In 2008, the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) embarked on a research review on food security in South Africa, while the German Technical Co-operation Agency (GTZ, now part of the German Association for Co-operation, or GIZ) commissioned research into the role of the private sector in enhancing food security in South Africa. Two academics, Milla McLachlan, and Ralph Hamann respectively took a lead role in these two pieces of research. When Milla met Ralph to invite him to contribute to the DBSA project, they discovered a mutual sense of frustration with the fragmented way in which complex issues of food insecurity were being tackled and conceived of using their research as a springboard for bringing together a multi-stakeholder group of people for a conversation about food security.
Seventy people attended the first public gathering in early 2009, funded by WWF and facilitated by Reos Partners, which spurred the formation of the Southern Africa Food Lab in 2009 to “foster more creative responses to the situation of hunger”. This workshop led to the establishment of the Steering Group and the year-long Change Lab process, inspired bymethodologies implemented in a range of similar initiatives, including the Sustainable Food Lab in the United States. Reos Partners were contracted to facilitate the process.
Over the subsequent two years, in pursuit of the question, “What will it take to ensure sustainable food security in South(ern) Africa?” The Food Lab convened a series of learning journeys and workshops to enable a more shared understanding of pertinent issues, strengthen relationships across institutional and ideological divides and build up a head of steam for tackling key issues. By 2010, the group had converged on four key areas of work they wished to embark on together. One of these was to catalyse a national conversation on food security, another on supporting smallholder farming. These evolved into the Transformative Scenarios Planning (TSP) process and the Supporting Smallholder Agriculture (SSA) projects.
The time for a national conversation was not deemed to be ripe, and so other areas of shared concern took centre stage, particularly the initiative to support smallholder farming. This evolved through wide participation from effectively focusing on linking smallholder farmers to differentiated markets to a project consisting of a number of innovations strongly influenced by what smallholder farmers deemed necessary to drive a change agenda. This largely focused on the Mopani District through the Mopani Farmers Association in Limpopo Province. During this time, the language of the Lab evolved from a focus on food security to a broader focus on the food system.
By 2013, in the context of economic, social and political turbulence in South Africa, alongside deep inequality, there was a high level of anxiety about the future of the food system, with different role players along the food value chain – from producers to consumers – expressing concern about different aspects. This galvanised the Food Lab into convening the Transformative Scenarios Planning (TSP). Since the launch of the four scenarios in 2015, a number of smaller initiatives have emerged linked to using the scenarios to help shift approaches to the food system whether within the private sector, the state or civil society. A key message of multi-stakeholder engagement permeates these processes.
In 2018, our work addressing smallholder development through dialogue and social innovation in the SA food system was recognized by the UN’s 10-year framework of programmes (10YFP) on sustainable consumption and production patterns within their Sustainable Food Systems Programme. The project is now considered an affiliated project of the SFS programme, meaning that the UN recognizes that our work with smallholder farmers makes a contribution in the shift towards more sustainable food systems