There were many reasons to start looking at food insecurity in southern Africa in a new way, but the 2008 global food crises were the most compelling. Rapid food price increases sparked fears of supply shortages, initiated riots in several countries, and drew fresh attention to hunger and the struggles many households face to put enough—and sufficiently nutritious—food on their tables. This renewed sense of urgency brought people from across the food value chain into a Southern Africa Food Lab (SAFL), convened by Milla McLachlan and Ralph Hamann. The vision of the multi-stakeholder Lab is “a food system that nourishes the land and all people.” Its intention has crystallised into “generating creative responses to the problem of hunger. We facilitate dialogue between diverse groups to raise consciousness of the interdependencies and injustices in the food system. We foster novel ideas and commitments to enact positive changes for the food system to thrive.”
SAFL is currently focusing on the opportunities and challenges facing small-scale farmers in Southern Africa. South Africa has no agricultural subsidies, and the number of commercial farmers has fallen considerably in the past 20 years. The country teeters on the brink of becoming a net food importer, and people continue to move from marginal rural land to urban areas at a rapid pace. Through SAFL, two specific areas of opportunity and challenge for small-scale farmers have become apparent: production support and access to markets. In collaboration with the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape, SAFL participants are combining rigorous research with dialogue and learning journeys to better understand the dilemmas facing small-scale farmers.
Over the past five months, we have undertaken two learning journeys to meet with small-scale farmers and listen to their stories in their own words and on their own fields. A third learning journey, designed to show the farmers what happens once their fresh produce has arrived in Johannesburg, is planned for August 2013.
The learning journeys succeeded in drawing together specific sets of people crucial for change. Influential representatives from the formal food retail sector and senior government officials and policy makers joined with activists, academics, and other change-makers. Together, we stood in the shade of trees on sun-drenched fields in Limpopo province and listened to a middle-aged African woman talk about why she became an agricultural extension worker at a time when this was exclusively a male profession. As a child, she watched her mother travel great distances on foot to buy fruit, which she would then carry back to their village to sell. The woman wondered, “what if we could grow these ourselves?” and enrolled in an agricultural college.
We also stood in a field of enormous green-purple cabbages in Northern KwaZulu-Natal and watched one beaten-up rusted van after another roll across uneven dirt tracks. The drivers would load up a small pile of cabbages and lurch off in their trucks again. Many farmers depend on such informal traders, who roam in circuits of several hundred kilometres a week, paying better prices than supermarkets and providing transport to the market, but in a completely unpredictable fashion.
Each evening, the group sat in conversation to process what we saw and heard during the learning journeys. We engaged in quiet contemplation and robust debate in equal measure, with the occasional gust of laughter, as people started to get to know each other across their many differences.
The learning journeys kindled several initiatives. Some participants are working towards a common safety standard for the supply of small-scale fresh produce to supermarkets. The proposed standard would be less onerous on the farmer than current universal standards while still providing retailers and consumers with information about pesticide use, microbial counts, and labour ethics. Other Lab members are investigating how subsistence farmers graduate to small-scale production—and into the mainstream economy. Other groups want to pilot new, more collaborative approaches to agricultural extension in support of small-scale farmers. Still others are working to reduce confusion about who, in this context, really is a small-scale farmer. In addition, an initiative to improve media reporting on small-scale farming and food security is underway. The list of projects goes on and on.
The next step will be a series of “Innovation Labs” to prototype new cross-sectoral innovations. One high-ranking official from the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform told me, as she climbed onto the bus after the last learning journey, “Nothing is going to keep me away from the Innovation Lab. I’ll see you there.”
For more on the SAFL, see www.southernafricafoodlab.org.