Three pillars for food system change: inclusivity, joint vision and long-term commitment

A new paper identifies three key ingredients multi-actor initiatives need to drive change in the food system.

Frank Mechielsen's picture
Insight by 
Frank Mechielsen
Frank Mechielsen is programme manager for Sustainable Diets for All at Hivos
16 July 2020
Group of people around a table eating a meal

IIED's Bolivian partner, Fundación Alternativas, founded food councils to promote food security in policymaking (Photo: copyright Fundación Alternativas)

Changing the food system, with its many moving parts and multitude of actors, requires bringing together diverse views in a meaningful and productive way.

The Hivos-IIED Sustainable Diets for All (SD4All) programme has championed multi-actor initiatives as a tool for helping drive the change needed – in particular, initiatives that consciously and continually engage stakeholders, and that are agile enough to adjust to ongoing learning.

We’ve documented the results of three initiatives – the Food Parliament in Uganda, the Food Change Lab in Zambia, and the La Paz Food Council in Bolivia – in a new reflection paper. The paper highlights aspects of these initiatives that did and didn’t work, and provides actionable recommendations for people designing similar initiatives, both within and beyond the SD4All programme.

Here are the top three lessons:

1. Be inclusive

Inclusivity is number one. Marginalised groups, including small-scale producers and low-income consumers – especially women – must be involved. These key actors, whose voices are rarely heard in policymaking, are crucial in linking policy with local realities.

We must listen to how people translate big system issues into what matters to them. Government officials and private sector actors should also play their part in clarifying policies and policymaking processes that affect the food system.

Being inclusive also means recognising people’s different – and changing – roles and realities. The Food Parliament in Uganda – where farmers, traders, vendors, cooks, hotel and restaurant owners can come together to talk about their food and diet related problems – made clear that a single occupation rarely feeds an entire family; people tend to have multiple jobs either at the same time or from season to season.

So, one person might identify with a number of roles – they don’t fall neatly under one job category, as society often has us believe. Immaculate Yossa Daisy, regional advocacy manager for Hivos East Africa, explained: “It is not uncommon to find a teacher, accountant, or development practitioner doubling up as a commercial farmer, agribusiness entrepreneur or politician.

"The experiences of these different facets of life shape conversations and actions in multi-actor initiatives and are important to consider in discussions about inclusivity”.

2. Have a clear vision and adjust your process as you go

Be clear on the change you want to achieve and sequence the initiative’s activities and methods strategically, depending on how you envision that change will unfold. For example, do certain stakeholders first require training to participate meaningfully in an activity?

Thinking through such questions will help you take the next step towards the desired change. Stay flexible and don’t be afraid to switch gears. Continually monitor your progress and make adjustments as needed.

William Chilufya, regional advocacy manager for Hivos Southern Africa, saw clear examples of this in the Zambia Food Change Lab. He noted that “although a process might start out with a well-thought-out design, or an open mind (and design), it’s important to be flexible based on what emerges. When new partners with a national focus joined the lab, we recognised that many problems couldn’t be solved locally, and we needed to shift from a local focus in Chongwe District to a national one in Lusaka".

This shift was the right move – but it did make it more challenging to identify when change was happening, and the drivers for that change.

3. Invest for the long term

Design the platform so ownership can be transferred from the founding organisation to a local one. This is important for long-term sustainability and commitment of participants. Multi-actor processes need time and resources to develop a joint vision and inclusive governance structure, and to co-create and test out concrete actions to keep up momentum. Donors need to be open to investing in long-term processes when potential results cannot be defined upfront.

In the case of the Food Council in Bolivia, uncertainty about who is leading the change process and whether this will evolve over time has given rise to questions about the sustainability of the food councils. Will the founding organisation Fundación Alternativas transfer ownership of the food councils, and if so, to whom, how and when? Passing on ownership would require capacity building well beyond a training event or a presentation.

The complexity of building collective ownership when diverse actors are involved also became clear. Maria Teresa Nogales, executive director of Fundación Alternativas, acknowledged that “meaningful and participatory policy processes do not happen from one day to the next; they evolve and more often than not, they respond to democratic cultures that are fostered over time”.

Bringing it all together

Connecting the various actors of the food system can bring about transformation. We’ve seen first-hand that inviting everyone to engage in these initiatives together encourages a deeper understanding of others’ perspectives, interests, and lived experiences.

Furthermore, when decision-makers take on challenges alongside other stakeholders, desired advocacy changes in agenda setting, policymaking and practices are often achieved.

But as the three case studies illustrate, there is no one, single way of developing or implementing multi-actor initiatives – they take many forms, follow different processes, and engage with very different stakeholders.

The key to real change is making inclusivity, joint vision and long-term commitment pillars of the initiative.