Entries by Alex Rees


Faster food system transformation: why it’s more art than science

Faster food system transformation: why it’s more art than science


Alex Rees

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Changes to the way our food is produced, processed, distributed, consumed, and disposed of will rely more on creativity, intuition, and subjective judgment rather than strict scientific principles and methodologies. This is why…

The first-ever UN Food Systems Summit in 2021 provided much-needed impetus to the transformation of African food systems. Countries across Africa are developing policies and encouraging actions to transform their food systems. This is exciting and much-needed work. And I find myself asking key questions:

  • Who are the food systems leaders that can make change happen at a scale never seen before?
  • What kinds of food systems leadership is needed?
  • How can we work together to speed up change?
  • Are food systems leaders being supported in the most effective ways?

These questions matter because change is driven by the interactions between people. Science and technology will find their place, but change will come from the priorities we hold, the choices we make, and the ways we choose to work together.

Who transforms food systems?

Transforming food systems requires large numbers of people connecting and collaborating. Farmers, aggregators, truckers, policy writers, regulators, researchers, marketers, and consumers all have a role to play.

Transformative change will only happen if the week-to-week decisions of many millions of people working in areas such as these change.

Two people who exemplify the kinds of people who are making change happen are Tabitha Njuguna, from Kenya and Innocent Bisangwa from Rwanda.

Tabitha is the Managing Director at AFEX Fair Trade Limited Kenya, a private company that provides end-to-end solutions to farmers including input financing and warehousing. With 17 warehouses spread across two counties, AFEX has registered over 11,000 farmers and traded over 11,000 metric tonnes of maize.

In February 2023, AFEX Fair Trade Kenya secured certification of their Soy Mateeny warehouse which marked the first time a warehouse receipt operator license has been issued to a private company in the country. This will open private investment to local farming, playing a vital role in fostering sustainable and resilient food systems for coming generations considering the growing population and the demand for food only going up.

When asked what major hurdle needs to be overcome in food systems transformation, Tabitha says, “Increased production costs means reduced production or a compromise on quality which trickles down to the food on our tables. Providing affordable, accessible, and timely financing for farmers is critical.”

Innocent on the other hand, works for Rwanda’s Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI). As an environmental and climate change specialist with experience in sustainable agriculture advocacy and policy development, he is currently working on the My Food Is African campaign that aims to mobilise for an African food policy at the national level across the continent.

It is calling for Africans to shape the food systems and policies that enable (or disable) this access to healthy food for all. He has also been instrumental in the Irrigation Strategic Plan and the Post-Harvest Strategy, both in Rwanda.

Innocent recognises that policy and systems-change leadership are intertwined. “A food systems leader is one who recognises their skills and capacity and uses it to support systems-level change.”

What kinds of leadership do we need?

Changing food systems requires amplifying the potential of leaders such as Tabitha and Innocent. They work towards significant transformations, making progressive decisions within the existing limitations.

Change requires passion. It requires determination for the long haul. It requires bringing a form of food systems leadership that is diverse, reflective, relational, contextual and doing the work collaboratively in the here and now.

How can we speed up change?

Change is often slow because there is resistance to it. Can we speed it up?

Food systems leaders must be willing to ask difficult systemic questions like: ‘Who is the system working for?’ Answering this shows us where resistance sits; and where we need to focus our efforts.

Many national food systems around the world appear broken. But they aren’t broken. Rather, they are inequitable. Some people lose out, and some people gain. Let’s take examples inside and outside Africa:

  • In Kenya, most people get their food from local micro and small enterprises. If these enterprises could bring healthy and sustainable foods to local markets in greater numbers, they could be a big part of the solution. The new Government speaks of its support for small businesses including with a Hustler Fund – this creates a climate for change.
  • While in the UK, there is ample evidence the food system is not working in the national interest, notably for the long-term health of the population and the environment, but traditionally a steady supply of affordable food has been achieved. Brexit provides a unique opportunity for radical change, notably for environmental benefit in balance with peoples’ needs.

A systemic change in all food systems will happen faster when efforts are made to wire people together in new ways that in turn spark new forms of collaborative action. This is true in Africa and beyond.

Change happens when interactions build shared goals about changes that are needed; and when the ‘change that is needed’ becomes widely understood and grows in significance among targeted decision-makers.

It happens when the incentives decision-makers need to create a new path become strong enough to trigger action; and it happens when intelligence about what is going on in the system and about the change that is needed, is shared in an equitable way.

How to support our food system leaders at the front line?

One of the things that make changing food systems hard is that these systems often involve a lot of different actors who don’t have mechanisms to connect with one another. This makes it hard for farmers to effectively influence policy, or for institutional food buyers to influence food producers or national researchers to connect with regional food markets.

Without these kinds of unusual connections, it is hard for progressive food system leaders to connect and collaborate in new ways to help them accelerate their efforts to transform food systems. How can this change? Let’s look at one model of doing this.

In 2020, Wasafiri and Wageningen University and Research wondered: Could an African Food Fellowship support a new generation of food systems leaders to build more inclusive, healthy and sustainable food systems across Africa?

With support from the IKEA Foundation the African Food Fellowship launched with a focus on Kenya and Rwanda but oriented to a continent-wide ambition.

Three aspects mark the African Food Fellowship as innovative:

  • Participants are selected for impact. Fellows are selected for diversity and in combinations that are most likely to achieve practical impact together. The Fellowship targets participants within sectors of food systems (e.g. horticulture) and it builds up a network of Fellows in each of these areas over multiple years connecting public/private/civic sectors. For example, we are building a network of Fellows in the aquaculture sector in Kenya and from this multistakeholder collaboration early positive results are emerging: Aquaculture collaboration.
  • The first Food Systems Leadership Programme: The African Food Fellowship designed and has demonstrated the value of the world’s first action-oriented Food Systems Leadership Programme. The 10-month programme curriculum includes world-leading food systems foresight and Systemcraft to equip leaders to drive transformational change. The Programme enables participants to understand food systems and advance food systems actions collectively as Fellows and separately to the Fellowship.
  • Curating impact networks: Most of the energy and resources are focused to nurture ‘impact networks’ of Fellows from Rwanda and Kenya. The Fellowship encourages self-organisation. It promotes conditions for Fellows to advance food systems actions collaboratively and independently. While this is early days; there are encouraging signs: Goat project for disabled by economist Suleiman Kweyu African Food Fellowship wins.

If nurtured well, the Fellowship can become a diverse and powerful professional network of thousands of food systems leaders operating across multiple countries agitating for change and providing practical pathways for doing so.

The art of supporting diverse and progressive leaders

Food systems can be healthy for people if led and managed well. And they can provide good financial rewards for those working in them and be sustainable for nature and the climate if led and managed well.

We will greatly accelerate progress if more resources are focused on the art of finding, connecting, and actively supporting the diverse and progressive food systems leaders, who can make radically different decisions about how businesses operate, what food-related policy contains and so on.

Cultivating food systems leaders to make different decisions in every country, and in large numbers, is how we can transform food systems faster and better. Let’s find ways to make it happen!



Where’s the coffee at the AGRF?

Where’s the coffee at the AGRF?

‘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.



Could there be good news for meeting the Mighty Malabo Goals?

Could there be good news for meeting the Mighty Malabo Goals?

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.



Small is powerful! (when it comes to changing food systems)

Small is powerful! (when it comes to changing food systems)

Change is imperative... but how?

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.

Led by my fabulous colleague Ian Randall with a wonderful team – see A Small Business Agenda and here is his blog.

  1. Demmler, 2020
  2. Nordhagen et al., 2021
  3. Owuor, 2020; Githiri et al., 2016

Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels