How learning journeys can reveal and help address systemic challenges

Photo credit: Ashraf Hendricks

In South Africa, a series of place-based learning journeys is helping public officials understand food systems issues through direct experience, with the potential to inform public policy.

The problem: One in four children in South Africa is malnourished, yet the country has plenty of food.

Why it matters: Addressing food insecurity means understanding on-the-ground realities.

The solution: Learning journeys immerse people in the local context, helping them find solutions.

Significant gains have been made in the fight against poverty since the advent of democracy in South Africa in 1994. While questions remain around the cost and quality of services, most South Africans now have direct access to electricity and basic sanitation, while a greatly expanded social grant system provides direct financial support to the neediest third of the population, which is upwards of 18 million people.

Despite these very important gains, millions of South Africans remain food insecure and subsist on nutritionally poor diets, which result in poor health outcomes. For example, one in four children are stunted in South Africa because they do not receive adequate nutrients for healthy growth, while obesity rates in adults and children are climbing alarmingly due to the accessibility of cheap, energy dense, but nutritionally poor, refined foods.

To tackle this crisis, it has become increasingly clear that actors in the overall food system, including government, business and community leaders, need to better understand how food systems work at the local level to be able to offer viable and sustainable solutions that cater to local conditions. This is especially important, given the localised nature of many of the negative impacts that climate change will have on food security.

To this end, the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP), a public benefit intermediary organisation based in Cape Town that facilitates stakeholder collaborations, has partnered with the Centre of Excellence in Food Security and the Southern Africa Food Lab to develop the Learning Journey method. Together we have implemented three ‘Food Learning Journeys’ in two areas of the Western Cape–in Worcester, a town located within a rich agricultural area of the Western Cape within the Breede Valley Municipality (BVM) some 110 km from Cape Town, and in Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township.

This process of undertaking a physical journey has proven to be an effective means by which everyday assumptions about problems can be “flushed out” and new innovative thinking around solutions can emerge.

A ‘Learning Journeyis an innovative research process whereby a broad and inclusive range of participants literally undertake a physical journey to explore a system– in this instance the local food systems in Worcester and Langa– to gain first-hand experience of problems, and potential solutions that exist within the system. By focusing on specific localities, participants gain new perspectives on the complexity of processes related to food access and affordability at the local level, rather than in aggregate. In both Worcester and Langa, participant groups, made up of community members, government officials (local and provincial), academics, activists, food advocacy groups, and Early Childhood Development (ECD) practitioners, literally walked the streets to meet with those involved in the food system and listen carefully and openly to what they had to say about it.

This process of undertaking a physical journey has proven to be an effective means by which everyday assumptions about problems can be “flushed out” and new innovative thinking around solutions can emerge. As Colin January, the Manager for Local Economic Development at the BVM explains, “the learning journey levels the playing field, and you really see things very close-up … so the learning journey is a way to go back to a people-centred development approach”.1

By exploring how the local food system works in practice, traditional sectoral based modes of thinking or ‘one size fits all solutions’, are avoided. We have found that by empowering participants to take stock of existing local potential, local assets can be better activated. It is, therefore, an approach which recognises that people live in physical places and not in narrowly defined economic sectors. In doing so, it enables policy development to be more informed by what is happening at ground-level, rather than what is assumed to be happening.

For example, during a ‘Food Learning Journey’ in Worcester, we visited ECD sites in Zwelethemba, an informal part of the town noted for its high levels of poverty. Here, those running ECD facilities voiced their frustration at the apparent inability or unwillingness of the BVM to release land for the development of urban food gardens, which the ECD facilities could use to feed children. At the subsequent ‘Learning Lab’ where all the participants met to discuss what they experienced during their respective ‘Learning Journeys’ in Worcester and Zwelethemba, a strong commitment was made by the provincial Department of Agriculture to work with the local ECD Forum to support food gardens in Worcester. In addition, several Councillors from different areas of Worcester agreed to follow-up with BVM officials to explore how vacant land near ECD facilities could be used for food gardens.

This example shows how ‘Learning Journeys’ can surface knowledge not just from ‘experts’, but also comes from those embedded within the local food systems. It also demonstrates how the process can lead to joint action. This has important ramifications for policy development. By undertaking ‘Learning Journeys’ public officials can get closer to problems, and, through collaborative work with relevant stakeholders, can better work on locally relevant and sustainable solutions.

This article was written by Andrew Boraine, CEO, Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP), South Africa and first appeared on on 25 November 2022.