Participants on the Food Systems e-course

The food systems approach is being increasingly used as a guideline for the development of international policy aimed at improving food and nutrition security. The Food Systems e-course by Wageningen University & Research teaches participants from around the world the basics of this approach. Mustika Ridwan and Joel Kouame took the e-course at the start of 2021. We asked them what they had learned and how their newly acquired knowledge is being applied in practice.

I now apply a range of perspectives before planning interventions

Find common ground

Understanding how food systems work and how they can be improved first requires a comprehensive analysis. This involves posing questions regarding the interrelations between the elements that make up the system, the activities related to production, processing and food use, and the outcomes of these activities. And these are precisely the subjects covered by the Food Systems e-course.

Joel Kouame is senior economic trade advisor at the Dutch Embassy in Ivory Coast. One of his tasks involves strengthening business ties between both countries, with a focus on sectors related to biomass, poultry, agriculture, cacao and cashews. When Joel received an email with information about the e-course from the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality his interest was immediately piqued: "The term ‘food systems approach’ wasn’t new to me and I was aware that it was a key part of the Dutch development policy," he recalls. "But the concept behind it was quite new to me. When implementing policy we’re often inclined to focus on the overall objective. You forget about the dynamics between actors in a food system and how activities can strengthen or obstruct each other. Facilitating change in the food system requires us to involve all stakeholders and that’s what I liked about this course. Silos are commonly used here in Africa, pushing small-scale farmers to the side lines with little power. The course enhanced the idea that you should bring people together in the discussion and try to find common ground that goes beyond the established interests."

Mustika Ridwan is project lead of Farm45, an initiative by CookPad Japan, the company that made its name with a platform for consumers to share recipes. Farm45 is striving for an increase in the number of sustainable producers and consumers working towards a sustainable food system via regenerative agriculture, and supports them in this process. "I have experience in the Making markets work for the poor programme and gradually noticed that this approach was lacking something. I saw that the strong emphasis on increasing yields for farmers had a negative impact on the environment. At the same time, I came into contact with other approaches, such as agroforestry and regenerative agriculture. I discovered this e-course via the Netherlands Food Partnership and decided to join."

Engaging all stakeholders

The strength of the e-course is that you learn to keep your distance from the general perception that the proposed path is the right path, says Joel: "It is essential to bring all stakeholders to the table when looking to implement something in the field that actually works, including the small farmers at the bottom of the pyramid. Depending on the dynamics, you can vary the results. I am currently trying to get all stakeholders in the poultry supply chain together with the goal to improve the sector so that it doesn’t only produce sufficient food but also contributes to food safety and the overall sustainability of the sector. These are new policy perspectives for Ivory Coast, and the expertise of the e-course will hopefully help me make a leap forward."

The strength of the e-course is that you learn to keep your distance from the general perception that the proposed path is the right path

Beginning with a comprehensive analysis

Mustika indicates that she is also applying the knowledge learned in the e-course directly in her work. "What I am really doing differently is that I make a comprehensive analysis of the various actors, their activities and the trade-offs in-between prior to planning an intervention. I now connect various perspectives instead of thinking I know the best solution in advance. The interaction with other participants was really useful to me in this framework. Everything I come up with in Jakarta has probably been considered previously somewhere else in the world. The e-course allowed me to come into contact with a participant who was developing a similar programme in Bali. We started sharing experiences outside the course, and now regularly discuss which analyses are required to develop new interventions."

Group work

Do the former participants see any points of improvement for the course? "It would be helpful if we could continue to use the valuable information shared on the online platform after completing the course," answers Joel. "I also think the group work deserves more attention as it was very hard for my group of six participants to schedule online meetings. This meant that we were unable to complete our group task. In similar cases it would be good if you could switch to another group." Mustika concurs and adds: "A group should consist of no more than three participants with minor differences in time zones."

This point aside, both can look back on a great course: "I am highly recommending it to all my colleagues and others in my network," says Joel. The same goes for Mustika: "There’s not a lot of knowledge of the food system approach in my team currently and yet it’s vital to provide insight in areas like the impact of consumption on the environment. I’m sharing what I learned on the course with my colleagues, including by hosting a quiz with a bar of chocolate for the winner. This definitely helps increase awareness of the course. I would love to delve further into the subject myself and would be very interested if Wageningen University & Research develop a master’s in Food Systems."

The Food Systems e-course is based on the Food Systems Decision Support toolkit, developed by the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation. Click on the link for the complete toolbox.