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Supporting resilient food systems in the face of growing food insecurity

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), more than one third (282 million) of people affected by hunger in 2020 were in Africa. When considering emerging climate risks, we cannot ignore food security and the viability of the agricultural sector.

Food security relates to adequate household and community nutrition, while viability relates to the future of subsistence and commercial agricultural-based activities. 

Each of these topics and their interaction is particularly relevant in the African context, where issues surrounding food stability, food availability and access to food are exacerbated by prevalent socioeconomic and geopolitical challenges, governance failures and unfolding climate change effects. 

Affordability, access and availability of food and its impact on communities 

Our current global food system requires more resources than we can sustainably afford – and it isn’t working: more than 800 million people are malnourished across the world, and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events threaten major food sources. Africa is particularly at risk: approximately half of Africa’s population experiences food insecurity and the continent is warming more rapidly than the rest of the world.

The reality is that as risks to food supply rise, access to sufficient food falls. Extreme climate events can have dire consequences for seasonal productivity. Long-term climate change has the potential to cause once suitable farming regions to shift or become barren, affecting the supply and price of local food. As a result, individuals may struggle to find and afford food, which has a knock-on effect on households and subsistence farmers, and communities at large.

What can we do about it?

Governments, businesses and individuals need to understand the risks of climate change to food security and the viability of the agricultural sector, and take mitigating actions. This will require integrated policies and actions along the entire food supply chain. 

At the level of individuals, our diet is the biggest contributor to climate change. It is now clear that the production of meat and dairy contributes significantly to biodiversity loss and higher levels of methane in the atmosphere which, in turn, accelerates global heating.

A recent Knorr survey of South Africans found that we tend to eat about a third of the recommended quantity of vegetables and double the quantity of meat. These findings, which show a meat-eating culture across regions and demographics, illustrate the need for South Africans to shift to more sustainable diets for our own and the planet’s health. Key to note is that sustainable diets can include meat consumption, and need to be considered in relation to the circumstances that people find themselves in.   

FAO defines sustainable diets as those “with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimising natural and human resources.” 

Over the past few years, we’ve seen some of these trends in the food industry and in home cooking: think of the emphasis on eating seasonal, regional produce to support local ecosystems and economies, and on moving towards flexitarian or plant-based diets to make better use of natural resources and improve health. Globally and in South Africa, many of us are becoming more conscious of where our food comes from, how it is grown and what it does to our bodies and our planet. 

The long-term challenge of inequality and poverty in South Africa, however, which has been exacerbated by COVID-19, means that the majority of our people do not have the luxury of choice. One way to increase the number of sustainable diets, then, is to enable communities to become more resilient and self-sufficient by growing local, sustainable food. 

As part of our efforts to bring possibility to life, Absa supports community-based agriculture initiatives, households and small community groups such as schools to become more food-secure in an environmentally conscious manner. 

We profile two initiatives below. 

How can we nourish ourselves and our communities?

The Agricultural Growing-to-Market Project/Food Security Programme, funded by Absa in Gauteng, in partnership with Hand in Hand Southern Africa and the Agricultural Development Agency, focuses on developing small-scale vegetable gardens and transferring gardening skills to community members. The aim is to build a sustainable food system, improve health and nutrition, and create opportunities for members to earn an income by selling surplus vegetables. Participants learn primarily hydroponic farming techniques. 

To date, over 600 community members have participated in the project, which may be scaled up to other provinces around the country. Diana Sekese from Olievenhoutbosch said: “I am delighted to have participated in the project. I was equipped with a unique skill that I didn’t have, and I will use what I learned to continue with vegetable farming”. Over time, successful participants will receive support to develop their small-scale gardens into larger agricultural cooperatives and, eventually, agribusinesses in the community. 

Reel Life NPC is the non-profit arm of Reel Gardening, and shares its focus on agri-education and complementary products to create systemic change for food abundance. The Reel organisation’s seed tape kits enable anyone to start a growing journey, taking amateur gardeners from seed to harvest through a simple, daily step-by-step process. Success in growing crops can foster confidence to take the leap from backyard grower to future commercial contract grower. 

As Donald from Daveyton, Johannesburg, said: “I never thought I could grow my own food. I was scared to try as I didn’t know where to start and I thought I didn’t have enough space or education. Now my backyard feeds me and I am proud of the vegetables that I grow. Thank you, Reel Gardening, for making it so simple.”  

Absa’s partnership with Reel Gardening supports:

  • Households – providing food parcels (as immediate food relief) and household gardening kits to 3 000 households across the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo. The kits, accompanied by an app with learning materials and tracking capabilities to guide households in managing their gardens, enable households to grow fresh produce for a family of four for a year.
  • Schools – establishing one school garden in each province, and providing class and learner growing kits to instil a passion for growing. This initiative is aligned with the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements. Reel Gardening is training school employees responsible for the gardens to manage them effectively and will provide seeds annually.
  • Individuals – Absa employees have participated by purchasing their own growing kits to plant home gardens, and the company has matched employee contributions by purchasing more class and learner kits.

These initiatives give households and communities the skills, knowledge and tools to grow fresh produce despite limited space, water and time. This opportunity, along with the option to sell surplus produce to local agri-hubs where feasible, helps us to contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty.

There’s much more to do, but initiatives such as these are one small step towards more nourishment for our bodies and the planet – and every step counts. DM/MC

By Babongile Mandela: Absa, Senior Manager – Strategic Initiatives, Corporate Citizenship and Natalia Olszewska-van der Merwe: Absa, Senior Manager – Corporate Citizenship


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