Farmer in a field wearing a mask

Helping transform Africa’s food systems

How can food systems be more inclusive, sustainable and nutritious?

Our Experience

Food systems must evolve in every continent and in every country; for the sake of the climate, of fragile ecosystems, and for increasing numbers of malnourished people. The question is; how to shift such an established, entrenched system?

For over a decade, we’ve been working with private-sector, governmental, civil society and international partners, on transformative initiatives to strengthen agricultural and food systems, including:

  • Strengthening the capability for leading food-systems change – by co-creating the African Food Fellowship
  • Designing and incubating Generation Africa – a continent-wide movement to support agricultural entrepreneurship
  • Ensuring the voice of SMEs inform the Global Food System Summit – through a global consultation, survey and showcasing of innovation
  • Helping design strategies for shifting food systems – with the World Economic Forum and its private sector partners
  • Developing sustainable food and nature strategies – for Africa’s food system and the Central African Cocoa economy

Our work is underpinned by a track record spanning food systems, agricultural and inclusive development, poverty graduation and social protection. Our clients have included AGRA, IDRC, USAID, the World Economic Forum, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Yara and Econet.

The Challenge

We are optimistic. Food systems can be sustainable for people and planet. Huge changes are needed globally and within each continent and country to achieve this.

Our current food system is underpinned by an agricultural paradigm that emerged in the mid-20th Century, harnessing new breakthroughs in chemistry and engineering to affordably feed burgeoning urban populations. Many factors contribute to the current state of the food system and, in turn, make it a highly complex system, there are:

  • It comprises everyone as consumers of food and myriad actors of all sizes with a huge diversity of interests across all the countries of the world
  • There are multiple root causes to the current symptoms emerging from the food system
  • The food system is constantly changing
  • The food system is working for many that operate within it (it isn’t broken, at least for some)

The challenges of changing food systems for the better in Africa are as great as any continent. In many African countries, the number of people who are malnourished is rising; agricultural practices are not environmentally sustainable either for nature or for the climate; agriculture remains less effective than it should be helping to bring millions of people out of poverty and helping national development.

Africa’s leaders set bold targets for the continent’s agri-food systems in the 2014 Malabo Declaration. But few countries were on track by 2019. Greater political profile for agriculture and food systems, more and better targeted private and public financial investment, systematically including women and small-holder farmers, changes in land use and agricultural practices, reducing ‘red-tape’ for SMEs, bring in younger innovative farmers including women, improving access to markets, improving infrastructure including cold chains, and shifting consumer behaviours are among the many areas requiring improvements.

Shocks to food systems also bring major challenges and highlight gaps including coordination and information. Strengthening the resilience of the food system is essential. Most notably, COVID-19 has dramatically impacted supply chains, both for inputs and products, risking the nutritional and economic security of millions of poor people who depend upon the sector for their livelihood and affordable access to food.

Together with other shocks, such as locusts, fall armyworms, and the inexorable ratcheting of climate change, COVID has demonstrated that cross-sector leaders must be ready to sustain Africa’s food system in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Acting in isolation and with imperfect information, some policy responses have risked exacerbating the overall impact of COVID and other food system shocks. This exposes gaps in the architecture for food system governance: for instance, the need for stronger shared policy mechanisms for food security, including for decision-makers having access to high-quality, timely information.

Africa has a bold and inspiring Vision for 2063 that includes trading substantially more food within Africa through the African Continental Free Trade Area starting in the early 2020s. Actions that accelerate good practices and disrupt negative norms are required across the food systems.

But policy discourse must be grounded in a myriad set of actions on the ground. And Africa must grow and trade steadily more (particularly nutritious) food and reduce poverty while improving outcomes for nature and climate thus avoiding many of the pitfalls faced by other continents in recent decades.

There are no easy or single solutions. The commitments and actions by Africa’s governments as they move into and beyond the UN’s Global Food Systems Summit in 2021 may help shape priorities for the 2020s as stakeholders commit to genuinely sustainable and healthy food systems.

The State of System Change

How to unlock a food systems transition in Africa? Technical solutions exist to sustainably raise yields, sequester soil carbon and many more. And pioneer farmers and pastoralists are making this work commercially. The puzzle is how to now transition entire food systems to favour such practices so that positive practices scale up.

Evidence and technical expertise will not cajole the system into changing. Instead, leadership is needed to create an enabling environment from which change emerges. Year on year, we must nurture a movement, forge new coalitions, create incentives, experiment and learn, and sell the opportunity far and wide.

When seeking system change on complex problems, the Systemcraft framework invites exploration of five dimensions (see figure) through which to build the collective and adaptive effort required for impact at scale. It prompts key insights as we ask, “what can we each do next?” in order to transition food systems.

Change the incentives: It is farmers and pastoralists making decisions about what and how they make food available and who must adopt new practices. So they must be at the heart of any systemic transition. The practices they employ result from a web of incentives, ranging from subsidies to consumer expectations, the agronomic paradigm (norms and risk aversion) and supply chain structures.

A tipping point for change will only occur when such incentives instead favour practices for regenerative, nutritious and inclusive agriculture, while also bringing focus to the myriad actors bringing foods from farms to consumers. Ultimately, farms must be more profitable when they sequester carbon or choose to grow nutrient-dense crops.

At that point, the most successful farmers will be those who innovate the best mix of practices for their specific ecological and market context. This rewiring of incentives must reward agriculture that delivers public goods, rather than hiding externalities such as trees cut down, water contaminated, or carbon emitted as happens currently.

There are countless levers for shifting incentives: subsidy reform; carbon markets; stronger ESG investment, lower insurance premiums; product certification; peer to peer social influencing. Some can be advanced globally, but many will need national efforts.

Organise for collaboration: The current system is maintained by all its constituents – consumers, buyers, input providers, policymakers and scientists, with farmers and pastoralists at the centre. A critical mass of these will need to collaborate differently to reform the food system even though it is largely working for them in its current form.

Sufficient change in Africa will likely come from more and better-connected ‘systems oriented’ local and national African leaders and institutions who can rally farmers, communities and whole societies behind a shared vision and strategy of implementation for an inclusive and regenerative future for national food systems.

African leaders from the private, public and civic spheres that comprise much of Africa’s food systems are major catalysts capable of shaping the ambition, agendas, market dynamics and wider context for how food systems currently operate, as well as their future trajectory.

Resistance to change will come in silent and explicit forms, often with legitimate concerns. A food systems movement will need to anchor itself in well-resourced, trusted backbone organisations at the national level, networked together to enable learning and advocacy at national, continental and global levels.

Set the direction: Structural inertia makes system change hard. It is more likely when collaborators unify their efforts behind a specific agenda. Agri-food transformation brings an existing national and continental agenda with clear and measurable goals.

The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) provides an important infrastructure for collaboration in Africa among many stakeholders with broad goals and specific measures for achievement every two years, though it must evolve to capture all dimensions of food systems and it is yet to reach its full potential (see below).

Harness collective intelligence: Changing our food system is full of risks and opportunities. There will be unintended consequences. Perhaps, for example, introducing rotational grazing forces some crop harvests to be grown on new land. Equally, innovations will emerge that deserve wide-scale adoption.

Evidence and practice must dance together. A food systems movement must actively facilitate learning and communication across stakeholders and geographies to ensure positive net impacts for farmers, society and our ecosystem.

Make it matter: The effects of the food system on nature and on human health and well-being matter. But the current trajectory of the food system indicates it doesn’t matter enough to the people that need to make the changes.

Food systems can be replaced as a political priority as communications technology, industry, urban issues and geo-political concerns take increasing precedence. For ordinary people, their health can be a persistent long term concern that rarely comes into focus with day to day food choices. The potential of the food system for increasing nutritious foods and providing rewarding employment and growth whilst off-setting expensive imports must matter more.

Above all, through advocacy, scorecards, popular mobilisation in coalition, the food system can be made to matter more to those that need to do the changing, notably consumers, government officials, business leaders, farmers.

Core to every effort is supporting people on the front-line of decisions in the food system (like farmers and SMEs) should be the focus for efforts that change practices. For instance, transitioning the food system requires a fundamental mindset shift to farming as ecological stewardship, in which food is grown in ways conducive to nature.

What Next?

Diverse organisations, from Danone to the World Bank, to myriad SMEs and civil society organisations, are championing changes in food systems. However, many are operating in isolation, and their individual progress will be constrained until the wider conditions support and reward such efforts. Bold, catalytic actions are needed to strengthen the enabling environment for change.

Wasafiri is working to help galvanise influential cross-sector collaborations in a variety of areas. Below we share some ideas about actions we are undertaking and future possible actions.

No single intervention will trigger an adequate global transition, but together some combination of such actions just might make all the difference. Here is a selection that can a valuable catalytic role.

High-quality leadership is necessary among many tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of leaders working across the food system in Africa. Positive and accelerating change will come from better decisions being made every day on how to consume and how to conduct food systems work by balancing environment, policy, cost/profit, nutrition, markets and more.

Food systems leadership needs investment in a hitherto unprecedented scale to build peer engagement that re-shapes decisions on what is possible.

Deepen the effectiveness of Africa’s policy and accountability framework and scorecard for transforming agricultural transformation by broadening it to food systems – and improving mechanisms for accountability for the results among policymakers, influencers, and citizens.

Realign the timeframe of the Malabo Goals with those of the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure governments are not pulled in two directions and that targets are ambitious and realistic.

Wasafiri is contributing to this agenda to strengthen collaboration and improve accountability for results with the African Union’s Biennial Review Scorecard.

The public sector can play a vital role in encouraging a transition by actors in the food system to grow, transport and consume increasing amounts of nutrient-dense foods, including fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts, fish and milk, and for this to be done sustainably.

In particular micro, small and medium-size (MSME) enterprises have a vital role to play in view of their collective size, often their strong social ethos, their innovation – the reality that most people in Africa buy their food from local markets.

Wasafiri is contributing knowledge, policy recommendations and advocacy at global and national levels.

Wasafiri’s Small Business Agenda provides voices, competition winners and policy recommendations from SMEs all around the world to inform the UN Global Food System Pre-Summit.

Wasafiri is leading a two-year research programme to sharpen how to improve the enabling environment to support micro and small enterprises producing nutrient-dense foods for local markets in Kenya.

Our landscaping analysis is shaping how a major philanthropy invests in ways to improve how public procurement can achieve better nutrition outcomes.

Agriculture is seen less and less by African countries as a leading sector for growth and transformation. The evidence for this comes from the public budget decisions that are made. Few have reached commitments made in 2003 and 2014.

Food systems are vital and touch everybody, every day. National coalitions of consumers, farmers, intermediaries, businesses of all sizes, civil society organisations and development are needed to raise the temperature to ensure agricultural research, effective land use, technology, market access, consumer information and more are supported by policies and investments that are fit for the future.

Leading food industry players are under growing pressure to decarbonise their operations, and an increasing number are committing to scientifically verified net-zero targets.

Some, like Nestle[1], are developing “insetting” schemes in which they pay their producers to make investments in carbon farming practices. This de-risks their supply chain whilst achieving emissions goals.

A scheme to scale up insetting across the food industry could send powerful market signals to farmers and consumers alike, making carbon farming a new norm, and operationalising corporate commitments such as those under “One Planet Business for Biodiversity”.

Tools & Resources

A Small Business Agenda (2021)

Produced by Wasafiri for the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit to outline how to boost the role of SMEs in producing good food for all.


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