Reflections on the first year of HealthyFoodAfrica

The HealthyFoodAfrica (HFA) project has now been up and running for over a year. It is a good time to reflect on where we are and where we want to be – both in the near, and in the more distant future.

HFA is a project that aims to tackle the challenges of the food system through an applied systems approach. What does that mean? Well, it means we work in a number of local contexts on specific issues that cause challenges for the local food system, but that we link these actions to a bigger picture.

Visualisation of HealthyFoodAfrica project's thematic focus areas and Food System Labs.The bigger picture allows for innovative solutions and lessons learned to be shared, developed further, and integrated across different contexts. If you are working for example on urban gardening, the context and options are very different in a congested and poor area in Nairobi, compared to say developing school gardens in Cotonou. But there may still be a lot of both methodological and technological solutions that can be adapted and adopted across. So, sharing experiences is central.

Another key feature is linking the individual action to the whole value web. It is not just about improving your specific food product to increase business, but you need to be linked to the producers of raw material on the one hand, and to educational actors and policy makers on the other, to promote the importance of healthy and nutritious products. No single piece can change the whole puzzle, but when linked up and working together, the pieces can be the building blocks towards transformation of the food system.

“No single piece can change the whole puzzle, but when linked up and working together, the pieces can be the building blocks towards transformation of the food system.”

At the local level, linking different stakeholders through multi-actor platforms, also helps create a better understanding of how individual challenges are tied to the whole system. Being directly involved with other actors engaged in the different sectors of the food system can create a sense of joint effort towards a common goal. In this case, the overall goal we hope all partners and stakeholders are working towards, is a better functioning food system that provides safe and healthy food to people, through a just and transparent process that benefits all.

This means not only linking producers directly to consumers. But involving education institutions and policy makers, who can support consumers in making healthy and nutritious choices, thereby influencing what should be produced – creating new markets and pushing for change at all levels.

It is all about awareness, but also about creating the options. A mother in a poor urban area, burdened by both financial and time constraints, will choose the easy option. Which in many cases means buying unhealthy and even unsafe food from a street vendor for her kids, on her way home from work. But what if the easy option would be something both affordable and healthy? If the whole system could change, so that nutritious crops are produced and processed into easy and healthy options, making the “only choice” of that busy mother one that will support the well being and development of her children. This, in the long run, will lead to thriving children and better societies.

Participants of gender training workshop in FSL Tamale, Ghana. Picture: Victor Yakubu

Covid-19 and the project in practice

This all sounds great, right? But how has it panned out so far?

In line with the description above, the project was built on the idea of co-creation and co-learning.

Our ten Food System Labs (FSL) in different African cities, were the hubs of action, for which innovations to be piloted, were going to be developed in close collaboration with both international science-based partners and a range of local stakeholders. We also wanted to be able to reach a broader understanding, a birds-eye perspective, of the food system in Africa.

One of the first steps was, therefore, to develop a joint food system framework and roadmap for the overall project. This has been possible, even in a Covid-19 world, through a huge amount of online discussions with different fora. We have already had three consortium meetings, where close to 80 persons have participated online. And we have had a range of smaller discussions with partners in different constellations. This has helped to create understanding and share experiences, even without meeting live.

However, a parallel first step was to create an understanding of the context specific challenges and needs, in order to co-create suitable local approaches and methods. All partners have done a great job in preparing, through desk studies and a number of discussions with stakeholders. But it is only now, more than a year into the project, that actual data collection has properly started. We are hopeful and optimistic we will be able to gather all the needed information – while of course taking all necessary precautions when it comes to preventing the spread of the disease.

The next step will be rolling out a range of targeted activities, to be piloted in the FSLs and developed further through an iterative process. We hope this activity will not be delayed and our partners will have the chance to engage in interesting and useful pilots at the local level!

However, the key learning aspect of the project was going to be the ongoing sharing of experiences and best practices with people from different contexts, to get new ideas and develop further… This has been severely affected by the pandemic. Of course, much can be shared also over Teams – as we have done. But it can never completely substitute the experience of actually meeting live, seeing the different places and situations, meeting people and exchanging ideas both in official meetings, but also informally over a coffee.

So, although I think we should never go back to the amount of air travel that was the norm before Corona (climate action and sustainability is a goal also of this project), I’m very much looking forward to organizing even a few live meetings. It might not be a reality in the months to come, but the project will keep going for more than three years. We have excellent partners on board, and even without meeting, I’m convinced and confident they will keep doing a lot of good on the ground. But rather than having a selection of ten city-region initiatives, it would provide so much added value connecting the dots – learning, synthesizing, and bringing the insights to a higher level. This, I believe, can lead to impact in the long run. And I truly hope we will be able to do this.

Looking forward to the years to come!

Mila Sell, HealthyFoodAfrica’s coordinator