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South Africa strives to combat malnutrition through stretch collaboration

Akanimo Akpan
March, 2019


Diet-related non-communicable diseases are the second highest cause of death in South Africa, accounting for 43% of all deaths. These diet-related health challenges include obesity, persistent issues with hunger, nutrient deficiencies, and stunting. This is not a challenge faced by South Africans alone, global trends around diet-related non-communicable diseases are increasingly causing concern.

Shifting the South African food system towards a more sustainable path

The Southern African Food Lab (SAFL) has been working for the past ten years to address food insecurity in the region. The SAFL has undertaken several initiatives since its conception ranging from hosting dialogues, learning journeys to foster better understanding of the food system, incorporating Transformative scenario planning in their work, and supporting small holder agriculture. SAFL notably received international recognition in 2018 by the UN’s 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production patterns within their Sustainable Food Systems Programme. The lab has also helped in building trusting relationship among various stakeholders in the system. It is this relationship and the shift in thinking that are the key elements to effective action, and ultimately, systemic change.

As far as we’ve come, there remains much to do. The realities of consumption habits and resulting health and environmental damage are staggering, and they call for immediate action from multiple sectors. How can various stakeholders, who have different, often competing interests come together to help turn things around?

The answer is simply: They must. The economic and environmental health of the country depend on the health of its food system and its people.

Building capacity for change through stretch collaboration

In March 2019, government officials, academics, civil society and advocacy groups from across the South African food system came together for one day, to help build a shared understanding of the challenges faced, and initiate a collaborative approach to help solve them.

Many in attendance have embarked on initiatives to better support a part of the food system. However, these individual and single player interventions lack the necessary systemic and strategic intent, resulting in weak outcomes across the board.

Reos Partners supported the need for multi-sectoral impact through systemic, collaborative, and creative approaches, and attempted to help the group identify at least one collaborative initiative that would address the theme of Dietary Transitions. At the end of the day participants identified four areas that would both benefit from a multi-sectoral approach and have the potential to positively impact the food sector. The success of the day was, in greater part, due to the principle of stretch collaboration: an approach that paves the way to get things done, even in complex situations with people who may not trust each other.

With stretch collaboration presented as both an option and as a choice, all the 37 participants expressed a willingness to continue on the journey, knowing that they would have to embrace both conflict and connection as well as fully step into the game.

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