Systems thinking can guide Africa’s unique pathway to sustainable food and agriculture systems
Given that most farms in Africa are in the hands of families that integrate livestock with crop production, the continent is well-poised to forge a unique path to sustainable intensification. A shared vision of circular food systems for Africa is what is needed, said Dr Andre F van Rooyen, ICRISAT’s interim Country Representative in Ethiopia. “Knowledge about the value of food and nutrition and the integration of this within education systems to induce consumer demand is paramount to drive this forward,” Dr van Rooyen added.
By adopting systems thinking – wherein the behavior of complex systems is determined by the interaction among the components – we can use the interactions among agriculture, health and water for greater, more holistic and sustainable developmental impact, especially in marginal populations. For practical long-term solutions, policies for all these sectors need to be developed keeping in mind their interrelationships.
The ‘systems thinking’ approach assists in positioning technologies within larger systems, and even reconstitutes the hierarchies of value chain actors – often placing farmers at the same level as the private sector, extension and policy.
Dr van Rooyen was speaking at an independent Food Systems Summit dialog (dialogs organized by individuals or organizations in the run-up to the UN Food Systems Summit) where he mentioned that Africa not transitioning to large-scale, high-input high-output form of industrialized agriculture accords it opportunities to develop very diverse and integrated market-oriented systems that may not mimic the economies of scale seen in nations with industrialized agriculture, but in scope and diversity could be uniquely pertinent to Africa.
The dialog, ‘Building Resilient and Sustainable food Systems in Africa: Mobilizing African Voices and Building Momentum for the UN Food System Summit’, was organized by the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) on 31 May.
When asked how food systems can be made resilient for sustaining food supply, Dr van Rooyen called for their reconfiguring them around social and institutional innovations without being fixated on associated technologies only.
“The capacity and willingness to change, increase diversity, integrate knowledge, and organize and self-organize are the four cornerstones of resilience,” he said. “Staples satisfy immediate hunger but nourishment requires diverse diets resulting from production systems that carefully consider sustainability. This will in turn require more knowledge about circularity of food systems and changes in the demand of food. It will also require significant re-organization amongst the entire value chain, and within policies.”
Similarly, for positive outcomes in agricultural water use, it is important for policies and research to configure the interdependencies between agriculture, health, education and environment, Dr van Rooyen said, while presenting the keynote address at the International Water Resources Association (IWRA) Online Conference on managing water in agriculture.
Dr van Rooyen talked about the deep interconnectedness among water, agriculture and health. He introduced the ‘multidimensional poverty index’, saying “To reduce multidimensional poverty, we need to have positive impacts on health and nutrition, education and building assets for the poor.” He also provided data that demonstrated how smallholder farmers preferred food and (their children’s) education as the top priorities for spending. “Without proper food systems – which includes clean water – we cannot build healthy lives and educate children. Health and education are the foundation of national economies,” said Dr van Rooyen.
The IWRA Online Conference 2021 was organized during 7-9 June 2021. Dr van Rooyen spoke during the session, ‘How can managing water in agriculture contribute to food security and public health’, which featured several experts on water management, development and policy from around the world.
Dr Andre van Rooyen’s work is supported by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, CSIRO, Australian National University and the University of South Australia.
Community collaboration is key to successful sustainable development. It’s great to see plans in the works to involve local people in the solution.