Wageningen researchers work on building resilient food systems in East Africa

Food systems in East Africa have been affected by a combination of negative drivers, including prolonged armed conflicts and extreme climatic conditions. The result has been poor food and nutrition security outcomes for decades. Attempting to improve these outcomes, Wageningen University & Research, FAO and local universities, institutions, and communities, aim to build more resilient food systems in Sudan, South Sudan, and Somaliland. The 'food system resilience approach' is fundamentally different to conventional humanitarian programmes.

The linear, Western, top-down approach used in many food programmes don’t work well as they do not always take in account local perspectives, capacities and realities. This project will hopefully help change the aid architecture for the sector
Eelke Boerema, Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation

The October 2021 coup in Sudan is the latest in a series of events in East Africa that negatively impact food supply chains, and everything related to them. In 2020, the outbreak of Desert Locust as well as the COVID-19 pandemic have proven to be drivers of food insecurity. This has further deteriorated the capacities of countries to feed themselves. In addition to the severe impact of a changing climate, recurring disasters and prolonged conflicts on this region, such upheavals are making food systems in this part of the world very unstable. The result is rising hunger figures for three years in a row, reversing a up to 2018 positive trend of reducing hunger. The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation are looking to break the causal link between armed conflict and food insecurity. Making food systems more resilient means they should be better able to withstand long-term crises. The four-year Food and Nutrition Security Resilience Programme (FNS-REPRO), financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Climate Policy, is aimed at laying the foundations for this.

Long-term solutions

Looking for long-term solutions within the reality of ongoing armed conflicts and climate change is what FNS-REPRO essentially is about, says Eelke Boerema, researcher at the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation. “East Africa currently dependents on many billions of euros in food aid to combat food crises. The number of food insecure and hungry people will not fall, however, if food systems in this part of the world remain so vulnerable to shocks and stressors. Food systems, therefore, need to be strengthened, building resilience in the face of these shocks and stressors to continue to function even when the situation in the country is unstable."

FNS-REPRO owes its existence to the year in which the Netherlands had the honour of sitting on the United Nations Security Council, as non-permanent member. Together with a group of other countries, the Netherlands ensured that Resolution 2417 was passed calling on all member states to break the vicious cycle of violence and food insecurity, and to fully cooperate in making food systems work.

Structural improvement

"The programme was born out of the realisation that mainstream humanitarian food aid programmes don’t do enough to address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition across the world and in protracted crisis situations in the Horn of Africa," explains Gerrit-Jan van Uffelen, project leader at the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation. "Our aim is to make food systems resilient in protracted crises contexts and to structurally improve food and nutrition security in these regions. The programme should contribute to a significant reduction in the number of people affected by food insecurity, malnutrition and famine."

Actionable plan and learning agenda

The difference compared to conventional humanitarian aid programmes is that FNS-REPRO uses the ‘food systems resilience assessment’ as its methodology. "Together with local actors, we look at how food systems change in the face of natural and man-made shocks and stressors. We examine how food systems function, how these systems produce food and nutrition outcomes and what is needed to create more resilience in particular local contexts," Van Uffelen explains. "On that basis, we are developing food systems resilience pathways for selected areas in these countries. We are also developing training and capacity building initiatives in which international knowledge and research organisations work with local universities and training centres. Together, we address critical gaps in knowledge and skills to build more resilient food systems. For example, a Joint Regional Master’s programme on Disaster Risk Management and Food Systems Resilience was recently launched to train people from the region itself. This programme is the result of close cooperation between the universities from Ethiopia, Somaliland, South Sudan, Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation and Van Hall Larenstein University of Applied Sciences. Several short courses for professionals have also been developed to stimulate thinking and develop practical approaches to build food system resilience."

Build on local resilience

A fundamental part of the programme is to build on the resilience of local communities who are used to surviving in times of crisis. In South Sudan, for example, one of the project areas focuses on Eastern Equatoria State "Many aid programmes focus on assisting people by providing hand-outs," Van Uffelen continues. "In parts of Eastern Equatoria, the prevailing intervention architecture has led to the cultivation of only two varieties of sorghum instead of the nine previously used by communities. More varieties meant they were more resilient to droughts and floods in the past. It illustrates how conventional aid programmes can actually erode the resilience of food systems rather than strengthening those."

This fact is a thorn in the side of Salah Khatir Jubarah, Dean of College of Natural Resources and Environmental Studies, one of the FNS-REPRO partners. "Almost all aid programmes come here, provide help and leave again without considering that interventions must have a lasting effect. But as a Chinese saying goes, 'It is better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish'."

Local seed varieties

This kind of learning is exactly what is now being pursued in seven communities. "We have traced some indigenous seed species that were genetically so strong that they have survived all the shocks and stresses," says Tony Ngalamu, assistant professor of Plant Breeding at the same university as Salah Jubarah. "The reason they have survived is that they are adaptable. To preserve these kinds of resilient local varieties, we include them in a seed bank. Preserving them is crucial: communities can much better withstand the many shocks and stresses with these strong local varieties. The strength of FNS-REPRO is that local communities share their stories, knowledge and experiences, and that interventions are then building upon that, which is of fundamental importance. The learning agenda of this programme is genuinely bottom-up. It has led to several farmers already benefiting from locally produced seeds and you can notice the impact. It creates employment and people's living conditions improve; they have more money to buy vegetables for their families and can send their children to school."


Another area on which the project focuses is North and East Darfur, a poor conflict region in Sudan. Here, the production of gum Arabic plays an essential role in agriculture and as a source of income for households. FAO and Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation are investigating how the production of this gum can be boosted to improve the incomes and living conditions of households in the marginalized and neglected areas of Darfur.

"We are mapping the entire food system surrounding the production of gum Arabic in this region, including all the problems that need to be solved," Boerema resumes. "In Darfur, the incentive to produce gum is very low. Lack of knowledge, skills and proper tool for harvesting are all challenges. The market system is also failing: the infrastructure is poor, the markets where the gum is traded are far away and the farmer earns little money as there are many intermediaries claiming their share or not giving fair prices. Insecurity and climatic shocks in the region also play a role and all these problems need to be addressed to make the food system more resilient."

The acacia trees from which the gum is extracted also produce good charcoal. Many trees have disappeared from the landscape since Darfur became the scene of serious ethnic conflicts in 2004. One of the components of FNS-REPRO therefore focuses on restoring the landscape in which the acacia tree can once again be found in abundance. Through combining gum Arabic production with production of certain food and cash crops in an agroforestry structure, many benefits can be gained, including restoring the ‘great green wall’ which combats desertification across the Sahel.


Production of cattle feed is the entry point for FNS-REPRO in Somaliland. "Livelihoods of people there revolve around cattle and livestock," Boerema continues. "The livestock feed is now mostly imported, while the country has many grasslands. This grass can serve very well as a basis for feeding the country's own livestock."

At a first glance, the solution seems simple: commercialise your own grasslands, as consultants advised two years ago. But it’s not that easy in practice, as Boerema discovered. "Those grasslands are largely owned by local communities, and they do not always want that. To avoid conflict and tension by our own involvement, our approach is always to involve local universities, NGOs and communities in the analysis by sitting down at the table together identifying ways to address challenges and to reach our common goals."

Changing food aid rules

The Food Systems Resilience approach piloted by FNS-REPRO hopefully could turn the tide, Boerema adds. "The linear, Western, top-down approach used in many food programmes don’t work well as they do not always take in account local perspectives, capacities and realities. Furthermore, conventional programmes do not have evidence-based and adaptive programming mechanisms allowing for changes to emerging issues like COVID-19, Desert Locust, and coup d’états. Worldwide, there is increasing support for the idea that you first must analyse the entire food system and specific value chains therein, co-created with and by local actors and stakeholders, to ultimately bring about lasting change. The recent United Nations Food Systems Summit is a good illustration of this. You need an enabling environment: a cooperating government, local knowledge institutions, NGOs, and communities with whom you can map the system and identify problems. This project will hopefully help change the aid architecture for the sector."

Salah Jubarah hopes the same: "If people in local communities see that they can actually improve their living conditions and income, this can have a mitigating effect on conflicts. I also see this programme as a wake-up call for governments: a resilient food system is in my view the roadmap to greater stability."