Addressing food insecurity in South Africa requires innovative responses that fundamentally reconsider its causes, particularly because challenges facing the food system cut across issues, sectors, and scales. The Southern Africa Food Lab acts as a transformative space for diverse stakeholders from across the food system to engage in dialogue, paying particular attention to the relationship between dialogue and action.
The premise that dialogue gives rise to action not only because it generates new ideas, but because it creates commitments and relationships for new action. A particularly important aspect of such dialogue is to proactively address power imbalances and to give voice to the marginalized in the system. Such efforts, when implemented vigorously, likely result in a new set of challenges, but such resistance is a signal that we are having some success at addressing deep-seated, structural dimensions of systems transformation.
The Food Lab has developed a way of working which has evolved over the years of its existence. In essence, we convene deliberative spaces that seek to enable conversations across social divides including across race, class, gender and between scientific experts, lay people, policy makers, social practitioners, and bureaucratic officials. Moreover, these processes are designed to translate into action.
Initially, we worked extensively at the policy level, facilitating nationally-focused dialogues, but in recent years we have increasingly seen the tangible benefits of focusing on the local level, through place-based initiatives whose learnings we then draw back to a national scale.
Taking a place-based approach involves working with local actors, including grassroots organisations and government, supported by a carefully designed dialogue process that results in social innovation.
Social innovations are based on ideas, relationships, and commitments that have emerged through dialogue that leads to change in the system. It is a process of learning and knowledge creation through which problems are defined and knowledge is developed to solve them. The Food Lab commits to supporting innovation through ongoing experimentation, learning, and adaptation to ensure changes are enacted.
We connect local dialogue and emerging innovations to higher level decision makers at the city, district, provincial, and national levels. We thus work across different scales – jurisdiction (national, provincial, local), temporal (sequencing, timing), levels (local, national) and geography (different places). We have grown a significant network of networks which straddles the various sectors of the food system. These networks exist in places throughout the country and can be accessed to amplify social innovation.