Building Africa’s capacity in food systems

Portraits of Susannah Sallu, Steven Sait and Stephen Whitfield

Dr Susannah Sallu, Dr Steven Sait and Dr Stephen Whitfield

Dr Susannah Sallu, Dr Steven Sait and Dr Stephen Whitfield

African countries have long been a major source of food across the globe; it’s estimated that over 90 million hectares of land across the continent are harvested for maize production alone.

But with human populations growing and most of Africa’s agriculture being rainfed, and therefore susceptible to climatic changes, governments are faced with challenges. With such a large proportion of livelihoods depending on this vital industry, innovation in agriculture presents huge opportunities for economic and social change too.

Understanding food systems and building the capacity of early-career African researchers are therefore critical for authorities to deliver meaningful interventions.

This is partly why academics from the University of Leeds are working to develop a better understanding of the implications of food systems transformations for the health of people, animals and ecosystems in Southern Africa in the Food Systems Transformation in Southern Africa (FoSTA) Health Project.

The team at Leeds is working in collaboration with a pan-African network of organisations and individuals from various sectors and the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), seeking to inform policymakers by evaluating the possible implications of food system change in the continent.

They are working with partners from across Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia to collect, analyse and interpret data so they can draw conclusions about the ecological and social impacts of agricultural strategies.

Stephen Whitfield, Steven Sait and Susannah Sallu are three of our academics working on this collaborative, multifaceted project.

Small changes, huge impacts

Trees, mountains and grass in Tanzania

Food production isn’t just about what we eat.

For those who ply their trade in agricultural areas, it’s also about how they support their livelihoods, so a sustainable approach means they can provide for themselves and their families while also developing new and innovative ways to contribute to wider environmental goals.

Dr Susannah Sallu, Associate Professor in the School of Earth and Environment, is focusing her research on Tanzania.

“More than 70% of the country is dependent on agriculture to support their livelihoods,” Susannah said.

“That means that most people are engaging in agriculture, and the vast majority of them are engaging in rainfed agriculture.

“We’re also seeing the emerging middle class getting involved. They’re buying land in rural areas and investing in it, building businesses.”

But with much of the agricultural production currently taken up by maize, vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, the project is exploring the potential implications of diversification that could occur in the future – to ensure governments can lean on useful research when they need it.

Dr Stephen Whitfield, Associate Professor of Climate Change and Food Security, said: “There are multiple positive and negative implications associated with increasing production for export markets or promoting alternative diets, for example.

“We need to generate evidence that speaks directly to policy processes, and to practitioners, which is why partnerships with organisations like Care International – who are implementing large development programmes in the region – are so important.”

Dr Steven Sait, Reader in Ecology at the School of Biology, said: “The ecological questions are how do different species interact with each other, and how are they affected by the environment, such as climate change and especially how food is produced?

“But when it comes to agriculture, it also involves the people who live there and have to produce food in those changing landscapes. Understanding how biodiversity could help is an important aspect of FoSTA.”

Co-operation is key

A bunch of old keys

The FoSTA Health team understands that there isn’t one single solution to the agricultural and food system challenges faced by the diverse countries in Africa. With so many different researchers involved with different specialisms, everyone has their own idea about what they should be doing.

“I think it’s an important distinction that we recognise when you take a food systems approach, you’re always talking about trade-offs between things,” Stephen said.

“There’s no single solution that’s going to be positive across all sectors and all areas of society for everyone, forever.”

As Susannah explains, the need for research into how policy decisions affect those working in agriculture – whose involvement and support can make all the difference – is therefore all the greater.

“Often policy decisions are made at a higher level, and there’s an attempt to implement policy without ever involving the voices of the people it will impact,” Susannah said.

“Sometimes policies can be effective, but sometimes they can just sit on the shelf without the support and funding required to get them going. If policies are made by bureaucrats at that higher level without involving the people who do the work, they can be quite technologically focused.

“However, sometimes that technology isn’t viable; it requires investment from smallholder farmers who don’t have the money.”

Susannah points out that if we don’t understand the context on the ground, we can’t truly understand what is needed to prosper.

It’s something policy makers often struggle with across the world, and what FoSTA Health hopes to support. How? By focusing on bottom-up processes.

The researchers work with farmers at local levels, empowering them to have a voice and allowing them to understand how their futures could look.

“When we speak with the people doing the work, we can make policies that match up to their realities,” Susannah added.

This insight will not only help design policies for Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia, but will also feed into recommendations across more countries, potentially shaping the way the whole world produces food in the future.

Everyone deserves a voice

Close up of a microphone

When it comes to the kind of research this project is undertaking, an inclusive participatory approach is necessary.

“Often this sort of work ends up going into academic journals, but never going back to the communities who provided it,” Susannah said. “We don’t want that.

“We want our research to make an impact, so we talk about plausible actions to support more sustainable ways forward.”

When people engage with the research, it allows them to understand it on a more intricate level, as well as shape how it develops. What do they want to get out of it? How do they want the futures of their work to look?

“To develop impactful research, we need to understand things at a local level,” Susannah said. “We can find challenges and opportunities, and work out what to do about them. We work with colleagues in Tanzania and district level staff, ensuring they are part and parcel of the research.”

Gender also plays a key role here.

Tanzania is currently being governed by its first ever female president, who is keen to support women’s empowerment.

By looking at women’s empowerment in particular, and how that’s being implemented in food system transformation, the project can support government policy development and practice.

“Some of the more marginalised voices are actually the most important,” Susannah explained.

Understanding a future of climate change

Moutains, a tree and a sunset in Tanzania

As the climate changes, the kind of crops we’re capable of growing will change too. As a planet, we’ll all need to adapt in order to preserve our way of life.

However, it’s often African countries that pay the price for the actions of western nations. Their growing conditions will continue to be impacted by climate change, they will need to produce different crops and, unless they can change, many people will be badly affected.

“It’s about bringing those implications and trade-offs to the fore, and actually working with policymakers to understand that evidence base rather than just trying to present a single recommendation and assuming it will work,” Stephen said.

The food and commodity demands placed on Africa are growing ever further.

And with them, so too is the need to better understand how changing food systems affect the people, places and environments involved.

This research is the start of that.

About the project

To find out more about the project, visit the FoSTA Health website.

About Susannah

Susannah Sallu is an Associate Professor in Environment and Development based in the Sustainable Research Institute of the School of Earth and Environment.

She is an interdisciplinary research scientist focusing on rural livelihoods, environmental change, marginalisation and natural resource governance in East and Southern Africa, particularly Tanzania, where she has worked for more than 20 years.

She is a co-investigator on the FoSTA Health project featured in this article, Director of Masters Education in the School of Earth and Environment and represents the University of Leeds on the Steering Committee of the Global Africa Group of the World Universities Network.

About Stephen

Stephen Whitfield is a Professor of Food, Agriculture and Climate. His main research interests are in socio-politics of agri-food systems and the multiple priorities and challenges associated with these systems, both in the UK and overseas.

He leads the FoSTA Health project featured in this article and contributes to a number of research projects including the CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) ClimBeR: Building Systemic Resilience Against Climate Variability and Extremes Initiative.

About Steven

Steven Sait is a Reader in Ecology.

He specialises in population and community ecology and evolution, including how species respond to environmental change, the role of biodiversity in sustainable agriculture, and the biological control of crop pests and insects that spread disease.