach identifies potential trade-offs and explores synergies in water and energy storage, access and (re)use considering the climate and other related water and energy risks to food systems and the finite amounts of natural resource assets.

Women carry maize meal purchased from an informal market in Palabana Zambia

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Rethinking governance and convening power.

Governance for food systems transformation should recognize that food systems comprise complex, overlapping, multi-sectoral, -jurisdictional, and inter-dependent networks.

Food systems transformation requires effective governance across sectors and departments, operating at various scales (community, municipal, provincial, national, regional, global), and supporting connections between these scales.  Transboundary institutions can play an important role in convening dialogue and supporting action. Such institutions are well placed to emphasise and leverage interconnections within food systems and can facilitate the development of inclusive, efficient and comprehensive policies and plans.

Mixed cropping field which includes the integration of trees on croplands (agroforestry) on a small scale farm on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Transboundary institutions can play an important role in convening dialogues and supporting action. Such institutions are well placed to emphasize and leverage interconnections within food systems and can facilitate the development of inclusive, efficient and comprehensive policies and plans.

A peri-urban scheme for local communities to engage in food production in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Address justice and food sovereignty.

There has been a strong push for food systems transformation based on agroecology for food sovereignty and a rights-based approach, but such approaches have not been universally accepted. In many instances, governments have played an important role in driving a rights-based approach to food systems transformation, but there is a perception amongst some that these efforts have been eroded, with concern around the impact of corporate interests in undermining efforts to promote greater justice in food systems. Civil society has played a critical role in advancing efforts to support more just and equitable food systems, but their impact can be greatly enhanced through partnerships with public and private sector allies.

Shelves of a rural shop in Eastern Zambia

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Engage industry.

A partnership-based approach to systemic change, one that includes the private sector, will be critical to implement enduring food systems transformation. Yet, many stakeholders are concerned about the power and incentive structures at play within the food industry. As the region develops and access to non-traditional diets increases, there is an important opportunity to address dysfunctional aspects of the food system, raise awareness around healthy diet, and support a more human-centred approach to food system design

A local dairy co-operative in Palabana, Zambia

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Transporting local dairy in Palabana, Zambia

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Transporting local dairy in Palabana, Zambia

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

A shop owner selling fresh vegetables, dried fish and non-perishable in eastern Malawi

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Enable blended and local food systems.

There is a lot to coordinate at the local level that could really shape things and make things happen, but it can’t be constantly underminded and compromised by a national. Policy thtat is going a completely different way.” – Vanessa Black, Biowatch South. Africa

Governance at a systems level will require a move away from centralised and siloed control towards more dispersed (yet integrated) systems. Ultimatley mindsets and attitudes need to change around food production, the linkage between nutrition and health, and the value that communities and society more generally place on food producers. There is a growing awareness that “intensive industrial agriculture does not appear to be sustainable and does not contribute to a healthy human diet”. Such shifts tie back to the importance of creating opportunities for young people in food systems, so that young people are assisted in identifying and pursuing opportunities in the food system.

Capenta fishing rigs return to the port in Kariba after a night of fishing on the lake

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Focus on developing sustainable rural livelihoods.

”Rural livelihoods are the ‘heart of food systems in southern Africa’’. – Steven Brooks

An effort to develop sustainable rural livelihoods based on food systems is beneficial in multiple ways. For one, it can reduce environmental impacts of agriculture. It may also provide people with a good life, especially given that 90% of rural livelihoods are centred around food. One way in which to achieve a more sustainable rural economy is to guarantee incomes for farmers in the context of unpredictable seasonal outputs.

Preparing nshima, the maize meal staple in Zambia

Place gender and youth at the centre of food systems transformation.

Globally, gender inequalities are persistent within food systems. Despite their vital role, women and girls have significantly fewer opportunities to acquire food production assets, own less land, and are less connected to food value chains either for staple or cash crops. In addition, access to sufficient quality nutrition is critical for cognitive development, and gender inequalities in access to such nutrition can have far-reaching impacts.

Tree nursery in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Scale and target financing.

Sufficient and appropriate finance and incentive structures are key to supporting food systems transformation. There are opportunities to draw financing from parts of the food system that are negatively impacting society, and channelling this towards system transformation. For example, a sugar tax can be invested back into the food system.

Informal sales of chickens between households in Chongwe, Zambia

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Mobilize networks and social movements.

Networks and broad social movements play a pivotal role in driving systemic change. Networks can play an important role in convening stakeholders and facilitating strategic conversations.

A co-operative youth labour group assists to prepare a field in Eastern Zambia

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Embrace individual transformation.

Change ultimately starts from within. While stakeholders focus on addressing change in institutions, governance systems and broader stakeholder groups, there is also a need to focus on internal and personal transformation.

A restaurant entrepreneur in Lusaka prepares bread for the daily bake

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

We need to be asking ourselves: What are the things I can do? What sphere of influence do I have? How can I connect with other change makers? How can my actions help to engender a different way of thinking and doing? How does this translate back to my work, my institution?  How does thinking about the ‘big picture’ and the future influence my day-to-day activities?

Women pumping for groundwater in Chongwe, Zambia. Local boreholes and village pumps are often the main source of water in rural sub-Saharan Africa.

Address fundamental food production issues.

“We have an immense opportunity in sub-saharan Africa to transform to more sustainable production. Most smallholder farmers are not yet in the industrial phase, farming is still within integrated crop and diverse livestock systems.” – Andre Van Rooyen, ICRISAT

A strong set of recommendations centred on the seed to support producers and the role of digital services and enhanced logistics. It is critical that food production takes into account accelerating climate change pressure, and this is where climate-smart agriculture (CSA) has a pivotal role in food systems transformation.

Purchasing a local donut in an informal market in Zambia

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Adopt futures exercises and building capacity for future planning.

“We must find ways to link anticipation to aspiration, to connect strategic planning to resource allocation and questions around how to go about innovation. This is so important for resilience-building and transformative change.” – Tanja Hichert, Centre for Sustainability Transitions.

Futures methodologies can offer useful insights to drive food systems change, as they sensitise people to different perceptions and perspectives of the future, and open up their minds to what is possible. Such approaches prompt people to adopt a systems perspectiveand help them to consider where interventions within the broader food system can create positive change.

Wine making valley in the Western Cape in South Africa

Kelvin Trautman | Kands Collective

Support regional level food systems interventions.

The issue of scale and regional implementation, networks and interventions emerged as critical for transformation. In southern Africa this includes ensuring strong technical support and targeted capacity and programmatic interventions to support the SADC secretariat and specifically the FANR division. This regional level interventions would help to address critical sectoral and ministerial implementation challenges around food systems.

About GRP and CST

The Global Resilience Partnership (GRP) is an international network of organizations working together to advance resilience through on-the-ground innovation, generating and sharing knowledge, and shaping policy. GRP’s vision is an inclusive world in harmony with nature, that is better prepared to cope with shocks, adapt to change, and transform – all within planetary boundaries.

One of GRP’s core strategies in this endeavour is to strengthen Global South research and practice networks through the establishment of “South to South Resilience Academies”. The aim of these academies is to support resilience- and development-related knowledge coproduction and exchange across regions in the Global South, and facilitate knowledge transfer from the Global South to the Global North.

The Southern African Resilience Academy (SARA) is coordinated by the Centre for Sustainability Transitions (CST) at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The CST builds on a strong history of transdisciplinary research and complexity studies, and provides a vibrant research hub for solution-oriented sustainability science that hosts leading scientists and students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds. The primary objective of the CST is to provide transformational knowledge on the dynamics of multi-scale social-ecological change, as well as strategic insights into the new modes of research and governance that can bring about a just transition to a more equitable and sustainable society, in southern Africa and globally