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Transforming the future of food in South Africa

Reos Partners
September, 2015


Learn more about Reos Partners’ first scenario work specific to food, the Southern Africa Food Lab, co-founded by us in 2009. 

Written by Colleen Magner and Rebecca Freeth.

How can people across the food system work together to transform it? While Reos Partners’ portfolio includes food projects around the world, lately we are very active in South Africa—and learning a lot there about how to make progress in this socially, economically, and environmentally critical system. South Africa has become a place where people are both talking with each other about the food system and trying things out on a large scale.

The Southern Africa Food Lab (SAFL), which we co-founded in 2009 and continue to work on as a partner, is a pioneer in convening around the South African food system as a whole and is behind several ongoing initiatives. At the forefront right now, however, is a transformative scenarios exercise SAFL began last year, in partnership with WWF to build agreement on how various driving forces might influence food security in South Africa in coming years. It is Reos Partners’ first scenario work specific to food.

“The Future of Food, 2015–2030” was published in March 2015, and our team is now seeing and hearing early indicators of progress: the relationship building and the shifts in thinking, understanding, and intention that are key elements of effective action and, ultimately, systemic change. “It’s our task,” said a government participant, in just one illustration of this progress, “to spread the dialogue and hear these voices coming from different angles and try to involve each and every stakeholder as much as we can, because everyone is part of the food system.”

A Growing Body of Work in the Food System

Reos Partners has a large global body of work on food systems. One reason is that no matter the country or the context, food producers are practical, hands-on people, and that is the essence of a social lab: to not just talk about solutions, but to try them out and see if they work.

In addition to SAFL is the Sustainable Food Lab, which we co-initiated in 2004 (and still support) and which continues to broaden and deepen its work of creating mainstream, market-based sustainable food supply chains for Europe, North America, and Latin America. The Bhavishya Alliance, aimed at child malnutrition in India, ran from 2006 to 2012 and became one of the most significant and successful multi-stakeholder efforts ever undertaken in India. The Metropolitan Agriculture Innoversity, which evolved into several ongoing independent projects, focused on how agriculture can contribute to sustainable urban development. We recently co-launched the far-reaching Sustainable Oceans Lab. Also in development is the Thai Food Lab.

However, through SAFL, our work in South Africa is uniquely broad; the Future of Food scenarios are only one extension of the lab. An early initiative known as Supporting Smallholders into Commercial Agriculture is now three years old. A “National Conversation on Food” has been taken forward in collaboration with the South African Human Rights Commission. And an innovation team is working on how to feed South African cities more sustainably through creative use of public spaces. This month, Reos Partners begins a new, highly visible project on land reform—the hottest of all topics here.

SAFL Food Scenarios Explore Global Themes

The Future of Food scenarios exercise began with a period of listening that entailed in-depth interviews with 30 leaders from across the food system. Our synthesis of their views, concerns, and questions laid the foundation for two scenario construction workshops and the March launch. The scenarios explore the future of food in South Africa through four frames: agricultural production, nutrition, political economy, and natural resources.

“Themes have come up in these scenarios that are universal,” says team member Colleen Magner, Reos Partners’ managing director in Johannesburg. “Natural resources constraints around soil quality, water, and climate change are everywhere. As are urbanisation, the struggle to connect small farmers to large supermarket chains, social changes, and economic inequality.” Concerning the latter, she says, “There is the issue of increasingly affordable bad food, which influences nutrition, and increasingly unaffordable good food for the middle class up. The system works in a healthy way for part of the population and not another.”

“An imminent threat is what could happen if the food supply is threatened locally,” she says. “In South Africa, currency is weak, so importing would push up prices, creating social instability. That happens all over the world.”

Among the issues more specific to South Africa are intense political struggles around such legacies of apartheid as land and justice issues, and the atypical structure of the economy, especially the food economy. A very strong commercial farming sector that services a particular market exists alongside smallholder, mostly subsistence, farming by a large part of the population.

New Understandings, New Relationships, New Collaborations

The Future of Food process began in an environment “heavy on finger pointing,” observes Reos Partners Senior Consultant Rebecca Freeth, who in this project took the role of scenario editor. “With a long value chain, it’s easy to blame someone up or down the chain when things break down. The preliminary interviews revealed that government in particular was seen as a weak link, as absent or ineffective.”

The understandings and relationships built during the scenario process are having their effect, however. And government is now proving to be a strong link. “Of all the stakeholders involved,” Freeth says, “government members of the scenario team showed the most staying power and the most initiative to turn the scenarios into strategies.”

Several new collaborations have sprung up among participants in the scenarios around land reform, nutrition, livestock research, and infrastructure shortcomings. In the private sector, Ernst & Young plans to host for their clients a series of events informed by the scenarios. Oxfam and the South Africa NGO Section 27 are considering the launch of a “right to food” campaign.

Less concrete, but as important, are the altered attitudes and relationships alluded to earlier, particularly with regards to government. A shift is apparent both within the government and in the way other organizations experience it or choose to approach it.

For example, a scenario team member from within the South African presidency reached out to SAFL for help presenting the scenarios to the presidency. So SAFL, an NGO, and an official from Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing formed a small presentation team.

“Immediately, you’ve got this multi-stakeholder, cross-stakeholder effort happening,” Freeth says. “They are saying, ‘These are our scenarios, they belong to all of us.’ It's made a big impression. It starts to break down these unhelpful boundaries between government departments and between civil society and government. Normally, civil society organizations come to government to lobby for something, not to be part of a multi-sectoral team.”

In another example, an encounter between a government official and an activist, both scenario team members, at a government meeting on food policy was striking to both.

“Although they were not happy, it was easy for them to come to me to explain what was happening,” the official reported in an evaluation of the scenarios process. “They were not necessarily angry with me, they were able to listen to me, because we were both at the scenario planning.”

And from the activist: “We have respect for each other. The difference is this: If I don’t know you, I don’t give you the time to explain yourself. Ordinarily, we would just be making statements. This was a good example of benefiting from having spent quite a bit of time with people from different perspectives and roles.”

The scenarios have at a minimum begun to create a greater capacity for thinking about, talking about, and acting on food as a system, as illustrated by this comment from a member of the convening team: “I’ve gone through a reprioritisation process in terms of understanding that you can pay lip service to the intricate interconnection of these issues. Every time I work with Reos I learn something—how to be more moderate, to elevate inquiry over rhetoric.”

It is too soon to tell whether these kinds of shifts will gain traction and ultimately deliver environmental and social outcomes. The SAFL has now turned its attention to this phase of the work.

Refinements on the Scenarios Process

An important component of these scenarios was the team’s commissioning of an independent literature review beforehand. “The objective data in this parallel academic report offered a baseline for the workshop discussions and made the scenarios much stronger,” says Magner. “We haven’t had anyone say that the scenarios aren't plausible.”

Consistent participation over the course of what is typically a months-long endeavor is a challenge in many of our multi-stakeholder team projects, and the Future of Food was no exception. Although the project had tremendous support, the team was not consistent from beginning to end. At issue are both time constraints and the absence of the very systemic viewpoint that the workshops help to awaken.

Government officials are often the hardest to keep in the room, as most do not control their own schedules. As noted above, however, the most consistent attendance in this project was from government. “The difference may have been that we worked hard to identify the right people,” says Freeth, “those for whom the issue of food is much more than a job. People who are quite driven personally to introduce change in the food system.”

“I don’t think it's ever easy to keep a group convened,” Magner says. “If the issue is very, very current and very uncomfortable, the chances are better. I think there is a bit of a sweet spot between things being okay and being dire. You can be too early, or you can be too late, when you need immediate, direct action. The food system here in South Africa is a slow boil. It’s important, but it’s doesn’t feel critical to people in the way that land reform does.”

We will be interested to see the level of participation in our recently convened scenario exercise in South Africa—the Land Reform Futures 2015–2030—and in what the process will add to our developing understanding of the larger food system.

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