South Africa deserves a food system that nourishes its people and safeguards the environment
The root causes of South Africa’s hunger problem are complex, and range from politics to outdated laws and technologies to climate change. Our unique agricultural landscape, characterised by hyper-dry regions and limited arable land, demands innovative solutions.
The fragility of South Africa’s food system is evident in the country’s high rates of poverty and malnutrition. Malnutrition, whether in the form of stunting, wasting or obesity continues to affect a large proportion of our population, particularly those living in poverty.
In a Department of Social Development-commissioned report released on 6 October 2023 titled Reducing Child Poverty, A Review of Child Poverty and Value of the Child Support Grant, it was revealed that a staggering eight million children in South Africa lack basic nutrition and an estimated 27.5% of children are stunted due to malnutrition. The report states that “poverty rates rose sharply in 2020 and 2021 as a result of lockdown and job losses”.
World Food Day is observed globally on 16 October each year to promote awareness of hunger and action for the future of food, people, and the planet. It also provides an opportunity to draw attention to the stark reality of food insecurity in South Africa and the urgent need for a transformative approach to our food system.
The root causes of South Africa’s hunger problem are complex, and range from politics to outdated laws and technologies to climate change. Our unique agricultural landscape, characterised by hyper-dry regions and limited arable land, demands innovative solutions. We must move beyond intensive farming practices and monocropping, which have compromised the resilience of our ecosystems.
South African farmers frequently share their experience of the direct and increasing impacts of climate change on their livelihoods, and many of those who don’t enjoy the privilege of insurance are convinced of the need to embrace sustainable and regenerative farming methods that nurture the environment, safeguard the present and promote long-term productivity.
But it’s not enough. Transforming our food system and combating hunger cannot be achieved through isolated efforts. It demands a united, cross-sectoral approach that addresses the multiple dimensions of the issue. The only feasible way forward is collaboration, bringing together diverse stakeholders, including smallholder farmers, government, NGOs, businesses and communities to forge a path toward a more equitable, resilient and sustainable food system.
Woza Nami project
That’s the approach taken, for example, in the Woza Nami project in Inchanga, KwaZulu-Natal. The point of the project was to demonstrate the power of dietary changes on wellbeing. Through the support and collaboration of the municipality, the clinic, cooperatives, NGOs, and homestead gardeners, a robust value chain is being built, connecting farmers to the community and ensuring the availability of locally produced, nutritious and culturally relevant foods.
To date, 110 smallholder farmers have been trained to embrace agroecological farming methods and have withstood the floods which ravaged the region last year. They now sell their produce directly to the community at the Hub’s monthly market.
Through Woza Nami, the Inchanga Agrihub has been enhanced with a growing tunnel, chicken coop, demonstration beds, water tanks and a seedling nursery. Seventy-five local youths were employed and involved in agroecology and nutrition training, greening initiatives and managing the Hub’s facilities, but external support will be crucial to seeing the project scale out.
Often overlooked, smallholder farmers play a key role in fostering sustainable food systems. Supporting these farmers not only benefits vulnerable populations through informal markets, but also promotes agroecological practices that are essential for the future of our food production. We are working to establish localised agricultural standards that improve production practices and facilitate market access, while also advocating for policies that support farmers in their vital roles.
When South Africa does well, it does so off the back of dialogue. The food system is no exception. By creating deliberative spaces that bridge social divides, we can ensure that all voices are heard and considered. Such dialogues then translate into actionable change at both the local and national levels, resulting in social innovations that drive progress in our food system. If we then connect these local initiatives with decision-makers, we amplify their impact.
As we look to the future, the Southern Africa Food Lab remains committed to building trust, fostering innovation, and transforming lives through action. Our mission extends beyond our organisation; we are here to support others with the same goal.
South Africa deserves a food system that nourishes its people and safeguards its environment. Together, through dialogue, collaboration and action, we can and must overcome the challenges that plague our food system and build a South Africa where no one goes to bed hungry, and where food is a source of health and strength for all. DM
Dr Scott Drimie is director of the Southern Africa Food Lab, an initiative established in 2009 to promote creative responses to the problem of hunger through multistakeholder dialogue and action and housed under the umbrella of the Food Security Initiative at Stellenbosch University.