‘Where’s the coffee?’ was a question I overheard as a leading farmers representative walked past me talking with a colleague at the AGRF summit 2022 in Kigali this week.
Africa’s premier forum for agriculture and food systems is a hard but rewarding set of meetings and sessions.
The AGRF is impressive and valuable because it is well attended. It comprises many of the leading players on food systems transformation in Africa. A networking frenzy is the result as all of us participants make up for lost human contact due to Covid19 in recent years. Handshakes are in plenty, and rooms are abuzz with groups clustered together.
Meeting so many passionate people in person and exploring what is working and not working with Africa’s food systems gives us all energy for the road ahead. What is clear is that we have a long way to go but there is no shortage of positive stories of progress to build the spirit.
Four years ago, also in Kigali, I attended my first AGRF. While it was a good event there were some important aspects that received little attention.
So, what’s different in 2022?
Nutrition is a big focus
Well for one, nutrition has a much higher profile with several dedicated sessions. There are regular references to the importance of good nutrition from notable policymakers and influencers on the continent, including the African Union Commissioner Lionel Sacko, AGRA President Agnes Kalibata, leaders of international organisations, as well as first ladies across the continent including Her Excellency Jeannette Kagame here in Rwanda.
This is helped by the AU designating 2022 as the year of nutrition with the goal of “Strengthening Resilience in Nutrition and Food Security on the African Continent”. This is great. I’ve been a passionate supporter on advancing good nutrition for over 15 years. If anything, we need to do more.
Climate and nature counts
Second, I’ve noticed a big shift in emphasis on how to deliver improvements in food systems (particularly food production) that can contribute to climate resilience and stronger nature outcomes. The environment now appears to matter to agriculture policymakers and influencers.
Hooray! This is huge.
I think it reflects in part some encouragement to focus on the issue by AGRF’s partners as well as global climate discourse and the upcoming COP 27 in Africa.
A new generation of leaders is emerging
As an action-oriented person, a truly inspiring element of the AGRF this year is a new force for change on the continent. I’m referring to a powerful and fresh generation of leaders for transforming national food systems in Africa.
While it is still early days, the African Food Fellowship, and the Centre for African Leaders in Agriculture (CALA) are impressive as they work to empower food systems leaders for the journey ahead. I enjoyed meeting many CALA delegates and African Food Fellows.
This force of leaders is essential in the months, years, and decades ahead if the talk of transforming food systems is to turn into reality. More of them are needed. Food Systems Leaders that can grow businesses, lead civil society, and shape government policy and support services with a systems mindset are the catalyst to the changes that the world needs.
Already, they are seeking new forms of collaboration and are better at overcoming barriers to change. The bigger shared picture that binds food systems leaders is a food system that delivers good outcomes for people in terms of incomes and nutrition, while also looking after the climate and nature. For too long there has been a mindset of seeking one outcome to the detriment of the others.
As I sit on a KQ flight from Kigali to Nairobi, I find myself asking the question: “Where’s the coffee?” And I quietly appreciate all those people that work hard to bring us the things we value and often take for granted.
The African Food Fellowship
The African Food Fellowship is a practical, collaborative, and visionary leadership initiative for inclusive and regenerative food futures on the continent.
Wageningen University & Research and Wasafiri Consulting initiated this fellowship to help deliver progress promised in the 2014 Malabo Declaration, which aims to end hunger on the continent by 2025, and to promote intra-Africa food exchange through the continental free trade area.
The initiative enjoys support from the IKEA Foundation.
The third Biennial Review Report of the African Union on the Implementation of the Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods is coming. And it could be encouraging.
The report on agricultural transformation will land for public consumption after the African Union Summit on 5th/6th February 2022. It will convey a complex but fundamental picture of progress among nations in the fight against hunger and raising living standards across the continent. It’s a report we can all understand and make use of.
Does it really matter to me?
All too often in Africa, those working in government, regional economic communities, the international development sector and partners, work in silos. Heads are down and focused on delivering on their individual day-to-day but that doesn’t always satisfy the soul.
We all too rarely lift our heads to see the bigger picture from all the hard work that’s gone in. There’s always lots of talk about action, but the proof of the pudding is always in the eating… not the cooking.
The ‘Biennial Review’, as it is known in familiar circles, will show progress at a continental scale and in each country. It is based on the latest data from each nation.
The authoritative report gives insight into powerful trends and is provided by governments for governments to take action through mutual accountability.
Sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Yes, perhaps too good to be true.
How influential will it be?
The nations of Africa and their regional economic communities are coalescing behind the analysis of impact providing the most authoritative view that exists on ending hunger, reducing poverty, improving nutrition, enhancing social protection, and sustaining good land management.
It measures progress in almost 50 areas from circa 50 countries. These issues are often looked at separately, yet we know they must be intertwined to raise prosperity and resilience in the long run.
The report has been approved by a Committee of Ministers as it makes its way for review and adoption by Heads of State and Governments at the African Union Summit in early February.
In the past, Africa and the world have taken only mild notice. This is a travesty given all the work put into compiling it, and what it could mean for us all if used well.
Because it embodies a powder keg of evidence on what is and what isn’t working in Africa – we seek an explosion of its use in national and regional settings. Parliamentarians, NGOs, farmer organisations, farmers, and citizens are essential to encourage this to happen.
Progress relies on multiple actors sharing their learning on what seems to be working and coordinating in favour of a collective evidence-based approach, all anchored by governments while letting the private sector do what it does best.
Should we be excited?
Is this Biennial Review report news? I think it is. Journalists will be briefed at a civil society event on 2nd February.
The report and its findings are embargoed and will be available after 6th February along with some snazzy new communications tools. But there are whispers that it might bring some good news about progress in at least some nations against the mighty goals established in Malabo in 2014, which include wiping hunger off the map of Africa by 2025.
If true, this would be the good news needed to give the recovery from Covid-19 a spring in its step.
Fancy getting involved?
Stay tuned as we learn more. Please get in touch with Ruthpearl Ng’ang’a if you’d like to get involved in making sure this wonderful data and reporting system spreads its wings and strengthens the hands of governments, parliaments, development partners, and civil society to press for the policies and actions that can secure greater progress in future.
Let’s lift our heads and connect with this ‘bigger picture’ to see where we are now and where we are going before we double down on our day-to-day tasks. It is, after all, good for the soul.
I warmly welcome the near unity in voices across the world, calling for our food systems to better serve people and the planet. This will be the major cry too, at the UN Food Systems Summit in New York this month. But two important questions to consider are: ‘How to achieve this?’ and ‘What more do we need to know?’
Like many organisations, Wasafiri is actively seeking ways to help catalyse transformational shifts in food systems. Our desired outcome is simple: we want healthier and more sustainable foods to be grown and eaten everywhere.
One means of transforming the food supply is to help those who run micro and small food enterprises to flourish. After all, they produce most of the healthy, sustainable, local foods for local markets. These are often used by low-income consumers.
Kenya is a case in point; as a country with strong market activity and therefore opportunity for entrepreneurial people, the country provides an important barometer for what is possible.
But surely, these tiny businesses are too small to make a difference? Ants or termites provide a useful analogy. Individually their impact is minute as they go about their work – but taken collectively a colony of ants or brood of termites can create dramatic physical change in the environment. Collective action counts. Small can be powerful when harnessed.
Small businesses count
Let’s get a bit more specific and evidence-based. Harnessing the domination of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) is essential for meaningful change of national food systems in Africa.
MSMEs constitute the key part of the food environment that enables or constrains consumers’ access to food. They are big players in the production, processing, and retailing of fruits and vegetables, animal-source foods, and cereals and legumes in Africa1. They play an essential role in food supply chains and in ensuring food and nutrition security of most low-and middle-income countries (LMICs)2.
In Kenya, MSMEs in the agri-food sector play a key role in enhancing food and nutrition security and constitute a significant part of the economy including in urban areas3.
A 2016 MSME survey by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics found that 96% of the surveyed enterprises were microenterprises. In addition, the Kenya Integrated Household Baseline Survey (KIHBS) 2015/2016 data indicates that about 96% of healthy and sustainable foods consumed by households was sourced from micro and small enterprise – a combination of open-air market traders, general shops, kiosks, specialized shops, other households, and roadside or hawkers.
The point is hopefully clear: many food businesses are small and taken together, small counts!
Do we know how to help small food businesses?
The barrier to making better progress is that the role and dynamics of micro and small enterprises within the food system in Kenya are not well understood, and this is particularly true when it comes to a fundamental question: how can we support micro and small businesses produce healthier and more sustainable foods at a large enough scale that is accessible and affordable to mostly low-income Kenyan consumers?
The answer is no, not yet.
Answering this question is an important challenge that Wasafiri is responding to in Kenya. We are working together with Village Enterprise and Shack Dwellers International on a two-year research programme that started in April 2021. We are supported in this by the IDRC – who, in turn, is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Canadian Government.
The focus is how to better shape an ecosystem of programmes, policies and interventions that can nudge small businesses to contribute towards greater volumes of good quality, nutritious foods to meet demand in the market.
Generating the knowledge that is needed
While managing COVID-19 risks we are excited to start this research with micro and small business owners in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest informal settlement, in September 2021. Our efforts will evolve over time to empower micro and small business leaders and those that establish the policy environment for such businesses in three counties: West Pokot, Bungoma and Nairobi.
The findings will inform thinking locally, nationally and regionally and we are rallying stakeholders who may be interested to engage with us on this journey. So, feel free to get in touch: [email protected] or [email protected].
This research will not be ready for the UN Food Systems Summit on 23 September 2021, so stakeholders must work with what is available. Policymakers and influencers can take account of world-class work by Wasafiri in July 2021, on behalf of the UN Food Systems Summit Secretariat, that engaged and sought the voices of small businesses from 137 countries in how to help them scale up their wonderful efforts to transform our food systems.
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.