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11 December 2023

SIANI regional network meeting Nairobi 2023: Collaborations for food system transformation

Exhibition and networking at SIANI regional network meeting 2023

Photo: Charity Waeni Mutisya, Stockholm Environment Institute

On the 15th of November 2023, members of the SIANI network gathered in Nairobi and online for a full day of inspirational presentations, knowledge exchange, and networking. The theme of the day was Partnerships and collaborations for food system transformation here is a summary of what happened. 

The 2023 regional SIANI meeting was held in conjunction with an AgriFoSe2030 workshop. It brought together AgriFoSe researchers and SIANI members from academia, civil society, government, the private sector, and farmer associations. All stakeholders had the opportunity to meet, network, share knowledge and expertise, and provide input on SIANI’s activities.

Youth and innovation at the centre of future food systems 

John Mugonya, Regional Program Manager at Agripreneurship Alliance Uganda, kicked off the day as the first speaker, discussing the contribution of youth and small-scale businesses in inclusive and resilient food systems. He emphasised the potential of young people as innovators and early adopters of new technologies and practices. Mr. Mugonya said youth need to support for education as well as funding so that they can fulfil their role as leaders of the future.

Naol Adugna Oli, Co-founder of Beta Blockers PLC, shared his story about engaging in the agrifood business as a university student wanting to making a change in his community. Three years ago, he and some university peers started a business producing nutritious biscuits from locally sourced faba beans and barley. Today, the company has seven permanent employees. In the panel discussion following the presentations, Naol said that the encouragement from his teachers at university was one of most crucial factors behind his success. But a major challenge has been to transform the company from a startup to something more stable, as there is not much support for existing but still developing companies.

Youth engagement and inclusion

Diana Njihia from Vi Agroforestry and Patrick Muiruri from Nairobi City County shared how they work to involve youth. Diana Njihia, who is Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Learning Officer and Business Development Programme Officer, said they recently started to develop research in collaboration with universities, involving youth as the core part of their work for resilient, diversified, and equitable food systems. Furthermore, Vi Agroforestry is developing youth networks as a way of engagement.

Patrick Muiruri, Director, Food system Department, Nairobi City County talked about how the county is including youth in its strategic work to achieve food and nutrition security for its residents. The Nairobi City County Food Systems Strategy takes a systems approach by looking at all stages of the food system, from production and distribution to value addition and consumption. Youth are involved in practical food production in plots provided by the county and receive training on the processing of organic waste.

Regional collaborations for improved food systems

In the following session, a regional perspective on collaborations for food system transformation was explored. Courtney Bennett, Regional Food Systems Process Manager, World Food Programme (WFP), shared how WFP in East Africa in recent years has developed a regional strategy for working with food systems. This in response to the increasingly complex and protracted crises threatening food security in the region. A key part is to form new collaborations, working more closely with actors like universities and the private sector. Caroline Bird, Head of WFP Global Partnerships Lab, talked about how WFP, the largest buyer of staple foods in Africa, tries to support local farmers and agrifood businesses by stimulating procurement of locally or regionally produced food. Furthermore, they aim to enable investments to strengthen the local private sector.

The role of farmer cooperatives

Stephen Muchiri, CEO of the East African Farmers Federation (EAFF), echoed that partnerships are needed to transform the food systems. EAFF is looking for public, private and producer partnerships, emphasising the inclusion of producers since no change is possible without their involvement. Mr. Muchiri slo highlighted the importance of collaboration between farmers. Farmer organisations play a role in increasing productivity and efficiency. For instance, cooperatives can increase farmers” access to markets and resources such as agricultural inputs and knowledge.

Research for agricultural development – looking back and looking forward

Recently, there has been a great deal of interest in the role of research in the development of the agricultural sector. Jane Mutune, a researcher and lecturer at the University of Nairobi and part of the AgriFoSe programme, started by saying that the challenges to achieving food security are greater than ever. Some of the reasons are land degradation, climate change, and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr. Mutune believes that researchers can contribute to the food system transformation in multiple ways: as drivers of innovation, supporting evidence-based policies and practices, and by serving as a connector between practitioners and policymakers.

More reflections on the importance of science for sustainable food systems were shared in an intergenerational panel of researchers. Both Allan Mueke, from Mount Kenya University, and Merezia Wilson, from University of Dar es Salaam, claimed that researchers can play a key role in informing policies. But, to link research to policy and practice, researchers must be able to effectively communicate their findings in a way that is accessible and relevant for policymakers, smallholder farmers, and local communities.

International collaboration part of the solution

Ingrid Öborn, a professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, provided insights into how development research has evolved since the beginning of her career. Dr. Öborn said that science is now better positioned than ever to face current challenges, thanks to the Sustainable Development Goals recognising global interconnectedness and shared challenges. One important development is the increased collaboration between researchers across disciplines and countries.

Charles Niwagaba, an environmental engineer focusing on sanitation and nutrient cycling as a professor at Makere University, agreed that collaboration with international researchers is central, especially for researchers from the global South. When he himself was a young researcher in Uganda, he experienced challenges like a lack of mentors and too little time for research since he was expected to spend a great deal of time teaching.

Some priorities for the future raised by the panellists were to make research topics relevant to the local communities, and work with a multi-stakeholder approach to reach out with scientific results. Finally, researchers should continue advocating for the importance of international research for sustainable development to prevent future food crises.

Roundtable discussions and exhibition

The second part of the day was dedicated to discussions and networking. In roundtable discussions, participants were invited to share which future collaborations they believe to be most important for food system transformation, and how SIANI, as a network, can facilitate such collaborations. A summary of the discussions can be found here.

The day ended with an exhibition where participants displayed products and materials from their work.

Roundtable discussions in groups

Photo: Charity Waeni Mutisya, Stockholm Environment Institute

Wrapping up a full day of presentations and discussion

Photo: Charity Waeni Mutisya, Stockholm Environment Institute