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Building Africa’s food brain trust

JoostGuijt

Joost Guijt, the director of African Food Fellowship. PHOTO | POOL

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Summary

  • Even as Kenya faces another case of severe drought due to failed rains in some areas, a pioneer class of 27 Kenyan specialists in agri-finance, horticulture and aqua culture just graduated from African Food Fellowship.
  • Can building alliances among top researchers, scientists and business professionals in Kenya and across Africa help solve our food problems?
  • The Business Daily spoke to Joost Guijt, the director of African Food fellowship

Even as Kenya faces another case of severe drought due to failed rains in some areas, a pioneer class of 27 Kenyan specialists in agri-finance, horticulture and aqua culture just graduated from African Food Fellowship.

Can building alliances among top researchers, scientists and business professionals in Kenya and across Africa help solve our food problems? The Business Daily spoke to Joost Guijt, the director of African Food fellowship

YOU HAVE BROUGHT TOGETHER EXPERTS IN VARIOUS AGRICULTURAL FIELDS WITH EXTENSIVE KNOWLEDGE ON THEIR SECTORS. WHAT SYNERGIES ARE YOU TRYING TO BUILD?

Food systems are the result of the interactions of many different actors: transporters, farmers, government officials, community leaders, banks, etc. To change food systems requires getting multiple actors to work together towards new goals, following new rules. In our cohorts we bring together emerging leaders from different groups who need each other, and can use each other, to shift their systems.

For example, in aquaculture we have brought together researchers who point to what is proven to work better for small-scale producers; fishing community leaders who understand the needs of their people and can mobilise them to take on new practices or speak on their behalf; government officials who set the rules for fish-farming, rules that must require sustainable production and safeguard fair access to waters; and feed suppliers working on critical, lower-cost and more reliable new fish feeds. They all need each other.

WHAT NETWORK DO YOU ENVISION FOR KENYA AND AFRICA?

The first step is a network of passionate emerging leaders connected in a national chapter of the African Food Fellowship: the Kenya Food Fellowship. As we expand across Africa — we are currently interviewing exciting candidates in Rwanda for the first cohort that starts there in November — we envisage national chapters starting up in each country: first four, then expanding to 6-8 in the next five years.

All these national chapters will work on food systems change in their countries. The African Food Fellowship will support them with leadership programmes, support for their systems initiatives and facilitate dialogue and connections with other like-minded groups.

HOW DO YOU SEE THE COHORT INFLUENCING POLICY, AND HOW WILL THEY COORDINATE ACROSS AFRICA?

They already are. Fellows have been taking part in the national Food Systems Dialogues, in conferences, writing articles in national newspapers.

In the current Stage 2 of their Food Systems Leadership Programme they are starting joint initiatives to create multi-stakeholder platforms around aquaculture in western Kenya, horticulture in Kisumu and national policies for digital agri-finance. This will continue beyond the leadership programme: they will have discovered the power of collective leadership.

ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES IN AGRICULTURE IS FUNDING ESPECIALLY FOR SMALL-HOLDERS. HOW DOES KENYA OR AFRICA FILL THIS GAP?

This is indeed a bottleneck, and not only for smallholders but for many informal agribusiness, and traders. One of our groups is particularly focusing on digital agrifinance.

They have noted that while nearly 70 percent of Kenyans in some way depend on agricultural production, processing and trading, only four percent of bank loans goes to the sector.

Their focus is on a few key barriers: creating appropriate and affordable financial instruments; ensuring trustworthy lending systems; and making safe use of digital solutions to reach large numbers of farmers and SMEs at low cost.

WHAT ROLES CAN NEW TECHNOLOGIES PLAY IN DISRUPTING THE CURRENT FOOD SUPPLY CHAINS TO GIVE FARMERS MORE EARNINGS AND DELIVER NUTRITION TO ALL?

The first is getting lots more knowledge to huge amounts of people, very quickly. Food systems need to change not only for farmers’ benefit but for all the other players.

Market information systems that let farmers know what fair prices are in their regions; traders who can easily connect daily supply and demand; banks that can offer financial products to huge numbers of small lenders, making these profitable and accessible.

The second is about introducing massively more efficient technologies: drip irrigation (only 4% of Africa is irrigated, while 40% is possible); guaranteed top quality seeds that can double production; microfilms that keep food fresh and don’t need very expensive cold storage systems. The third is infrastructure: digital, mobile and physical—to move knowledge, finance and especially products around.

But maybe most importantly: new technologies make it possible to create large, effective movements for changes in the food system.

Through social media and digital newspapers stories about unfair practices or shining examples can circulate to millions within weeks; food system leaders across the country can coordinate their efforts; and very different voices can influence choices for national policies, business investments, regulations etc.

POST-HARVEST LOSSES ARE STILL A BIG PROBLEM DUE TO SUPPLY CHAIN GAPS ESPECIALLY COLD CHAIN, STORAGE ETC HOW CAN THIS PROBLEM BE ADDRESSED?

The problem is not technology: there already are solutions for most post-harvest losses. The problem is incentives: we need to make it worth investing in reducing such losses. For example, we know that in many African countries 50% or more of tomatoes – the most important horticultural crop – are lost between farm and consumers.

These losses can be halved by simply using plastic crates. The problem is that while farmers need to pay for such crates, the benefits are felt by retailers in cities who have more good produce to sell. As soon as it becomes profitable for farmers and traders to invest in reducing losses, they will do so.

MOST DEVELOPED NATIONS INCENTIVISE THEIR FARMERS AND GIVEN THE STRUCTURES OF GLOBAL TRADE THEY BRING IN MORE COMPETITIVE PRODUCE TO THE DETRIMENT OF LOCAL FARMERS, IS THIS ISSUE GETTING ENOUGH INTERROGATION?

It’s a fair question and needs to be taken more seriously. In a major report for the recent UN Food System Summit, Wageningen University & Research and IFAD conclude that while trade is essential for both food and nutrition security, and for creating jobs, international trade agreements must introduce or permit standards that protect smallholder producers and SMEs.

Currently many agreements do not allow standards geared to safeguarding fair market prices or emerging national sectors. This needs much more attention.