Over the past two years, agri-food system transformation has taken the front seat in discussions on agriculture, food, and nutrition security. It only made sense for SNRD Africa to mirror this priority in its recent conference theme – “Transform and Innovate – Future-Proof Food Systems.” A gathering of 140 like-minded colleagues from 26 countries in Somone, Senegal, aimed not just to learn from one another but to swap tales of innovation and agri-food systems transformation, culminating in the development of joint transformation pathways, a common narrative, and shared understanding.
As active members of the sector network, we can’t ignore the harsh reality: world food security is at a dead end. In 2022, a staggering 783 million people faced hunger, and over 3.1 billion couldn’t afford a decent diet. Achieving SDG 2 by 2030 seems like a distant dream. Our current agri-food systems not only fall short of providing universal access to sufficient and healthy food but also come with colossal environmental, health, and social costs, tallying up to at least US$ 10 trillion – a hefty 10% of global GDP. Global agricultural and food systems demand transformation, not just as a necessity but as one of the prime challenges for humankind (check out our recent article “Transforming agricultural and food systems – why and how”).
A colleague put it bluntly: “Transformation isn’t just the next new project approach; it should be the essential new take on development.” This set the stage for our discussions. Fueled by the Food System Transformation Master Class before the conference and insights from sector projects like Food Security and Agriculture, along with Monika Zurek from the Food Systems Transformation Group at the University of Oxford, we pondered on how our practical project work could play a role in transformative approaches. We swapped notes with SNRD members from the green clusters on transitioning the current SEWOH-driven portfolio into the uncharted territory of agri-food system transformation. Despite successes in agricultural production, soil health, food and nutrition security, and enhanced resilience, the persistent challenges in rural development in Africa linger. Elements and actors resistant to change, akin to the natural ecosystem, constantly throw new agri-food system challenges our way. Today, the global food system challenges are immense, but more importantly, they are solvable. Achieving this demands acknowledging that a livable planet is unattainable without transformation. However, mere acknowledgment isn’t sufficient; we need to fundamentally alter our course.
This is a tall order, made even more challenging by new hurdles – security challenges, notably, in many partner countries and member projects. We’ve had to understand and empathize with the tough circumstances our colleagues face in traditional SNRD stronghold countries like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger. The geopolitical changes in Africa concern us all and our work – more so than some of us were accustomed to. We can’t take security, political stability, and favorable economic frameworks for granted – a point emphasized by Kah Walla in her candid opening keynote speech on the pending agenda to improve governance in many African countries. Without this improvement, making decisive strides forward on SDG 2 achievements remains an uphill battle.
And it’s not just the global challenges that are huge – major changes are afoot within GIZ: a decreasing overall funding outlook, shifts in personnel policies, and the imperative to transform our approach to implementing single projects into more integrated solutions that share resources more efficiently.
So, amidst all these challenges and the ebb and flow of external and internal changes, agri-food transformation seems to be an ever more significant task; yet, it is inevitably necessary for humankind. Maybe it will be easier for us in our projects and with our partners to start thinking about the necessary institutional change processes as “the next transformative steps at a time”? I tend to think that there might be an opportunity in difficult times: an opportunity for thinking out of the box and for leaving well-trodden pathways, as also discussed in a recent World Bank publication. Maybe now is the time for “[…] moving from a quantitative and ‘managerialist’ approach based on achievements to a process-based approach, one that is necessary for transversality; […] and recognizing the value of processes and organizational innovations, the empowerment of individuals, the transformation of narratives, and of developing methodologies…”
There is something called “the duty of hope” – and I believe that a professional network of dedicated development experts such as SNRD Africa is particularly needed in challenging times of crisis to nourish the hope for transformation within us as individuals, within our teams, and within the institutional settings we are working in. SNRD has shown more than once over the more than 20 years of existence that it is particularly strong when the going gets tough. Rita Weidinger as outgoing speaker and Albert Engel as a long-term member and leader reminded us in their introductory speeches about the thematic and institutional highlights of the sector network – strongly believe that it was much better to rely on the network and the working groups as places of motivating peer-learning than facing all these challenges alone.
As Kah Walla has said: “The time is now”. I am grateful for the deep, earnest, and rich discussions during our week in Senegal; I am convinced that despite the enormity of the tasks and challenges, we are able to meaningfully contribute to the required transformation and that we will have a lot more notes and experiences to share when meeting next time in Zambia in 2025!
Kah thinks that beyond our jobs — which of course we had to do — the world was at a juncture. If like minds that believe in fundamental rights and principles were not coming together and made a real shift in how we approach critical issues, “we shall lose devastatingly to the autocrats and the short-sighted. Co-creation is really taking on its full potential to me now.”
“In any case, it sounds like you are off to a great start between yesterday and today. Have a great SNRD 2023!”, she said.