Inclusive Development: Strengthening Global Agrifood Systems through Locally-Led Research
Africa has the potential to increase its current agricultural productivity to improve the livelihoods of approximately 250 million small-scale producers, farmers and pastoralists in the region. And yet, despite the continent being home to 60% of the world’s arable land, the World Bank estimates that 462 million people in sub-Saharan Africa face extreme poverty. So, what is the pathway to achieving a sustainable food system for the continent and beyond? The answer: amplifying the voices of local leadership and those already spearheading transformative research and generating locally owned evidence addressing policy gaps often overlooked by general global approaches.
Africa’s food systems have experienced transformative growth, including pivotal moments witnessed at the recent Africa’s Food Systems Forum Summit convened by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) — which focused on building better food systems and food sovereignty — with uplifting youth and women at the core. The summit, themed “Recover, Regenerate, Act: Africa’s Solutions to Food Systems Transformation,” provided a platform for progressive, Africa-led research and evaluation think tanks, such as the International Centre for Evaluation and Development (ICED), to advocate for the use of evidence to design policies that address food insecurity on the continent. As a collaborative partner, supported by both the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture and Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Markets, Risk and Resilience (MRR), ICED empowers African research institutions and researchers to take the lead in identifying and promoting the research priorities that meet the food security needs of the continent.
Using local evidence to achieve sustainable food systems
In this decade alone, there has been a paradigm shift where funders, such as USAID, have recognized the deep value of local knowledge and transformative significance that expanding beyond the Global North-led research approach, and supporting African-led research can bring. This new approach acknowledges and embraces the continent’s institutional and research capacity, while also revitalizing Indigenous wisdom and knowledge, to generate both locally owned and locally relevant evidence to resolve globally overlooked policy gaps.
At the helm as an advocate for locally led research, ICED has been a key player in shaping more resilient and sustainable food systems in Africa. Through involvement in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab initiatives, as well as the Feed the Future-funded, MRR Innovation Lab-led Advancing Local Leadership, Innovation and Networks (ALL-IN) program, ICED has championed the course of African researchers taking the lead in defining and implementing research projects that address key development priorities.
ALL-IN is a $4.6 million USAID research program implemented by ICED and the MRR Innovation Lab. The program funds 12 research projects, based in nine institutions of higher learning, in six African countries: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda. ALL-IN provides the historically under-resourced African research community the tools to fully leverage pathways to policy impacts. Enhancing the capacity of Africa’s governments, researchers will help contribute toward the design and implementation of science-based policies that advance the achievement of Agenda 2063, Global Goals, Vision 2030 and other country-specific development priorities.
ALL-IN researchers produce key evidence and insights needed to help governments and development agencies rethink their policies from an evidence perspective. For example, in Kenya, Egerton University’s Dr. Mercy Kamau is leading a study called “Impact of Agro-Weather and Market Information on Productivity and Resilience in Farming Communities in Kenya.” The findings under this study have provided critical evidence that demonstrate demand for agro-weather advisories among small-scale farmers in the country. This evidence is key for the government to develop policies that urgently avail scalable adaptation tools for small-scale farmers who are most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
Strengthening East Africa’s horticulture sector through research
In 2022, the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Horticulture — also known as the Horticulture Innovation Lab — partnered with ICED to form the Horticulture Innovation Lab East Africa Regional Hub, and awarded three horticulture projects to be locally led by research institutions based in Kenya and Uganda. These research projects, designed and implemented by African researchers, address key priorities determined by stakeholders in the region, including: 1) pre- and postharvest management solutions to reduce losses in vegetables and 2) enhanced marketing and market access of vegetables in the East Africa region. For instance, Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) — in collaboration with University of Nairobi and North Carolina State University — is funded through this initiative to conduct a study focused on boosting the promotion, production and consumption of African indigenous vegetables (AIVs), which play a critical role in food, nutrition and female small-scale producer income security in Kenya. AIVs are rich in key nutrients like vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and phytochemicals and are widely consumed by those most vulnerable to food insecurity. Evidence from these projects will help point governments and other sector actors toward policy gaps that need strengthening.
Emerging lessons: Why local research matters
To strengthen Africa’s food systems, it is important to identify context-specific solutions to challenges hindering the achievement of food systems-related goals and targets in various development frameworks, including the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the African Union’s Agenda 2063. This necessitates an increased allocation of financial resources to support locally led research initiatives aimed at overcoming critical obstacles within the agricultural and food production processes. Such support should be channeled toward projects that enhance agriculture, infrastructure, technology, market access and other key areas, as these improvements can lead to more efficient and sustainable agrifood value chains, ultimately making the entire system more robust and productive.
Additionally, promoting inclusive decision-making processes that actively involve local communities and stakeholders in both the research and decision-making phases is essential in enhancing ownership of the research findings and the project innovations that result from it. This approach ensures that the voices and perspectives of those most affected by food system issues are heard, leading to more relevant and impactful solutions. Furthermore, it is vital to prioritize long-term efforts, as they are essential for building and enhancing the capabilities of institutions involved in agriculture and food systems over an extended period. Sustainable change often requires sustained investment and commitment to ensure lasting impacts.
Equity and inclusivity
The need to be intentional about supporting more female African researchers with resources to be at the forefront of research is crucial. This is important for ensuring that women are leading in identification of issues that are unique to women in the agricultural value chain. It will ensure that the voices and opinions of the women are not lost along the way and that all-inclusive evidence is generated and shared with policymakers. In addition, it will ensure that gender equity and social inclusion is adhered to from conceptualization through the reporting of research findings. Finally, this will strengthen the capacity of female researchers and encourage more women to join the research community, with the aim of improving food systems.
Investing in our collective future
There is also a need to invest in efficient data generation, management and presentation/visualization systems to ensure an ample supply of evidence that is easily accessible, precise and concise to inform policy. Reliable data is the foundation upon which evidence-based decision-making is built, making it a fundamental component of strengthening food systems across Africa. Additionally, increasing opportunities for collaboration between African and Global North researchers is a mutually beneficial approach; it enhances and enriches innovations and progressive systems thinking, leveraging the unique set of knowledge, experiences and expertise that these research communities have to offer one another, moving the global agenda forward. Investing in such mutually beneficial partnerships will ensure that high-quality evidence is generated and shared with policy formulators and decision-makers, leading to the implementation of relevant projects that address the most pressing challenges in agricultural sectors, both locally and around the world.
Local research provides a clear understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities present in the Africa context. It enables the development of evidence-based solutions that are not only effective, but also culturally and contextually relevant, addressing issues that are of high priority to the local communities, thus increasing the relevance and impact of the research. Locally led research often results in greater community buy-in and ownership over the process and results. This can lead to more successful implementation of research findings and greater long-term sustainability. Researchers who are part of the local community have a better understanding of the local cultural practices, geographical features and limitations of the existing infrastructure. This translates to tailored solutions as the local researchers have an in-depth understanding of the communities they work in.