Reos Partners has been working since early 2009 with a group of partners on an innovation- and action-oriented Social Lab aimed at enhancing food security in southern Africa. The Southern Africa Food Lab (SAFL) team is one of unprecedented diversity in the region, comprising stakeholders from corporate, grassroots, NGO, academic, and government sectors, all working together to transform agriculture and food from farm to table, across the country.
The lab has steadily progressed. An initial workshop brought together 70 stakeholders from across the food system to consider which areas deserved attention and new thinking, including access and availability, competition and pricing, land and resources, and consumer attitudes. In 2010, in-depth interviews cultivated a deep understanding of the issues as seen by the key stakeholders, and also identified the 50 leaders who became members of the Social Lab team. By late 2010, participants were implementing solutions. And 2014 saw the first Transformative Scenarios workshop and progress on two prototype initiatives.
SAFL continues to host forums, Learning Journeys, and workshops for the innovation teams, convening annual lab meetings as work progresses.
Our convening partners are University of Cape Town, GIZ, ActionAid, Development Bank of South Africa, Green Choice/World Wide Fund for Nature, International Food Policy Research Institute, the Human Rights Commission (HRC), and the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. SAFL currently operates under the umbrella of the Food Security Initiative at Stellenbosch University; Reos remains the key facilitator.
The food crisis is global, but nowhere is it more pressing than in southern Africa. A large proportion of southern African households cannot reliably access decent food. This is a fundamental aspect of their deepening poverty trap. Furthermore, as urbanisation accelerates in the region, food insecurity is no longer primarily a rural problem.
It is vital that agricultural production be increased, but food security also requires broader, more systemic interventions. Hunger and malnutrition persist for complex and interrelated reasons that include unemployment, food price volatility, HIV/AIDS, drought conditions, diminished government support for agriculture, and high poverty levels.
The many stakeholders in the food system have widely divergent perspectives and interests, further complicated by structural issues such as power differentials. Rational discourse can be a challenge, and working together even more so.
Communication, commitment, and awareness
Initial outcomes included bringing stakeholders together in a sector where intrasectoral communication and awareness had been weak. More than 60 percent of workshop participants committed to the process in the longer term. These early phases raised awareness of the need to better understand the perspectives and roles of farmers and consumers, who are typically not heard.
Supporting Smallholder Agriculture (SSA)
SAFL’s efforts to support smallholder farmers have centered on a project launched in 2012 under the name Supporting Smallholders into Commercial Agriculture. The first phase included three learning journeys designed to be entry points into a deeper understanding of the realities affecting smallholder farmers.
National Conversation on Food
One innovation team’s “National Conversation on Food” was taken forward by the lab in collaboration with the South African Human Rights Commission. The commission was mandated to look at the status of a range of human rights and piloted replacing its traditional “hearing” format with the more action-oriented methodology and approach of the lab.
Integrating Food Security into Urban Planning
Another innovation team is figuring out how to sustainably feed South African cities by using public spaces more creatively, giving grants to people to cultivate unused urban land, and working to change the stigma attached to food production as a profession.
In 2014, we conducted a Transformative Scenarios process to build agreement on how different variables might influence food security over the next 20 years. To inform the process, SAFL and WWF commissioned a parallel independent, systematic literature review of the food system in South Africa.
“I enjoyed being on the Learning Journey. I learnt so much.... I also loved the fact that we were from different disciplines but all looking at and concerned about hunger and poverty. I have a lot to think about.”
“I definitely got a broader understanding of what’s going on, from the people—the humanness of the food system—I don’t get that from reading research.”
“The exposure has helped me to see how much positive energy there is in this country. There are so many opportunities out there, and people don’t know about them; there are so many networks and links within the system.”
"The involvement of the business sector is encouraging, it shows that South Africa is really moving somewhere in addressing the question of food security."
"I appreciate being able to see the whole chain, getting a possible methodology and having a starting point."