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Novel research model aims for zero hunger in Africa

AFRICA

The recent South Africa consumer price index shows that the price of food is rapidly increasing. In July 2020, a dozen eggs cost ZAR15.95. Currently, the cost of the same tray of eggs has doubled.

The trend in food price increases is being witnessed across the world. These high food prices have implications for hunger and malnutrition, particularly when we think of how many people lost incomes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The increased cost of meat and dairy products has implications for the nutrition of consumers. Products like sour milk and eggs are essential to diets, particularly those of young children.

They are also often the most affordable sources of protein for low-income families. The increased costs mean that these products are becoming more difficult for the poor to purchase.

Many consumers would opt to buy bread or mealie meal (maize meal) over eggs and milk, because cereals make you fuller for longer. However, these products do not meet the broad range of nutrient requirements one needs to live a healthy life.

The increased cost of fuel means that more money is being spent to transport food. For example, beef requires transportation of feeds, vaccines and transporting the meat, itself. The cost of transportation for the producer is transferred to the consumer, meaning that the cost of any meat and dairy products rises.

While this myriad of issues seems complex, they are interconnected in a web of systems that researchers still need to understand.

Globally, an increased focus on providing affordable, healthy food has emerged, as has the recognition that, to achieve this, we can no longer just focus on agriculture or nutrition or livelihoods as single research projects.

Through the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa), the University of Pretoria, South Africa, has embarked on research to understand how we can take advantage of these connections to alleviate hunger and improve people’s livelihoods while also considering environmental sustainability.

FSNet-Africa is a Global Challenges Research Fund research excellence project under the UK Research and Innovation and African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) partnership.

How FSNet-Africa works

The food system includes all the processes involved in feeding people, from farming, harvesting, packaging, transporting and marketing to purchasing and consuming food.

Food systems include a range of actors and interactions. One researcher alone cannot unpack all these issues with knowledge from a single discipline.

FSNet-Africa has selected 20 early career research fellows from six African countries (Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia) to conduct multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary research to transform the African food system.

These fellows come from some of Africa’s top academic institutions. Their research areas range from plant science to consumer science, biotechnology, agribusiness management, social sciences and engineering.

The fellows will work in teams with mentors from Africa and the University of Leeds in the UK to conduct research on the African food system.

They will be linked to food systems stakeholders such as farmers, transporters, retailers and the government to inform the design and implementation of the research projects.

FSNet-Africa’s partner, the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), will draw on its network with civil society organisations, governments, farmers’ unions and others to help create these linkages between the research teams and stakeholders.

The fellowship will begin in July 2021 and end in December 2023. Researchers will be involved in a series of capacity-strengthening activities that will assist them in producing research and innovations that will address some of the continent’s most pressing food issues.

Bridging the gap between science and society

As academic institutions, we have gradually observed a shift from conducting research directed at end-users. Donors, government and society at large are challenging researchers to escape from their ivory towers and design and implement research in collaboration with end-users.

Publishing in scientific journals alone is no longer sufficient. Communicating research findings with the relevant stakeholders is critical.

FSNet-Africa research teams will co-create research evidence and innovations with food systems stakeholders. This means that their research has a much higher chance of being taken up and rolled out.

FANRPAN will assist in ensuring that the research and innovations produced are translated into policy and practice outputs that can reach governments and other interested stakeholders.

This novel model for conducting research has received commendations continentally and globally.

The lead partners for the project – the University of Pretoria, the University of Leeds, and FANRPAN – aim to contribute to an African food system that ensures that Africans can afford healthy and safe food to meet their daily dietary requirements.

In this way, FSNet-Africa hopes to make a significant contribution towards Zero Hunger in Africa.

Elizabeth Mkandawire is the research and network manager for FSNet-Africa and Colleta Gandidzanwa is a post-doctoral fellow with FSNet-Africa.