A systems mindset can help us find a better balance for how our food system interacts with nature in ways that are truly sustainable. If we don’t, humankind is in trouble. The clock is ticking.
A ticking timebomb for nature and humanity
Nature is headline BBC news in the UK – alongside Brexit and the Covid-19 response. Given the intense pressures created by the latter two issues, such coverage testifies to the plight the planet finds itself in from sustained overexploitation. Globally, the UN, WWF and others communicate with passion and frustration the irreversible damage to biodiversity that ‘business as usual’ will deliver in the next few decades unless we change; indeed, some predict a collapse in many of nature’s systems without radical shifts in mindset and action. A widespread systems approach is essential to galvanise the scale of response required in every country and continent.
Moving to action
The time is right for change. In 2019 I led a Wasafiri team helping WWF build their understanding of how food systems affect some of the most important, (and most prized) natural environments in Africa, including the plains of East Africa and the Okavango Delta. The current global food system is a major problem. For example, they contribute around a third of total carbon emissions globally, and encourage the agriculturalization of land from its natural state. The evidence is clear (many studies set out the evidence in far greater depth, so I won’t go into them here), and the question is: what might we do about these challenges? And what mindset should we have?
The key message: work collectively to reshape the incentives
It is the farmers and pastoralists across Africa that must lie at the heart of efforts to transform the food system. Their approach to everyday activities involving food production and income generation has a critical impact on the ecosystem. In many ways, they are our frontline environmental managers and champions, yet we rarely think of them in these terms. Yet for any substantive shifts to occur, these frontline guardians must be supported and enabled by governments, the business sector and myriad stakeholders to make better decisions in favour of an abundant natural environment. Currently, the incentives are for narrow and short term choices to meet essential daily food and income needs, while supplying consumer preferences for food. More and more, we are witnessing how destructive such incentives can be in the longer term.
WWF are tackling the issue head on. They have been working with Wasafiri to help re-imagine Africa’s food future (you can see the full report here), drawing from our systems-based approaches (see here for more detail on our approach: Systemcraft) to construct a way forward that navigates the competing pressures of environmental sustainability, food system transformation, and supporting incomes for poor people. The resulting strategy focuses on three windows of opportunity:
- Re-thinking land use planning and management
- Refreshing farming practices
- Re-envisioning food value chains in ways that can enable farmers to make better choices.
Change at scale require thinking in systems
The multitude and diversity of actors that shape Africa’s food system (including producers, consumers, development organisations, research institutions, companies and governments) are deeply intertwined. As such, the complexity of issues described in the WWF report cannot be fixed in silos.
Wasafiri’s Systemcraft offered a practical way to help WWF navigate these complexities. At it’s heart is the founding principle that change at scale must be a collective endeavour, requiring many actors and institutions to collude in tipping the balance toward a more positive outcome. Five dimensions offer different entry points to start answering the question of ‘what next’ for building a strategic agenda;
- Getting organised with others, building coalitions (formal and informal) for change is essential.
- Setting a direction of travel that is collectively appreciated is core. Such common goals and milestones allow steady steps forward.
- But if the issue ‘doesn’t matter’ then progress will be slow. Compelling and collective narratives must be created and conveyed with strength of purpose to make it matter for ordinary people to change their actions and behaviours and for decision-makers to improve their choices.
- An honest look at the incentives that guide people’s everyday decisions, can help create understanding on what needs to change. Incentives can change through better information, improved policy and its application, raising accountability and transparency and more.
- Because systems for nature and food are complex and dynamic they change regularly, it is important to harness and share collective intelligence among multiple organisations and groups to regularly adapt on the journey forward.
Food systems in Africa are part of a bigger global puzzle to shape sustainable interaction between food systems and nature. Thinking systemically is key. The time to accelerate our efforts is now.
To learn more about how we use powerful systems-based approaches to unlock new ideas, approaches and partnerships to drive change at scale on complex problems, take a look at our guide to Systemcraft below.