Multidisciplinary approach and policy dialogue to foster Sustainable Agrifood Systems Strategies

June 15, 2018

by Francesco Rampa, Head of Programme Sustainable Food Systems at ECDPM

A key way to foster food variety in our food systems is by supporting the production, processing, marketing and consumption of more sustainable horticulture. This is particularly important for Africa, where the largest proportion of poor and food-insecure people in the world live. And also to contribute to the integration of territories along the urban-rural continuum, linking all the actors in the food system, from producers to consumers, and enabling in particular smallholders and small service providers to better supply urban and regional demand, thus taking advantage of burgeoning African food economies. Small entrepreneurs can indeed be protagonists of both more sustainable food systems and Private Sector for Development. Shortening the food value chains, while targeting the booming urban demand for fresh quality food can have a positive multiplier effect for the African food economy, both upstream, increasing effective demand for knowledge, inputs and services, and downstream, increasing jobs and potential for value addition in processing, logistics and distribution.

For these reasons, in July 2017 we launched SASS, Sustainable Agrifood Systems Strategies. This two-year research and dialogue project (supported by the Italian Ministry of Research) is carried out by a consortium of four Italian universities and ECDPM who is taking the lead in translating research outcomes into policy processes and effective action-oriented partnerships. Our multidisciplinary research aims to build knowledge, policy dialogue and partnerships contributing to more Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) in Africa and beyond. In the context of international debates and initiatives on sustainability and food diversification, SASS focuses on the analysis of challenges and opportunities in Kenya (Naivasha area) and Tanzania (Arusha and Iringa areas) for the production, commercialization and consumption of high value traditional crops’ or indigenous vegetables (or ‘neglected and underutilised species’ -NUS) given their better nutritional value and climate resilience and the increasing demand by consumers, also in African cities. As already shown in a growing body of sector-specific literature and case studies around the world, the integration of NUS in local agrifood systems has the potential of improving nutritional outcomes, climate resilience, smallholder profitability and respect for local food culture. 

SASS builds on such existing evidence and aims to contribute to SFS efforts through three innovative methodological approaches: addressing all dimensions of sustainability together; multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder action-oriented research and dialogue; linking research to policy and practice. After 10 months from the launch of SASS, we have learnt a lot already, including on each of these three approaches.

A first lesson is that a sort of momentum on SFS is emerging from international policy circles and innovative local stakeholders, but the already vast literature demonstrates that it is difficult for both research and practice to really tackle economic, social and environmental sustainability together. For example, most pieces of research on NUS analyse individual sustainability claims (e.g. better climate resilience) and specific (sub) country contexts (without comparative or cross-country approaches). Therefore with SASS, after long internal consortium discussions, we decided to try and work simultaneously on these 3 ‘standard’ dimensions of sustainability, together with ‘institutional and political’ sustainability as well (because ‘technical’ solutions must be also grounded in the institutional and political realities); and from both the conceptual and practical points of view. Thus, without being rigid on definitions and after considering many ongoing initiatives similar to SASS, we thought it was important to define a Food System as “the system that gathers all the elements and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food and the outputs of these activities, including socio, economic and environmental outcomes” and a “Sustainable Food System as “one that meets at the same time the needs of society (people), economy (profit) and environment (planet) over time” (adopting in many respects the IPES 2016 framework). Similarly, at practical level, we have to look for solutions with local stakeholders that try and address multiple sustainability dimensions at the same time, and well fit the institutional environment. For instance, market systems, including certification and labelling for the sustainable promotion of NUS, and other parts of an enabling policy environment that make diversity of diets both affordable and attractive to the consumer, seem to be according to local stakeholders, game changers to achieve sustainable food systems. Hence we’re discussing, among possible solution, launching labels that recognize simultaneously the environmental-social-economic sustainability of indigenous horticulture.

Another set of lessons we learnt within SASS relates to multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder action-oriented research and dialogue. It takes a lot of time and energy to adequately design and undertake multi-disciplinary research. We all agree keeping different themes and disciplines together is essential in a FS approach, but it is difficult to practically combine research from economists, anthropologists, nutritionists, microbiologists, sociologists, etc. Different researchers have discipline-specific mindsets and methods, different incentive systems driving their choices of analysis and even different scientific languages, and breaking these types of silos is tough. But our discussions with local stakeholders and initial investigations in Kenya and Tanzania clarified that there is no alternative to multi-disciplinary research, given the multiple challenges of food systems. Moreover, the research is not enough, and SASS learnt that we need also multi-stakeholder action-oriented dialogue, with strong communication and partnership components, so that local partners are guiding us towards solutions, and we can disseminate our objectives and results in a simple way that can be understood by all involved. This approach is particularly important and innovative for Italy, where academia, policy makers, companies, and civil society aren’t used to work closely together for sustainable development. 

Finally, given the goals of SASS and drawing on ECDPM’s long term experience, we are also learning how to link research to policy and policy to practice in the context of SFS. So while the various research teams are undertaking their different technical analyses, SASS is also working with local stakeholders on the solutions, in terms of improving policies, value chains practices and investments. We have thus designed our research in a way that SASS results will be able to inform, influence and support several policy and investment processes, taking place at global, regional, national and territorial level. Our ambition in selecting three food systems in East Africa is indeed to be able to better understand how to improve sustainability at local level, but also draw lessons for other countries and regions, thus bringing innovative approaches and significant evidence-based recommendations to international SFS initiatives.