Joris Tielens

28 september 2020


A food crisis is imminent in many countries in Africa, aggravated by measures against the COVID-19 virus. Dealing with this crisis and ensuring access to healthy diets for all requires a broad food systems approach, many believe. But what exactly does that entail, and how should it be used? This article forms the introduction to a series of articles that Vice Versa will publish during the autumn of 2020, about food and employment in Africa, and how the Netherlands can contribute. The series aims to generate debate on this important topic within development cooperation, in the run-up to the Dutch parliamentary election in March 2021.

Africa’s population is expected to continue growing fast in the coming decades, reaching about 2.4 billion by 2050, with an increasing number of people living in cities. How are all these people going to be assured of a healthy diet? It is important to keep the population in good health to prevent a dramatic increase in healthcare costs. And how can gainful employment be generated for the increasing numbers of young people on the continent? These questions have become more pressing since the start of the pandemic, but even before the outbreak of COVID-19 we were not on track for achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2: zero hunger in 2030.

And the worst is yet to come. The World Bank estimates that COVID-19 will push between 70 and 100 million more people into extreme poverty this year, mainly due to lockdown measures and disrupted economic activity. The World Food Programme estimated that, due to lack of income, blocked transport and closed informal markets, the number of people facing acute food insecurity could almost double, from an estimated 149 million pre-COVID-19 to 270 million before the end of the year. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that 80% of the corona-affected hungry people live in cities.

Many commentators have written about the impact of the crisis. Lots argue, or hope, that this could be the moment to make a change and rebuild a more resilient food system that can withstand shocks. Not only shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic, but also locust plagues and the effects of climate change. More regional production and greater diversification of agricultural production and trade are often cited as examples of the systems change needed.

‘Africa must feed itself’

These coincide with the goals already set by the African Development Bank. African countries spent $ 64 billion on food imports in 2017. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, called this not only unsustainable, irresponsible and unaffordable, but also completely unnecessary. Africa has 65% of the world’s uncultivated land, an abundance of fresh water, 300 days of sunshine a year and lots of fertile soils. The message is: Africa can and must feed itself. To this end, the AfDB came up with the Feed Africa strategy, which focuses on investments, and on integrating the internal market in Africa.

Photo: Martha Nalukenge

A common thread in current thinking is the focus on food systems to solve these challenges. Traditionally, the discussion on food security centred on increasing agricultural production. Subsequently, more attention was paid to the wider chain of production, processing and sales. More recently, this has been broadened to incorporate a food systems approach: a more holistic and integrated vision of the many aspects that are involved in getting sufficient, safe and healthy food onto our plates or food bowls without compromising our planetary limits.

Wake-up call

The UN has put food and nutrition security on the agenda and is showing that it explicitly embraces a food systems approach by organising the first global Food Systems Summit, next year in New York. As Agnes Kalibata, director of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and special envoy for this summit, puts it on Twitter: “This year has been a clear wake-up call on how interconnected we are in the world. This includes not only our health, food security & nutrition, but also our climate, environment, biodiversity, empowerment & beyond.” Louise Fresco, chair of Wageningen University and Research, will be vice-chair of the Summit’s scientific committee.

Photo: Martha Nalukenge

What is new about this agenda is that it places the consumer and the nutritional value of food centre stage. One good reason to focus on nutrition, says Ruerd Ruben, is that every dollar invested in healthy nutrition will save 16 dollars spent on healthcare, as calculated by IFPRI. Ruben is professor of impact assessment for food systems at Wageningen University & Research, and coordinator of food security & value chains at Wageningen Economic Research. “To keep the costs of healthcare under control in the long run, we need to focus on access to healthy food. And this is best done through a food systems approach.”


Besides nutrition, income and employment are also seen as an outcome of the food system, as are sustained biodiversity and resilience to climate change. One advantage of a food systems approach is that it makes clear that these goals are often not compatible; there are trade-offs. Interventions in one part can adversely affect other parts of the food system. For example: more intensive livestock production may yield more nutritious food, but it might also pollute soils and water. More machine-based agricultural production may increase yields, but it will lower employment. To create employment, it is important to process products and add value in Africa. Another example of a trade-off: producing cash crops for export, such as tea, coffee or green beans, can result in a higher income for the farmer, but also in poorer nutrition for the farmer’s family.

Making these trade-offs visible in a food systems analysis and discussing them, can help to make better policy, says Ruben. “In contrast to previous approaches, this approach is less focussed on technological solutions and aims more at behavioural changes.”

Locate the bottleneck

Ruben: “Each situation is different and requires a specific approach. But what it comes down to is a smart analysis, which identifies one bottleneck where it pinches most. If you know where things go wrong, you can experiment with a solution.” After that, stepwise changes can be made to the system.

In Nigeria for example, more than half the tomatoes rotted during transport to Lagos and farmers didn’t earn much. In a project with Wageningen University & Research, plastic crates were introduced, which decreased the post-harvest losses. But the crates ended up in the city and didn’t return to the farmers. Making the crates returnable helped. Tomato sales in the city increased. But the profit did not reach the farmers. In the system as it operated, there were no incentives for farmers to invest in crates to reduce post-harvest losses. The project suggested longer-term supply contracts between retailers and farmers, which gave the farmers better terms and an incentive to reduce losses.

A danger of the food systems approach is that different people seem to mean different things by the term. Sometimes it seems possible to continue on one’s own hobby horse, simply citing the innovative food systems approach in support of it. “That’s why we should not dwell on conceptual stories, but discuss concrete examples. Let’s roll up our sleeves,” says Ruben.

Think beyond your borders

The food systems approach requires people to think out of their own box. Ruben: “Sometimes the solution is not in your field or it’s out of reach of your company. That requires self-reflexivity. I notice that it is easier for young people to think beyond their own borders. The older generation sometimes still miss the broader view and are too stuck in their own discipline.”

One example of a food systems approach are the rapid sector assessments that Wageningen University & Research started shortly after the first outbreak of COVID-19 in Africa. “Everyone had a great sense of urgency, a need for systemic intelligence and not just scattered information,” says Joost Guijt, Senior Advisor at Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation. “We wanted to know what the consequences of the pandemic were in the countries where we work, and to know how policymakers can respond to them.” The assessments tapped into the wisdom of the crowd in multiple countries and sectors: the sesame sector in Ethiopia, the seed sector in Nigeria and Uganda for example. A survey asked experts from local organisations what the main effects of COVID-19 were on key aspects of their sector. The results were then discussed in a smaller group of experts from those countries, and the main bottlenecks were identified, from the wider perspective of the whole food system. The bottlenecks and possible solutions were published in policy alerts.

Prevent worse

“We hope that by quickly providing insight into the most urgent problems within the food system, worse can be prevented.” One rapid assessment was done for the seed sector in Nigeria. At the start of the growing season, farmers must have seed to sow their fields. If they miss that moment, because the lockdown means farmers cannot go to the city to buy seeds, they risk losing the entire growing season. In response to the findings and the call to action in the first rapid assessment alert, seed companies hired boys on motorcycles to visit farmers with seeds, instead of farmers coming to the seed shops. Influence was exerted on local policymakers, which helped to relax the movement restriction for the biker boys.

The rapid assessments were drawn up by Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation in collaboration with about ten other sustainable agriculture organisations, working together in a community of practice on a response to the corona crisis. This community of practice is coordinated by the Food & Business Knowledge Platform and funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Food & Business Knowledge Platform will merge with AgriProFocus to become the Netherlands Food Partnership (NFP) during the course of this year.

World Food Day

The rapid assessments are among the smart solutions that will be discussed at the event for professionals on World Food Day (WFD, 16 October), organised by the Netherlands Food Partnership. “The Netherlands Food Partnership has been endorsed by the Dutch government to bring together Dutch expertise and undertake action to boost transformative approaches to shaping sustainable food systems and healthy diets in low and middle income countries,” tells Myrtille Danse, who was appointed executive director of the NFP in September.

“We aim to support the acceleration needed to achieve SDG2: zero hunger by 2030. The partnership will connect relevant people, knowledge and experience from Dutch businesses, knowledge institutes, NGOs and government agencies, and enhance collaboration to stimulate cutting-edge interventions, facilitate learning and disseminate Dutch food expertise, in order to achieve scale. We add value to our partners because of our track record, qualified staff, and partner network in the Netherlands and multiple countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and seed money until 2022. Our ambition is to launch at least ten new, exciting value propositions for improved food systems in the coming three years.”Transformative approaches will be taken a step further during the World Food Day professionals event. “The theme of the day, smart solutions for healthy diets, follows from the food systems perspective that is central to the NFP’s approach. It concentrates on tackling key bottlenecks in food systems , while keeping the SDG2 end goals in mind: the positive impact on the diets of consumers, improve business and employment for agrifood entrepreneurs and workers, and deliver on climate and environmental resilience.”

Photo: Martha Nalukenge

“World Food Day will be an excellent opportunity to meet each other and work on this challenge,” says Danse. “It will also be a key moment in the preparations for the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021. The summit is envisioned as a turning point in the worldwide efforts to achieve the SDG agenda by 2030. It will be a crucial catalytic occasion where actors around the globe will be mobilised to commit to concrete actions that will transform food systems to resolve not only hunger, but to reduce diet-related disease and heal the planet. We will facilitate the engagement of key Dutch players in the discussions about this food systems summit.”

New series

Over the coming months, Vice Versa will publish a series of articles on food supply and employment in Africa. Expect articles on the diet of the future in Africa, how to feed the big cities and more. We will highlight examples of promoting regional food chains and other ways to secure food supply. On income and employment in the food system, we will look into issues like finance for the farmer and land rights. Other articles will focus on the role of digitisation in connecting farmers with consumers and suppliers, and on diversification in export agriculture. The series concludes with reflection – looking back and looking ahead to the future – on how Dutch policy and private sector,  knowledge institutions and NGOs can contribute to changing food systems.

The series will conclude with an online debate at the end of the year, on the theme of food and employment in Africa, and the role of Dutch organisations and Dutch policy in this, in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in March 2021.

In the autumn of 2020, Vice Versa publishes a series of articles on transforming African food systems to provide sufficient and healthy food to the growing population, while at the same time generating income and employment for the increasing number of young people. Our aim is to generate debate on this important topic within the Dutch international cooperation sector, running up to the parliamentary elections in March 2021.
The series is an initiative of Vice Versa in cooperation with Solidaridad, IDH Sustainable trade, Wageningen University & Research and the Food & Business Knowledge Platform and AgriProFocus, merging into the Netherlands Food Partnership this year

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