PRETORIA – The University of Pretoria (UP), in partnership with the University of Leeds and the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), has been awarded a grant of £2 million (R43 million) to set up a Food Systems Research Network (FSNet-Africa).
The project is funded under a partnership between the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Global Challenges Research Fund. This follows a competitive research proposal bid under the ARUA-UKRI Research Excellence Programme.
Professor Andrew Thompson, UKRI’s International Champion, said: “To sustainably address global challenges, we need a genuinely global response, and that means forging stronger partnerships that are fair, equitable and fully reciprocal between researchers in the northern and southern hemispheres. This exciting research programme with ARUA is supporting research that transcends national boundaries and will produce different ways of thinking about challenges and different solutions to tackling them.”
Professor Frans Swanepoel, UP’s Director of Strategic International Partnerships and also the Principal Investigator of this initiative, said overcoming Africa’s development challenges cannot be separated from the need to transform the continent’s food systems. “One in four people in sub-Saharan Africa face food insecurity, and Africa will need to produce 80% more food by 2050. The challenge is not only to ensure that adequate food is accessible, but to provide safe and nutritious food to combat malnutrition as African countries are confronted by the triple burden of malnutrition [overnutrition, undernutriton, and micronutrient deficiencies].” He explained that undernourishment remains high, with 220 million Africans suffering from chronic hunger, while 58 million children under five are considered stunted.
In this context, the FSNet-Africa project aims to utilise systems-based research methodologies to develop a new understanding of the African food system. This research will enhance understanding of the components of the food system, the interactions between these components, and ultimately the leverage points for food systems transformation. The focus countries in FSNet-Africa are Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia.
“A cohort of early career researchers, who will work with mentors in the UK and Africa in a two-year structured fellowship, will co-design research that yields climate-smart, nutrition-sensitive, poverty-reducing solutions. This will be done through engaging with policymakers, private-sector role players and grassroots-level organisations in the focus countries,” explained Prof Swanepoel. Climate-smart solutions are needed to sustainably increase agricultural productivity and incomes, while simultaneously adapting and building resilience to climate change and reducing and/or removing greenhouse gas emissions, where possible.
FSNet-Africa extends collaborative UKRI-funded projects led by the University of Leeds with AFRICAP examining food system resilience in South Africa, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, and the SWIFT project examining weather forecasting and communications across Kenya and Ghana. Dr Claire Quinn, the FSNet-Africa lead investigator in Leeds, highlights that “the concerted and coordinated actions of the food industry (agriculture, production and processing, retail, food service sector and waste disposal) and consumers are all crucial to promote sustainable consumption and production which focuses on reducing all forms of food losses throughout the entire supply chain.”
The transformation of food systems also contributes to the achievement of gender equality. Women comprise a large proportion of the agricultural labour force. About 80% of food eaten in Africa passes through the hands of women. “Yet their contribution to food security is not fully realised, and the ways they benefit from food systems activities remain unequal and under-researched,” said Dr Melody Mentz-Coetzee, a senior FSNet-Africa researcher at UP.
The early career research fellowships will run over a two-year period and will focus on three components: science, mentorship, and leadership development. This will ensure that these fellows have the skills they need to achieve the project objectives, and to establish themselves as future research leaders. FSNet-Africa aims to help these fellows build lasting research networks and develop their skills to design and implement gender-sensitive research with non-academic stakeholders.
Dr Tshilidzi Madzivhandila, FANRPAN CEO and Stakeholder Engagement Coordinator for FSNet-Africa, emphasised that meaningful engagement of all state and non-state food system stakeholders across the continent will make agriculture and food production in Africa more productive, sustainable and resilient to climate change. Dr Madzivhandila further explained that “FSNet-Africa consortium partners will leverage their national and regional networks to engage a wide range of stakeholders to co-design and conduct research as well as translate evidence into implementable interventions in support of [UN Sustainable Development Goals] targets for Africa.”
FSNet-Africa is an opportunity to establish long-term collaborations between the three lead partners that function beyond the grant period. The aim is to realise new opportunities for research, training and policy advocacy collaborations.
UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe congratulated the UP team on the grant award. He said, “Food insecurity is a major obstacle to development and achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. The transformation of Africa’s food systems plays a critical role in not only achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of achieving food security and alleviating malnutrition, but also contributing to public health and providing opportunities to eliminate poverty.” Emphasising the need for multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary and interdisciplinary research, he said collaborations such as these will help solve some of “Africa’s complex, complicated and intersectional challenges.”