Transforming Youth Employment with Systems Change in Africa

Scott Hinkle

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Originally posted at Jobtech Alliance

The looming jobs crisis for young people in Africa

In the next 10 years, African countries will add more people to the workforce than the rest of the world combined. However, while 10 to 12 million youth will enter the workforce each year, only three million formal sector jobs will be created.

There simply won’t be enough jobs for the people that want them. This shortage of quality jobs, particularly for Africa’s burgeoning youth population, risks creating high levels of unemployment, social and economic disparities, and potential migration pressures.

Jobtech Alliance believes this mismatch between youth skills and market demands would hamper productivity and persistent unemployment would pose risks of social unrest and undermine innovation and development potential.

Without the addition of significantly more quality jobs for young people, Africa will not achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Transforming youth employment programming through jobtech and systems change

The world of work is undergoing significant changes, prompting development actors to experiment with new approaches in youth employment programming. This shift is driven by the necessity to adapt to evolving economies and a rapidly changing technological landscape, coupled with mounting evidence challenging the effectiveness of traditional labour market interventions.

Two prominent trends have emerged in recent years to address these challenges:

  • Applying systems change methodologies to labour markets. ‘Systems change’ is an intentional approach to transform the underlying structures, processes, and relationships within a system to address persistent challenges and achieve positive outcomes. In the context of labour markets and youth employment programming, systems change involves re-evaluating and reshaping the complex web of interconnected elements that influence employment dynamics, such as policies, institutions, education, and economic structures. We see it as a holistic, adaptive, and long-term approach that emphasizes partnering with relevant market actors to change the way the system works for young job seekers (Market Systems Development for Employment).
  • The emergence of jobtech which leverages technology to enhance job access, delivery, and productivity. The essence of jobtech are platforms that connect people to work, or which enable them to manage their livelihoods. This includes gig-matching platforms such as ride-hailing, e-commerce, and online job-matching (see Jobtech Alliance’s taxonomy of the jobtech sector in Africa). It is becoming a cross-cutting theme around everything to do with the future of work and how people find work. It is estimated that 30-88 million Africans will earn from jobtech by 2030.

Jobtech Alliance: pioneering systemic solutions for job creation in Africa

Founded in 2021, Jobtech Alliance recognises the potential for ‘jobtech’ to transform the generation of quality, sustainable jobs and do so at a continental scale. The heart of our job-generating ecosystem is jobtech platforms.

We are building an ecosystem around inclusive jobtech to create viable, scalable platforms which provide quality jobs for Africans. We recognise that technology won’t solve youth unemployment on its own, but it plays a crucial role in shaping the skills and opportunities for future generations.

We use a systemic lens to ensure that jobtech interventions go beyond isolated solutions, contributing to shaping the jobtech sector for increased sustainability and inclusivity. Overall, this comprehensive approach acknowledges the changing landscape of youth employment and maximizes the potential impact of jobtech as part of a broader systemic strategy.

How systemic change happens in the jobtech sector

Practically, this means we are working across multiple fronts to shift the dynamics of the current jobtech system, including:

  • Building awareness and knowledge of jobtech, and what works in jobtech: While ‘Jobtech’ gains recognition, a weak understanding persists. Elevating awareness is vital for unlocking the sector’s full potential. We conduct research and host a blog and newsletter to keep the community informed.
  • Nurturing an engaged, informed, and inspired community: Establishing a cohesive community is crucial, and bridging gaps between interconnected stakeholders and fostering collaboration, is essential to share learnings and drive innovation. We host a large community with over 1000 stakeholders including jobtech startup founders, investors, and others to connect and collaborate around our shared vision, with a range of events to connect stakeholders.
  • Nurturing appropriate policies, standards and tools: Striving for policies that consider and align with systemic dynamics is imperative for effective jobtech sector development. We’ve worked with the International Labour Organization to develop a standard tool (currently being piloted) to assess quality of work on jobtech platforms from a user perspective.
  • Fostering a funding network: The jobtech sector faces funding setbacks, with a notable decline in investment. Addressing this challenge is critical for sustained growth and impact. We’re building a Jobtech Investment Network of venture capital and philanthropic funders to ensure that informed funding reaches the right startups.
  • Venture support: Acceleration activities (through advisory and management support as well as capital) for high-potential platforms that can propel the entire sector, fostering successful businesses, generating excitement, and attracting more entrepreneurs and investors. We currently have a portfolio of almost 20 platforms we’re working with.
  • Stimulating global demand for African talent: Jobtech’s essence lies in connecting labour demand (and products and services) with supply. In Africa, addressing the employment shortfall requires stimulating global demand for labour on the continent. This is a big long-term focus.
  • Inclusivity focus: Jobtech can help include groups that traditional labour markets often marginalise – such as women and refugees.

What have we learned so far about applying systems change across Jobtech Alliance?

Jobtech Alliance was started as a systems change initiative and with support from the Small Foundation, the Jobtech Alliance team at Mercy Corps, and BFA Global, have engaged systems change practitioners, Wasafiri, to help more thoughtfully embed this approach into its work. Two early learnings are:

  1. Importance of shared language and concepts. We have integrated Systemcraft as a tangible and applied framework to help gain shared language and concepts that guide our decision-making and implementation. With so many stakeholders involved across the jobtech sector, building a shared language and understanding of how the system works (and how we interact with it) is critical. As we’ll share soon when presenting our systems change model, we’ve integrated multiple overlapping concepts – how the system works, our theory of change, our workstreams, and our principles (see below) – into one common vision.
  2. Need to embed systems principles into everything we do. Whilst the Jobtech Alliance team has been doing systems change for a few years, we have never been able to articulate what such an approach (as opposed to ‘activities’) really means. We were missing some simple, high-level guidance that recognised the interconnected nature of what we do and helped us maintain our mission and character as the Alliance grows. We therefore developed ‘Principles’, which have allowed us to identify blind spots in activities and workstreams and be more comprehensive in our work, from new country engagement strategies to the newsletter and planning events.
Jobtech principles

What’s next, and how to get involved

Systems change doesn’t happen in a day, and even though we’re two years into our work, we’re still early in our systems change journey.

Over the coming months, we’ll share our systems change model for the Jobtech Alliance and how we hope to influence this emerging sector.

We strongly believe that cultivating an inclusive jobtech sector that creates and improves jobs across Africa is key to advancing the prosperity of the African population and offers promising prospects for financial returns and social impact. We are building a movement, and we’d love to get you involved.

To get started, please head to our website to Join our Community.

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System Change in Action: The Wigan Deal

We are often asked for stories and examples of when system change has happened. And examples can be hard to spot. But they are out there. And so we try and share them; those we have been involved in and those that have been the work of others.

We won’t all agree on what is or is not system change. That is because complex problems don’t have a fixed end state where the work is done. And so there is always more work to do.

It is also because complex problems are contested – there will be different views on what needs to change and what ‘better’ means and for whom. And complex problems are produced by systems that are (in some way) working, and so there will almost always be some form of loss for someone somewhere.

What makes something system change anyway?

So I use four rules of thumb to help judge if something feels like ‘system-y’ change:

  1. Is there more equity? (e.g. do the less powerful have more control of decisions and resources?).
  2. Has there been a shift in the mindset or paradigm that shapes this issue?
    (e.g. have different assumptions about who are agents of change, who should control resources or what ‘better’ means driven this change?).
  3. Is there some sort of ‘scale’? (e.g. can we reasonably expect that people or nature not directly involved in this intervention at this time will experience that change? – this ‘scale’ might be over space or time).
  4. Has something structural shifted? This too is part of scale. That something has shifted that will outlast the protagonists involved, that changes the conditions in which this complex issue blossoms (e.g. a change in national or organisational policy, a permanent shift in the locus of control of resources, etc).

Welcome to Wigan

Wigan, a former mill town in the North West of England, is often over shadowed by its bigger more famous neighbours – the city of Manchester to the East and Liverpool to the West. But in this story it gets to take centre stage. For, since 2011, Wigan Council and its partners have been working to change the very relationship between the Council and the people that live and work there. Known as The Wigan Deal, this a story that challenges the dynamic that ‘the state knows best and will fix everything’ and that citizens are passive recipients.

What happened?

In 2011 Wigan Council, like many in the UK, found themselves facing significant financial pressures. The wider political climate of ‘austerity‘ (a package of policies that limited public sector funding) meant no more money from central government. And so the Council decided it needed to find a new way to relate to and work with citizens in order to deliver services. It was time to try something radically different.

The provision of public services is complex. Traditionally in the UK, there is a fairly paternalistic relationship between the state and citizens. In practice, this means the state controls the money and gets to decide what sorts of services are needed and citizens, while they may lobby and campaign for certain things, are not decision-makers or seen as creators of solutions.

A non-paternalistic model would require that the role of communities be taken seriously with a genuine commitment to collaboration and co-creation of solutions.

Wigan Council decided that if they were going to create a better town and do so with shrinking budgets, then they had to change this underlying paternalistic dynamic. They had to truly and deeply work in partnership, sharing power with local communities.

And so, together the council, citizens, community groups and businesses of Wigan created a series of ‘pledges’, covering everything from creating a ‘vibrant town’ to ‘care for adults with disabilities’. These pledges committed everyone to play their part – they required specific commitments from the council but also from businesses and from residents.

For example, under the ‘Vibrant Town Centre’ pledge the council committed to providing free city centre parking and residents committed to using it to visit local shops, businesses and leisure facilities rather than using it to travel out of town. Pledges were formed across a host of different areas and together they formed ‘The Wigan Deal.’

In 2019, ‘The Kings Fund’ – an independent health think tank did an evaluation asking ‘Is the Deal Real?‘ They concluded there had been a ‘genuine transformation’. The scale and consistency with which ideas have been applied significantly trumped other attempts, illustrating ‘the kind of work that is needed to shift to a new model of public service delivery’.

How did system change happen?

As system change practitioners, The Wigan Deal is intriguing. We have evidence of transformational change in a complex system driven through collaboration across institutional boundaries. And whilst the Kings Fund pointed to ‘bold leadership’ and ‘a long-term strategic commitment to working differently with local people and communities’ we want to go a bit further and unpick the approach through a systems lens. Does the approach differ from the linear approaches that we know complex systems resist?

Work to wire the system together

At the outset, there was a recognition that no single institution could tackle this alone. Change was going to require a shift in mindset. It was going to require disparate parties to come together, build relationships, build understanding, share ambitions, share challenges and commit resources for doing work together.

This ‘wiring of the system together’ is fundamentally important in system change – and – goes beyond just bringing people together. It requires the patient work to really get to know and understand different agendas and perspectives. It requires the willingness to share resources and power.

The “Be Wigan Experience” attended by people from different parts of the system was one tool which helped build collaboration and shift mindsets regarding how residents, citizens and others viewed each other. And it took time.

Donna Hall (former CEO of Wigan Borough Council) described how everyone danced around each other for 2 years before getting on with the real work. But through that dancing the ambition for the work was reframed as “it doesn’t belong to any one of us – it belongs between us”.

Get practical

“The Deal” – the pledges between the council, citizens, community groups and businesses to create a better borough – represents a shared, but big and abstract ambition. In system change work we also have to work on concrete goals to create a focus that mobilises resources and pulls you towards the big ambition.

Below the headline Deal are “deals” for adult social care, “your street”, communities, children and young people, health and wellbeing and businesses. There are co-created pledges in specific contexts such as housing in which the provision of council homes for people with disabilities was supported by private landlords willing to let their properties through the council.

This is a tangible, measurable goal that moves towards the bigger, more abstract, ambition.

No single story

Another aspect of the approach that speaks to systems change is the diversity of storytelling. For example, “Rekindling hope: the story of the Wigan Deal” is told by young people, NHS, community groups, council employees, and businesses.

It is not the Council, ‘the state’, telling one story. It is different parts of the system expressing what matters to them.

In systems change, there is no single story and the Kings Fund research highlighted this. Focus groups found that people’s concerns about issues such as crime and antisocial behaviour were overshadowing incredible progress being made in social care and public health.

Build on what's working

Social care is providing help with day-to-day living because of illness or disability. And it is one of the fastest-growing areas of need and cost in the UK.

People’s social care needs vary significantly depending on their circumstances so providing services that meet needs is highly complex and not well suited to a centralised, paternalistic, one-size-fits-all approach to public service delivery.

Because The Wigan Deal was a collaborative effort it had access to an incredible body of collective intelligence, both about people’s needs and also about the varied way these needs could and were being met.

One of the central successes of the Deal was the closure of expensive Council-run day care centres – predicated on a mindset of ‘come to us, use our services’. Instead, investment was channelled into a network of existing community organisations and neighbourhood groups already connected to people with care needs in their community and better able to understand and provide tailored and localised support to those who needed it.

In system change, this is an example of investing in and building collective and adaptive capacity. Day Care Centres focused on ‘the problem’ (e.g. an isolated elderly person) – a very expensive endeavour. Investing in community organisations focused instead on creating the conditions in which the existing organisations who know and represent local people were better able to thrive and adapt to local needs.

Demand was stripped out of the Council’s social care system and there was an improvement in health and wellbeing metrics.

What next?

What makes the Wigan Deal distinctive and an example of system change in action is the focus on building collective and adaptive capacity. The work of ‘wiring the system together’ better has been fundamental in the co-creation of solutions.

It successfully drew on what already existed in the spaces between different stakeholders, addressing unmet needs in a highly resource-constrained context. The Wigan Deal mobilised resources across organisational boundaries, changed the narrative and amplified the visibility of under-utilised strengths, delivering change at scale.

The Wigan Deal is by no means a panacea and it is now four years on from the Kings Fund analysis during which the Pandemic and UK Cost of Living Crisis has hit. Undoubtedly Wigan was better able to adapt to those shocks having adopted aspects of a systems-based approach.

We hope the people of Wigan have managed to hold their nerve and not relapse, under significant pressure, to a fallacy that the Council can solve these challenges on its own.

Image courtesy of Rept0n1x, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Wasafiri’s License to Lead programme: Investing in tomorrow’s leaders

We celebrate Aisha Adan, the inaugural candidate in the License to Lead programme, a key initiative fostering leadership development

At Wasafiri, we believe in the power of diversity, equity, and inclusion to drive positive change. Our commitment to a more diverse generation of leaders led us to recently launch the ‘License to Lead’ (L2L) programme as a pivotal component of our DEI agenda.

The programme is a five-year commitment aimed at nurturing and growing a diverse pool of leaders within Wasafiri, with a particular focus on our African and Africa-based staff. Recognising the need for more leadership and management development opportunities, we are dedicated to correcting this imbalance through targeted investment in everyone’s professional growth.

Goals and benefits

The L2L goals and benefits reflect our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion:

  1. Improving diversity, equity, and inclusion: By providing leadership opportunities to underrepresented groups, we aim to create a more diverse and inclusive work environment internally as well as with our clients, partners, and the communities we serve.
  1. Knowledge transfer and skill building: The programme will focus on transferring institutional knowledge and building leadership skills among emerging leaders, ensuring a robust leadership pipeline.
  1. Promoting responsibility and participatory decision-making: We strive to have participants take on more significant roles in decision-making processes, fostering a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility.
  1. Strengthening skills for managing complexity and diversity: In a rapidly changing business landscape, the programme equips participants with the skills needed to navigate complexity and embrace diversity.
  1. Fostering motivation and employee engagement: By investing in our employees’ professional development, we aim to enhance motivation and overall employee engagement.

Our inaugral candidate, Aisha Adan

Aisha Adan facilitating a workshop in Mombasa, Kenya

We are thrilled to announce Aisha Adan as the inaugural participant in the License to Lead programme for 2023/24. Aisha’s selection is a testament to her outstanding contributions and potential within the organisation.

As Wasafiri Managing Director Alex Rees rightly puts it, “Aisha is a key part of our future. I’ve no doubt she will make the most of the opportunity as she leans in as the inaugural winner of the License to Lead investment.”

On her win Aisha says, “This was not only incredibly gratifying but also marked a truly fulfilling milestone in my professional journey. I am eagerly looking forward to immersing myself in the L2L programme. Looking ahead, I believe that this will be a transformative journey and promises to shape  my trajectory towards impactful leadership within and beyond Wasafiri.”

As Aisha embarks on this journey, we look forward to witnessing the positive impact of the License to Lead programme on her professional growth and the broader Wasafiri community. Her success sets the stage for future leaders to emerge, contributing to a more inclusive and dynamic leadership landscape within our organisation.

L2L is not just an investment in one person, but a commitment to shaping the future we want at Wasafiri.

Congratulations, Aisha, and here’s to a brighter, more inclusive tomorrow.

Who is Aisha Adan? Click below to read more.

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Wasafiri is looking for a Research and Learning Systems Lead

Join our team!

We are looking for a Research and Learning Systems Lead to lead research and MLE in thematic areas such as peace/stabilisation, inclusion, food, climate and nature working with governments, implementing organisations and businesses, leading philanthropic and bilateral funders, African and global organisations, and knowledge partners.

See the full description here.

How to apply

  1. Submit the cover letter and CV to [email protected]
  2. The CV should be no longer than 3 pages
  3. Use the subject heading: Application – Research and Learning Systems Lead
  4. Application deadline: 15th December 2023

Good luck!

 

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African Food Fellowship hosts 2nd annual Kenya festival

The African Food Fellowship held the second edition of the annual Kenya Transform Food Festival on 3 November 2023.

Director Joost Guijt gives the keynote address during the festival

The festival brought together food systems innovators, entrepreneurs, practitioners, and decision-makers working across government, private sector, civil society, and community groups.  It explored and raised the profile of existing and emerging issues in Kenya’s food systems, focusing on the impact areas of agrifinance, horticulture, and aquaculture.

Director Joost Guijt urged guests to keep hope alive in the face of big challenges such as climate change, malnutrition, and poverty facing the food and agriculture sector today.

Dean Brenda Mareri welcomes guests to the festival

Kenya Dean and Implementation Lead Brenda Mareri said the festival provides a great platform for different people to connect, and hopefully collaborate.

“What makes the Transform Food festival special is the diversity and caliber of food systems practitioners who spend the day with us, sharing their work and ideas. We hope that the festival can be a launching pad for exciting innovations and projects designed for impactful action on the ground,” she said.

Fellow Geoffrey Rono with the African Food Fellowship deputy director Alex Rees
Fellow Mary Maina facilitates a discussion about how to apply foresight methodologies in food systems

Guests participated in discussions about collaborative leadership, and explored tools such as the foresight methodology that could help to future-proof their work.

Gregory Kimani (centre) winner of the Kenya Food Systems Leadership Award 2023 with Director Joost Guijt and Dean Brenda Mareri

The highlight of the festival was the annual Kenya Food Systems Leadership Award which is given to a Fellow who has demonstrated exceptional leadership and impact in their work.

This year’s award winner, Fellow Gregory Kimani, is the founder of City Shamba, an urban farming initiative teaching people in cities how to grow their own food. He has set up a model farm at Mama Lucy Kibaki Hospital in Nairobi where more than 1800 people so far received knowledge and skills on how to grow vegetables using very little land and water and have set up their own kitchen gardens. Gregory also supplies the hospital with vegetables to supplement its patients’ nutrition needs.

First runners-up Mutuma Muriuki receives his certificate

Mutuma Muriuki was named the first runner-up. His project focuses on utilising biochar biofertilizer from organic waste to rehabilitate, recycle, and enhance soil quality. He has seen farmers’ yields increase by 50% after using biochar.

Second runner-up Dorah Momanyi, the founder of iPoP Africa, owns an agri-business that reclaims the sovereignty of indigenous grains such as pearl millet, sorghum, and brown rice by transforming them into modern snacks and breakfast cereals. 

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Navigating the water-energy-food nexus

Water, energy, and food are interconnected systems - we need to manage them in this way

While doing my weekly grocery shopping, my thoughts began to drift once I got to the produce aisle. As I reached for a plump avocado (my favourite), I thought: do I truly understand the journey this fruit has taken to get to my local supermarket? Was it sustainably grown? How much water was required to nurture its growth? And what about the energy consumed during its transportation? And the people involved in the production?

In that moment, I was grappling with a much larger issue than simply selecting a piece of fruit. I was confronting a web of interconnected systems known as the water-energy-food nexus.

According to the UN and others, water, food, and energy form a relationship at the heart of sustainable development.

Together they are tied to environmental sustainability, economic growth, and human health and decisions made in one realm can have profound effects on the others. Yet they are often managed in disconnected ways. This leads to policies and practices that do not tackle the complexity of the issue, but advance one system at the cost of others.

Scarcity as an opportunity

In a world where resources are limited and population pressures increase, scarcity is the new normal. This speeds up the move toward a new way of doing things, where one sector can’t only benefit a small, specific group of people anymore. The food sector cannot just feed people; it needs to nourish them, support their health, and delivering eco-system services too. 

Similarly, the energy sector must also contribute to social and economic inclusion, and not just support the industrial growth of a country. The inescapable reality of having to do more with less can represent an opportunity to break silos and force conversations across sectors and systems.

It is complex, but change is attainable

To make things even more complex, here are more boxes to check; our food must come from regenerative and circular practices, energy should be renewable, and water managed sustainably. To withstand current and future pressures, governments must increasingly balance the needs of people, nature, and the economy.

Despite the obvious benefits of strengthening the nexus between water, food, and energy, the multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches required often feel overwhelming. Cross-sectoral collaboration is essential if we are to achieve a just transition in our food systems.

Organising for collaboration

When governments, businesses, academia, communities, and individuals come together and share knowledge, resources, and best practice, sustainable policies ensue.

An excellent example is the Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP) program in Kenya. WSUP collaborates with local governments, utilities, and civil society organisations to enhance water and sanitation services in low-income urban areas. Through these partnerships, WSUP tailors solutions to each community’s unique challenges. 

The Nairobi City County Food System Strategy on the other hand, plays a pivotal role as a convener. By bringing together civil society, private sector entities, and various government agencies, this initiative addresses the pressing challenges of sustainably feeding a rapidly growing urban population.

Incentives can shift behaviour

Ever wondered why organisations have teams that strongly resemble the funding lines of their donors? And why doesn’t cross-sectoral collaboration happen more often? Understanding how incentives shape behaviour is the first step. Daring to change them is where the magic happens (and where we need to accept the resistance that will come with that).

Placing smallholders at the heart of systems

Let’s look at the work of Sylvie Nirere, a fellow at the African Food Fellowship. As Country Director of Stichting IDH in Rwanda, she works directly with farmers who produce perishable products. By engaging with stakeholders, advocating for policy reforms, and fostering systemic change, Sylvie’s work contributes to sustainable practices, resource efficiency, resilience, and improved livelihoods. 

Her efforts embody the systemic importance of transforming the food system by considering the interdependencies of water, energy, and food by bringing it down to the needs of a single farmer who needs a healthy yield to remain competitive and take better care of her family. This feeds into a wider network in an environmentally responsible way.

Learning as we go

By understanding the nexus and its implications, we make informed choices and inspire a collective shift towards more sustainable lifestyles. 

The Water Wise Program in South Africa, for instance,  promotes water conservation practices among residents in response to Cape Town’s water scarcity challenges.

Balance and Just Transition

Just Transition refers to the set of principles aimed at ensuring a fair and equitable shift towards a more sustainable and low-carbon economy.

African countries, despite contributing less to global greenhouse gas emissions, are taking proactive steps to implement Just Transition projects and policies.

  • The Renewable Energy Performance Platform (REPP) in Kenya provides financial and technical assistance to small and medium-sized renewable energy projects in sub-Saharan Africa. It promotes sustainable energy development that is balanced across the food-energy-water nexus, by supporting projects that integrate renewable energy into local agricultural and water management systems, while also creating jobs and reducing poverty.
  • Another example is the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Program in South Africa (REIPPPP) , a government initiative to accelerate the development of renewable energy projects in the country.

In conclusion, the water-energy-food nexus calls for initiatives that acknowledge their interconnectedness. Whether you are a donor, investor, NGO, or civil servant, it’s crucial to focus on designing projects that create multiple benefits at this crossroads. Each decision to implement sustainable practices will be a step towards the larger goal of creating a more resilient and balanced water, energy, and food system.

If you enjoyed this, here are a few longer reads and opinions for you:

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The forgotten heroes of food: Transforming school meals

Globally our food systems need to be more sustainable, equitable, and nutritious. Chefs in Schools is a UK charity working to transform both the quality and culture of food.

I recently connected with Chef in Schools, Chief Executive Naomi Duncan, a Forward Institute fellow whose passion and dedication have been instrumental in transforming the school food landscape in the UK.

As Naomi shared the story of their inspiration, challenges, and aspirations, it became evident that the food challenges encountered in the UK, while distinct, reflect broader issues ingrained in societies worldwide.

Redefining school food culture

In the bustling heart of London, amidst the clinking of pans and the sizzle of fresh ingredients, a culinary revolution is quietly simmering. Chefs in Schools (founded in 2018 by Henry Dimbleby, Louise Nichols, and Nicole Pisani) have set out to transform the quality of school food and help children learn about what to eat, how to cook it and where food comes from. And they are doing this in some of the most food insecure communities in the country.

For CEO Naomi this ambition is not merely about serving nutritious meals or providing eduction; its is about instilling a passion for food and empowering children to explore a world of flavours, textures and cultures. 

Chefs in School recognise that such a transformation is not about quick wins and easy fixes. Its going to require system level change.  They focus their efforts on three areas: 

  1. Raise the bar: They drive best practices in school food by teaching kitchen teams to create exciting and tasty dishes from scratch with fresh produce.
  2. Create an enabling space for others to do better: They use their credibility to inform advocacy efforts, campaigns, and policy makers.
  3. Inspire others to follow their lead: They prove that working in a school kitchen can be recognised, valued, and celebrated as a great career and a crucial pillar to nourishing children and teaching them about food.
Naomi Duncan, Chief Executive, Chefs in Schools

Challenges within the wider UK food system

Chefs in Schools works in predominantly low income urban communities. The food-scapes of such communities often include ‘food deserts’ (areas where it is simply impossible to access fresh and affordable produce), a high prevalence of ultra processed foods and low incomes. Indeed for some children the meal they receive at school will be their main source of nutritious food.

Consequently, there is a growing disconnection between individuals and the raw, wholesome ingredients that make up a nutritious diet. Schools therefore became a crucial battleground for Naomi and team to reintroduce children to the joys and variety of fresh foods while simultaneously teaching them essential cooking skills.

Similarities with Kenya

At Wasafiri much of our thinking and work revolves around the complex food systems in East Africa and so I was able to see how Naomi’s reflections echo some of the struggles faced in Kenya. Food poverty and insecurity ring true.

Both the UK and Kenya face challenges with child malnutrition. In the UK, around one in five children is overweight or obese. In Kenya, one in three children is stunted due to chronic malnutrition.

Naomi pointed out the disparities in food accessibility. The UK boasts a vibrant international food scene, but within this abundance, significant sections of the population struggle to access basic nutrition. Meanwhile Kenya grapples with challenges in food production, distribution, and waste.

Although the magnitude may differ, food waste in Kenya, just like in the UK, is juxtaposed with others not being able to feed themselves or their families,” says Naomi.

The role of systems leadership in addressing food-related issues

Systems leadership plays a pivotal role in addressing the challenges ingrained in UK’s food system. As a fellow of the Forward Institute, Naomi believes that purpose-driven leadership is indispensable. While government initiatives are crucial, a ground-up revolution is equally vital.

We are all actors within this system and can in our own way get involved to tackle some of these challenges. But ultimately it is those in power – the heads of major industry, as well as politicians, banks and so on – who will drive the biggest change,” says Naomi.

The key is to create an enabling space for others to engage meaningfully. The school kitchen teams are often overlooked heroes in education, embody leadership daily by providing nourishing meals on tight budgets, demonstrating resilience and innovation in a resource constrained environment.

What’s next for Chefs in Schools?

One of Naomi’s most rewarding experiences is seeing a child, previously hesitant about meals, try a new ingredient and return for seconds. Additionally, the impact extends beyond school walls; children become ambassadors of healthy eating, encouraging their families to adopt better dietary habits. Parents, initially hesitant, are convinced by their children’s enthusiasm and willingness to explore new foods. The organisation’s ethos has even been linked to improved engagement, behaviour, and learning in schools.

Children learning to cook with dough

And what legacy do they want to leave? A fundamental shift in how societies perceive, provide, and celebrate food. Naomi believes that when chefs are trained and empowered to create menus and dishes, they are much better equipped to adapt and overcome obstacles. When producers and farmers see the impact their ingredients have in schools, they work to ensure quality remains high.

We will continue to grow and expand to create training and a network for school chefs and food educators that enables and inspires them to feed the future well. Our vision is that every child is accessing great school food and food education. We’ll retire when that is the case!” says Naomi.

Naomi Duncan is a fellow of The Forward Institute, a non-profit institute focused on organisation and systems change. 

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Rethinking our leadership approach to tackle complex food systems issues

In 2017, millions of farmers in East Africa faced a devastating drought and a new threat; the fall armyworm. The pest devastated maize and wheat producing regions in South and Central Rift Valley regions of Kenya.

The pest spread rapidly, it was unresponsive to traditional pesticides and worst of all, had devastating effects on farmers’ crops. Extension service providers were deployed, intervention strategies by governments were formulated but still, the problem prevailed.

To begin addressing the challenges we face in our food systems we must first acknowledge that we are tackling a complex problem. Complex problems have no single owner, no single root cause, they are dynamic, constantly adapting, and the system is in fact working for some people, somewhere, some of the time.

Transformational change is required to tackle the challenges we face in addressing the complexities our food systems. This entails various shifts across multiple components, leading to changes in the system.

Transformational change requires systems thinking and systems leadership. Systems leadership and thinking will allow our food systems leaders to acknowledge the interconnectivity and the relationships between different actors and the need for collective action.

Take for example the paradox of Climate and Nutrition and the unintended consequences on women. Empowering women to employ climate smart practices at farm level would have a positive effect on the environment and contribute to climate change mitigation.

The unintended consequence would subsequently be the increase in women’s labour and workload needed to adopt climate smart practices which takes away from their child caring capacities affecting their children’s nutrition. To address such a paradox, a systems thinking approach is required.

There is a great need for leaders in the food systems space to think and act systemically. Food systems leaders can apply a systemic approach to solving problems by applying Systemcraft. This framework applies five dimensions for action which work on underlying system conditions.

Applying the five dimensions of Systemcraft

  1. The first is to Organise for Collaboration since no single person or institution can make change alone. A great example of this is the African Food Fellowship which is a community and a network of practitioners, policymakers, researchers, and influencers across the food system in Kenya and Rwanda working jointly across different capacities such as aquaculture, sustainable land use, and agri-finance to transform food systems.
  2. Second is to Set the Direction. Transforming food systems needs big ambitions to mobilise resources. An example of this is Rwanda’s ‘First 1,000 Days’ health campaign of 2017 which aimed to eradicate child malnutrition. The ambition was big enough to rally support towards developing strategies to attain the end goal.
  3. Third is to Make it Matter. Change can be hard and so the issue must matter to those that need to do the changing. Due to the great significance of livestock (both socially and economically) to several communities in Africa, we have seen governments actively invest in developing the Livestock Development Strategy for Africa to increase the sustainability and resilience of the sector.
  4. Number four is to Change the Incentives. As individuals, we all make decisions that make sense to us – whether it is what food to eat or what job we do. For example, in Malawi, the 2006 Farmer Input Subsidy Program aimed to incentivise resource-poor smallholder farmers to reinvest in maize production by accessing improved agricultural farm inputs against a background of bad weather causing poor yields. This attracted farmers back into maize production.
  5. Lastly is to Harness Collective Intelligence. A system best serves those with the most information. Asymmetries of power in how information flows create a broken system. The 2021, Lead Mothers program in Uganda is a great example of this. Due to the lack of nutrition information on maternal health, a group of women called lead mothers were trained on good agronomic practices, and nutritional benefits of consuming biofortified crops and they became community-based information hubs which in turn holistically increased the community’s understanding of the importance of nutrition.

These dimensions of action can be applied in any order by any food system leader. When it comes to systems, changing what is right, and what is possible, are not the same thing.

It is not enough to simply understand the problems we are facing in our food systems and have some great ideas to shift them. We also must understand the wider context in which we are trying to create change and prompt our leaders to think and act systematically.

This was first presented by Brenda Mareri at TedX AGRF 2023, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

More on systems-leadership and systems approaches

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The African Food Fellowship celebrates another graduation

There were candid reflections of their ten-month journey, heart-felt speeches, and of course, lots and lots of dancing!

Second Kenya cohort joins the Kenya Food Fellowship

The African Food Fellowship is growing! It graduated its second cohort of Kenya Fellows on 22 Sept 2023.

27 Fellows’ efforts were celebrated amid lots of pomp and colour and they happily received their certificates for successfully completing the prestigious Food Systems Leadership Programme, which equips them with the skills, knowledge, and connections needed to initiate and deliver effective food systems actions.

Their leadership journey with the Fellowship does not end there. They continue their food systems transformation work through the Kenya Food Fellowship, a self-organising space for connecting with their fellow food system actors, learning with and from one another, taking action towards changing what’s not working within food systems, and where a feeling of belonging to a group of passionate, like-minded individuals is harnessed.

“We are proud to graduate this cohort of Fellows, who are among the most exciting food systems leaders in Kenya today. They bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the food system as innovators, entrepreneurs, food producers, researchers, financiers, and policymakers. We have the utmost confidence in their capacity as change-makers,” said Kenya Dean and Implementation Lead, Brenda Mareri.

"Let’s be bold and identify what the African agenda is"

The Fellows showcased their food systems actions which are designed to offer real-world solutions to the greatest challenges facing Kenya’s horticulture, aquaculture, and agri-finance sectors today. Some of these include research on unconventional sources of food (including insects and indigenous crops), financing opportunities for smallholder farmers, and initiatives to deliver safer food to consumers.

The keynote speaker was Rikki Agudah, the Board Chairman at the Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisors of Kenya. He lauded the Fellowship for bringing different food systems leaders together and providing a space where they can collaborate.

He called on Fellows to focus on a common goal and lend their strengths to solving common issues.

“Let’s be bold and identify what the African agenda is. What exactly works for us as a continent? We might shine as individuals but if we want to achieve impact, we must work together. This is the only way we can achieve change,” he said.

As members of the Kenya Food Fellowship, the graduates will continue to enjoy learning opportunities and platforms where they can contribute to Kenya’s food systems agenda.

The African Food Fellowship has recently onboarded the third cohort of Fellows in both Kenya and Rwanda who started their leadership journey in September 2023.

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