Making food systems work: Action and impact

On World Food Day, SNV experts speak about SNV’s actions to futureproof agri-food systems

Man in Africa working in the field

On World Food Day this year, we speak to André de Jager, Managing Director of SNV’s Energy and Agriculture sectors and Alison Rusinow, Head of Agriculture at SNV, about SNV’s actions to futureproof agri-food systems and the impact on incomes and access to nutritious foods.

The theme of World Food Day this year is “Our actions are our future - Better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life”. How does SNV contribute to this call to action?

André: SNV acts through its agriculture projects, which make up the majority of SNV’s portfolio. We focus on improving food systems - mainly at a national and regional level – across more than 20 countries around the world. We work with smallholder farmers in rural areas who have limited access to markets to ensure that they are fully integrated into food systems and can improve their incomes. We also work with other actors in the value chain (input suppliers, processors, service providers) to ensure nutritious and affordable food products reach consumers. We aim to improve production at smallholder level, by focusing on sustainable intensification that does not destroy or negatively affect the natural resources on which food production depends.  In other words, SNV’s approaches ensure that effective and sufficient food production stays “within planetary boundaries”.

In Asia and Africa Around 50 to 60 percent of consumers live in urban areas, and we need to ensure that value chains reach and provide them with access to affordable, nutritious foods. We realise that smallholder farmers in rural areas alone cannot supply this growing group of consumers; therefore, we also target those medium-scale farmers and smallholder farmers who can step up production to feed urban consumers.

SNV is focused on systems change. How does this relate to agri-food systems?

André: We work with national organisations, including producer organisations, cooperatives, logistics providers and aggregators. At the same time, we work with governments to ensure a well-functioning supply chain and the right conditions are available for food systems to be competitive. We are not satisfied with small pilots - we want to increase the capacity of national partners and improve governance so that food systems work well and efficiently. Focusing on these aspects means that consequently, we are creating scale. Small and medium enterprises in the food system (such as processors and retailers) have an essential role to play as they can scale up, have the potential to reach large groups of consumers and link rural producers to consumers in urban areas.

Alison: SNV aims for an impact that, once achieved, will continue after SNV’s interventions end and reach well beyond the immediate target group of any one project or programme. So, while we support immediate and important changes on the ground for farmers, small and medium sized enterprises or consumers we also identify structural barriers and the underlying issues causing problems in the food system so that we can address them and have a positive impact in the long term. In each context we analyse what these barriers and issues are and develop strategies to address them so that we can achieve impact at scale.

SNV plans and acts in a systematic way with the aim of future-proofing our food systems. For example, poor nutrition has an intergenerational impact. Children who benefit from healthy and diverse nutrition in early childhood and who live in households that are able to ensure healthy diets throughout the family, will in turn achieve higher educational outcomes and improved livelihoods in the long term. This – when it is achieved at scale - in turn leads to higher economic growth in a region or country and benefits the entire community or society where this improvement takes place. If you look at planetary boundaries, we must ensure that what we are doing now ensures that in 20 years, we can still produce food because we have ensured we have not destroyed the climate, soil and water systems needed to continue producing food.

What are your thoughts on the implications of WASH on sustainable agri-food systems?

Andre: We have a lot of experience in the WASH sector to apply to food systems. One clear example we have seen during the COVID pandemic is that hygiene in national food systems is essential. Unlike international value chains where food safety and hygiene are well regulated, most of the consumers in Asia and Africa are supplied through local informal markets and hygiene is not very well controlled. In terms of hygiene, we see enormous potential for us to use the experience of our colleagues working in the WASH sector and integrate that into national food systems. We are touching on this in our CORE project, but can we do more? The answer is yes.

Alison: We need to think holistically as WASH has a massive impact on nutrition. If a person eats nutritious food but suffers from diarrhoea due to poor hygiene, nothing is gained.

What about access to water?

Andre: In terms of access to water in agri-food systems, water and irrigation are major topics, and we are only just scratching the surface. So far, we have been working with our energy colleagues on small solar irrigation projects to help farmers overcome dry periods - another example of an integrated approach. These initiatives require less investment than large irrigation schemes. In our climate adaptation programmes such as CRAFT in East Africa, we are looking at water conservation, ensuring that farmers store rainfall for dry periods.

Alison: Many climate adaptation technologies can help smallholder farmers to cope with a more volatile climate. In coastal areas, due to climate change, we see saltwater intrusion into agricultural land. Here we are also supporting farmers to adapt to the saline intrusion.

How does SNV strengthen the climate resilience of agri-food systems and mitigate against emissions caused by food production?

André: Agricultural production is seriously affected by climate change in many regions in Africa and Asia and at the same time some activities in agricultural production, transport and processing are contributing to climate change. In all our activities we therefore focus on making food systems climate resilient and at the same time address mitigation where relevant. For example we have many activities where we work with farmers and small and medium sized enterprises to implement climate smart technologies or introduce weather insurance arrangements. Together with our energy teams we incorporate the productive use of renewable energy into our agricultural work wherever possible, including innovative areas such as solar-based irrigation and renewable energy powered processing technologies, thus contributing to reductions in emissions from the agri-food sector.

Alison: We also have projects that directly reduce emissions caused by the agri-food system, including emissions caused by rice production and in value chains such as palm oil and coffee. In all of these interventions we ensure that farmer incomes are maintained or improved at the same time.

How can we stimulate more investment from the sector itself?

André: One of the key messages at last year’s COP was that there is not enough climate finance available for climate adaptation and climate mitigation. We see that private sector contributions to date have been disappointing. Through projects such as the Dutch Fund for Climate and Development, we are working with companies helping to build their business case in addressing climate change and get them ready for larger-scale investments. We try to find exciting opportunities where the private sector is motivated to co-invest. In Asia, larger companies are already investing in climate adaptation to secure their supply chain. In recent years more green financing options are becoming available, for example Green Climate Fund, which provide opportunities for INGOs, like SNV, to work jointly with the private sector and national governments to further upscale activities on the ground addressing climate change.

How has the agri-food system been impacted by the COVID pandemic in the last 18 months? Were there any new realisations about the system?

André:  We often talk about optimal value chains and the competitive positions of countries. The pandemic and food security issues over the last two years have forced us to refocus not only on optimising food systems but also on how they can deal with shocks. For example, production will be affected if you no longer have access to inputs due to a border closure, or if, due to quarantine issues, your investors drop out, or when markets are not functioning. The importance of the resilience of food systems has therefore received much more attention due to the pandemic.

Alison: As SNV and others have observed in the countries where we work, the pandemic – and associated measures to contain it - has significantly affected the ability of urban populations to access nutritious food and ensure healthy diets, as unemployment has increased and incomes have suffered. In many cases, although not always, the rural economy has acted as a buffer and has supported the resilience of poor communities. As a result, in most countries where we work we have not seen food production being too severely affected. The pandemic has, however, brought to everyone’s attention the need to focus on ensuring access of urban consumers to nutritious foods and the importance of local markets.

SNV has an upcoming international youth conference. What role can youth play in creating sustainable agriculture food systems?

André: Youth have a critical role to play. The theme of World Food Day is future actions, and youth are our future! Up to now, agriculture has not been seen as an exciting and dynamic sector for young women and men, especially agriculture production. If you look at the food system as a whole, you can see new jobs created in inputs delivery, service delivery, logistics and processing. There is an enormous potential for youth to get involved in transforming food systems in Africa and Asia; not only in food production but especially in other parts of the food system like providing high tech services, direct marketing options, retail and processing. On the other hand, activities in the agri-food system alone will not be able to create sufficient jobs for a fast-growing young population, so the economic development and growth of other sectors is also crucial.

Why could working in food systems be interesting for young people? What can we do to make food systems more inclusive of young people?

Alison: To transform food systems, we need new ideas and innovation. Innovation, digitalisation and new ways of working are what will entice young people into the sector. In terms of inclusion, many aspects of the agriculture sector are not youth-friendly in the developing world. For example, employment policies, land rights and access to finance - usually young people are seen as high risk and cannot access finance. There is a vast amount that we can do to include young people more effectively. The needs and rights of young women are an area where we can do a lot more at a policy level and in terms of changing mindsets. In many cultures, young people are not seen as an asset and this needs to change. They may not have 20 years of experience, but they bring in new ideas and energy.

As SNV, we need to enable women and men to have equal access to all the available opportunities. When you include women in agri-food systems, you have more effective productivity and more profit. Therefore, it is not only a rights-based issue. That is a crucial message that we need to get across.

Do you have examples of where SNV is working with young people in this respect?

André: In Kenya, we have a company where young people use drones to provide information to farmers. They can assess where pests are on a farmer’s land or where dry spots are occurring so a farmer can act specifically on that information. It is new and exciting technology. An example of a small initiative with a potential to grow. SNV’s strength is our local presence. We can help develop these small initiatives into a sustainable business model, help with the finance and create linkages to other markets—a clear example of the future.

Any final thoughts for World food day?

Andre: SNV and our national partners focus on implementing on-the-ground activities and bringing them to scale. With actions as the theme of World Food Day, it is fair to say that SNV is firmly at the centre of this.

Prepared by: Sinead Crane and Dara ElMasri