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Southern Africa Food Lab: enhancing food security

Reos Partners
May, 2012


Explore how the Southern Africa Food Lab developed a shared understanding of food security issues and is creating a more sustainable food system. 

Researchers have documented that South Africa is afflicted by widespread food insecurity and hunger in both urban and rural areas. While, in aggregate, the country has enough resources to feed all of its inhabitants, one out of two households is at risk of hunger; almost 16% of South Africans consume less than adequate energy to meet their needs; and about 22% of children under nine years of age are stunted. These statistics indicate that many South Africans live in a state of chronic malnutrition.

In response, several entities within the government, civil society, and private sector have embarked on efforts to document and find solutions to the problem. Food insecurity was high on the agenda leading up to the 2008 national elections. This emphasis on food in policy dialogue was further supported by initiatives at institutions such as the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the Human Sciences Research Council, which focused explicitly on the challenges of measuring and monitoring food security.

Sustainable Food Security

Since 2009, Reos Partners has been a partner in and service provider to the Southern Africa Food Lab (SAFL), a multi-stakeholder initiative that brings together perse players in the regional food system to identify and pilot innovative means to achieve long-term, sustainable food security. Participants from NGOs, the Department of Agriculture, food retailers, producers, and donors took part in a meeting in February 2009, where they agreed that better collaboration was essential within and between sectors on food security matters. This workshop led to the establishment of a steering group and a plan to implement a year-long Change Lab process, inspired by methodologies implemented in a range of similar initiatives, including the Sustainable Food Lab. Toward the end of 2009, GTZ (now GIZ), the German development aid agency, committed to fund a project, and Reos Partners was contracted to facilitate the process.

The convening phase took place in 2010. It involved in-depth interviews with approximately 30 members from different sectors of the food chain (primarily within South Africa, but including neighbouring countries) to develop a deep understanding of the issues as seen by the key stakeholders. The convenors ultimately identified approximately 50 leaders who would became members of the Change Lab team. In phase two later that year, participants moved into experiencing the system together through learning journeys and innovation workshops, coming

Phase three kicked off in earnest at the end of 2010 and early 2011, with participants working jointly to implement innovative solutions. Currently, innovation teams are working on the following themes:

  • Small Producers (and Alternative Supply Chains)
  • National Conversation on the Food System
  • Integrating Food Security into Urban Planning
  • Bottom of the Pyramid Approaches (Meeting the Needs of the Poorest)

In 2011, the Food Security Initiative at Stellenbosch University, which is now the convener of the SAFL, received funding from the National Research Foundation for a multi-year project on “Social Learning for Sustainable Food Systems.” The grant will cover some of the SAFL’s operational costs and fund scholarships for graduate students to study the impact of this type of work.

Southern Africa Food Lab Initiatives

Since the Southern Africa Food Lab began, the issue of small-farmer engagement in the local food system has repeatedly emerged as a core theme. As a result of the work of one of the Lab innovation teams on this issue, the SAFL is joining forces with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies at the University of the Western Cape on an action research and social dialogue project. With the support of the Ford and Mellon Foundations, this project seeks to identify viable, equitable, and scalable approaches to private-sector support for commercial smallholder farming in South Africa.

In collaboration with the South African Human Rights Commission, the SAFL is also taking forward an innovation team initiative to hold a “National Conversation on Food.” The Commission’s mandate is to look at the status of a range of human rights issues in the country. In this instance, it is piloting the Lab’s methodology and approach to help move its usual hearing format to a more action-oriented approach. SAFL members are part of a Section 5 committee that is working to plan and implement the National Conversation on Food in late 2012.

In addition to these activities, the SAFL will continue to host forums, learning journeys, and workshops for all the innovation teams during 2012, and will convene an annual meeting of the Lab later in the year.

Download the case study. 

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