01 Nov Innovation and collaboration are critical to addressing food insecurity
Sunday October 16 marked the 53rd observance of World Food Day, which is aimed at highlighting the issues surrounding poverty and hunger. The focus for 2022 is on food and nutrition security considering the effect of the climate crisis.
The challenge is immense. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has further battered a food system that has been struggling through the effects of Covid-19, energy insecurity and climate change. Closer to home in SA, a net exporter of food, there have been reports of infants and young children eating sand to fill their bellies — and starving to death.
Figures from the Eastern Cape health department show that in January seven children were admitted to the Butterworth Hospital with severe acute malnutrition. One died. In February six children were admitted — all died. There’s little doubt that there have been many more such deaths since.
Food poverty, hunger and malnutrition, a lack of dietary diversity, child wasting and stunting, increased vulnerability to disease and an obesity epidemic all point to a failing food system with exceptionally high real human cost. While technically access to food and adequate nutrition is a right enshrined in the constitution, hunger is rife and food access is a daily struggle for many South Africans, with malnutrition in its various forms a health challenge that has the greatest effect on the poor.
But, as is so often the nature of SA, with great challenge comes innovation, collaboration and possibility. Across the nation projects addressing these issues proliferate. One such project is Woza Nami.
Funded by the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, the DG Murray Trust and Misereor Hilfswerk, the Southern Africa Food Lab is working to improve the potential for good nutrition in communities neighbouring demonstration sites established by the eThekwini municipality in an agro-ecological hubs programme. This focuses on increasing access and consumption of healthy, nutritious food. The diet in most financially stressed households is high in starch, consisting mainly of pap, with little protein and not much fruit or vegetables.
The smallholder sector is a key point of entry to bring about more sustainable food systems in SA, both because these farmers support the most vulnerable populations through informal markets, and because they employ operations most suitable for the development of sustainable, agro-ecological, and local food systems.
Woza Nami is focused on agro-ecology; a climate-conscious integrated farming approach that simultaneously applies ecological and social principles to the design and management of food and agricultural systems.
Agro-ecology expert Mthetho Mkhungo works with the farmers on the ground, along with Noma Nene and Londiwe Mhlongo, hands-on officials from the eThekwini municipality. Nene co-ordinates the Inchanga Agroecological Hub and Mhlongo runs the Food Security and Health work at the municipality.
Community nutrition research undertaken by Stellenbosch University revealed that upwards of 70% of Inchanga residents surveyed view nurses as their primary source of nutrition information (far more than media, doctors, teachers or family). It is immensely powerful then that Sister Shabangu, who leads the local clinic, is a strong advocate of home food gardens, having seen the improved health outcomes of improved nutrition first-hand. She’s now an advocate for home gardens and encourages her patients to learn from the smallholder farmers in the community.
In the near future, the community will be offered nutrition education, and farmers will be supported to bolster local markets. But the on-the-ground realities are difficult. Since the inception of Woza Nami on the brink of Covid-19, farmers have seen the food system stretched to its limit. Looting had a negative effect on farmers and then, as they were finally ready to take their produce to market in March, floods washed away their efforts. Yet they persist. The farmers have learnt much, they have increased their resilience, and they are determined to overcome and succeed.
The success of a project like Woza Nami rests on collaboration. In this case we have an example of local government, local farmers, local consumers and local NGOs coming together and innovating for the sake of the community.
Across SA many food systems are broken, with farmers growing produce that is not sold in their own communities, and buyers travelling hundreds of kilometres to buy produce that is often grown in their own communities. Through Woza Nami local farmers are not only learning to grow food in a way that ensures future soil health and improves climate resistance, but also to grow produce they can sell to their neighbours and so boost the local economy. Woza Nami supports local networks of actors to foster more resilient food supply chains.
Woza Nami is just one of many examples of projects that bring together local government, farmers, consumers and NGOs to improve livelihoods and food security in the midst of an insecure climate future.
The bottom line in a dire food system reality is perhaps that pockets of innovation and collaboration are happening, unlikely actors can and do work together, and they are bringing change and hope.
• Drimie is director of the Southern Africa Food Lab, an organisation housed within Stellenbosch University that strives to strengthen alternative food systems. This article first appeared in Business Day on 16 October 2022.