Transforming agricultural sectors to enhance food systems resilience

Producing food in uncertain times calls for inclusive and resilient agro-food sectors. In various countries in Africa, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) promotes the transformation of agro-food sectors with the aim of contributing to more inclusive food systems. In 2020, WUR has been supporting those sectors by responding to challenges emerging from the COVID-19 crisis and enhancing the resilience of sectors in uncertain times. In this long read, we share our lessons learned and give insight in important steps for the future.

Sector transformation involves bringing together stakeholders to generate a shared vision of the future; to reach that vision requires coordinating improvements and learning from and adapting to emerging and changing circumstances. In its support of sector transformation, WUR through Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI) has assumed a coaching role to enhance stakeholders’ collaboration and coordination with the aim of improving the functioning of sectors. We conduct this work in a diversity of sectors, including horticulture, potato, dairy and seed, to make them more productive, profitable and innovative, thereby delivering value for all stakeholders. With decades of experience with programmes in sub-Saharan Africa, we reflect on important lessons learned.

Most recently, WUR has engaged with its in-country partners in conducting rapid yet robust assessments of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the functioning of various sectors. The assessments highlight the immediate impact of the crisis and indicate the priority actions needed to mitigate the challenges identified. Since the rapid assessments are based on ground-truth data collected from concerned parties, not modelling, they prompt relevant stakeholders to consider necessary actions. The outcomes have become a valuable resource that is used actively for changing practices and strategies. Insights gained will make it easier for policymakers and businesses to understand how they can respond to emerging challenges, and contribute to making the sector more resilient, productive, profitable, and innovative in the long run. We guide you through our insights.

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Rapid assessment - methodology

For our assessments of different sectors and countries we have been using a common methodology. We first establish a panel of at least 40 experts from all corners of the sector, including farmers, service providers and traders, government authorities, researchers, and civil society organizations. We ask these experts to complete a questionnaire on the impact of the crisis on different functions of the sector, such as production and transport, but also service provision and finance. The experts then get together in small focus groups to discuss how and by whom the problems highlighted can be solved. We communicate the conclusions to policymakers and stakeholders in the sector, in the form of easy-to-read alerts that enable them to act fast. Since the crisis and its impacts are continuously changing, the actions required to mitigate the challenges are also changing. For this reason, the assessment process was repeated at regular intervals during the inception of the crisis to keep stakeholders up to date with changing conditions and challenges.

COVID-19 and the Ethiopian sesame sector: an example

Take the sesame sector in Ethiopia, for example. At the start of the COVID-19 crisis, sesame farmers in the lowlands predicted that the lockdown would prevent many of the seasonal labourers who are hired to carry out weeding and harvesting – poor farmers from the highlands – from traveling to the lowlands. With this in mind, the farmers decided to plant less sesame and consequently a third less sesame was sown than in normal years. This will have a major impact on the economy since sesame is the country’s second most important crop in terms of export value.

The change has already affected food security. The poor highland farmers who normally earn extra money by harvesting sesame have now missed out on that income to purchase food or invest in crop production themselves. The outcomes of the rapid assessment of the sesame sector were discussed by government officials on national television; furthermore, the outcomes informed the national labour and healthcare authorities in planning their response to the crisis.

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Food systems thinking and sector transformation

Central to the sector transformation approach is a broad understanding of the complex reality of how agro-food sectors function and evolve, as Walter de Boef, advisor at WCDI, observes: ‘In the past, many projects and businesses focused on improving the value chain from producer to trader to consumer, but that is not enough. A strong sector also requires good government policy, coordination within the sector, and inclusion of women, young people, and small-scale farmers. To achieve this, you must have an understanding of the whole system and the ability to draw upon multiple disciplines and skillsets. You have to simplify complex issues sometimes, but always with the bigger picture at the back of your mind’. The dynamics of the sesame sector in Ethiopia are a good example of how interlinked and interdependent different farmers and sectors are; because wage labourers could not travel, sesame farmers in the lowlands decided to sow less sesame and small-scale highland farmers now face food insecurity and cannot invest in their future crop. ‘A sector assessment linked to a larger food system perspective can then help people understand what is happening and what the consequences are within a sector and beyond’, affirms De Boef.

WCDI also undertook rapid country-specific food system assessments in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya and Mali, drawing on insights into the impact of the crisis on multiple sectors and stakeholder groups. For the first time, these assessments compiled cross-sector information from many organizations on the impact of the crisis. As De Boef explains, ‘It helped us to better understand how agro-food sectors function in larger food systems, thus linking farmers with traders and businesses, within the broader context of access to and availability of quality food for particularly vulnerable communities in both rural and urban areas’.

‘Food systems thinking is important’, emphasizes De Boef, ‘It draws attention, for example, to the need to preserve the natural environment and respond to customer and consumer demands, and those are vital to a well-functioning food system. What you can do is find out which sectors are relevant based on a food systems perspective, and then look at what opportunities there are to improve those sectors’.

The sector transformation approach is broader than that of value chains, but more hands on and specific than that of food systems.
Walter de Boef

Concerted action

‘Sector transformation requires changing the mindsets of producers, traders, service providers, and policymakers; they need to appreciate the interrelatedness of their activities and the impact one activity has upon another’, explains Gareth Borman, advisor at WCDI. ‘Concerted action is needed on several fronts, so everyone must take part. The sector needs a firm foundation of organized producers, viable service delivery models, and markets that reward quality as well as sustainability’, Borman adds. Public investment is also needed; governments must pass regulations that help the sector adapt, develop agencies that enforce these rules, and finance value creation in areas where it is hard to make a profit.

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In practice, the sector transformation programmes of WCDI tackle problem areas in a sector by piloting solutions, generating evidence, and consolidating and scaling innovations. Evidence of innovation is used to convince policymakers and others in the sector to adopt or adapt what works under one set of conditions elsewhere, or to change these conditions for innovation at a much wider scale. Such innovations have resulted in major changes in the seed sectors of Ethiopia, Uganda and Myanmar.

Process of adapting our management of the seed sector programme in Ethiopia: an example

Four million farmers now have better access to quality seed through the Integrated Seed Sector Development programme in Ethiopia (ISSD Ethiopia), part of the Bilateral Ethiopia Netherlands Effort for Food, Income and Trade Partnership (BENEFIT), of which Borman is project manager. As a result, a substantial proportion of seed is now being produced by farmer cooperatives that set up local seed businesses, a new type of business that emerged during, and as an outcome of, the programme. These cooperatives complement state-owned companies or large corporations with a more locally adapted portfolio of varieties of important food crops for which quality seed was previously unavailable. The ISSD Ethiopia programme has also transformed how seed is distributed in the country. In the past, seed was allocated to farmers by the government and distributed through an inefficient system with high transaction costs. Now, seed companies and cooperatives sell their seed directly to farmers.

Three lessons guiding seed sector transformation in Ethiopia

During the last decade of guiding seed sector transformation in Ethiopia, three important lessons have been learned, which Borman recounts: ‘First, embrace systemic change. Take tomorrow as your point of departure and your vision for the future rather than today’s problems. It is important to focus the narrative on addressing underlying causes of the problem and not their symptoms. Second, operate in an adaptive manner. You need to be able to grab opportunities when they present themselves and that requires flexibility’. The political environment in Ethiopia has been very dynamic and important in determining the success of transformation efforts. The changing conditions calls for adaptability from us but also from the donors that finance the work. ‘We agree upon and commit to the outcomes but need flexibility in getting there. It’s important not to be constrained by the logic you applied to how change happens when you developed the proposal’, Borman argues. ‘The final and perhaps most important lesson is to really invest in social capital. Set inclusion as a goal on its own and not a side thought, and ultimately be prepared to make a long-term investment’, he concludes.


Shared aim: the case of the Ghanaian horticulture sector

A good example of stakeholders that embrace systemic change, adapt to a challenge, and invest in social capital, took place in the Ghanaian horticulture sector. Irene Koomen, advisor at WCDI, explains that ‘In September 2015, the European Union closed its borders to a number of Ghanaian vegetables because potentially harmful insects were found in them. The EU had issued a big report setting out all the changes that needed to be made in the sector. How to tackle them was however another matter’.

The HortiFresh project, managed by WCDI, supported a task force in which the Ghanaian government and businesses collaborated together towards adapting to the new EU-requirements. ‘For two years, we worked intensively on a shared aim – to meet those requirements’, adds Koomen. Sound agronomic practices were developed and tested, after which training was organized for growers so that they could cultivate vegetables free from pests. Traders had to improve their verification procedures and stop accepting products of unverified origin. Changes were also made at the inspectorate, which was provided with modern inspection facilities near the airport.

All these actions delivered results, and the EU lifted the ban on Ghanaian vegetables in early 2018. Another aspect that helped was the simultaneous development of a quality label for the sector: the Ghana Green Label. Farmers who meet the quality requirements can sell their products under this label. Koomen elaborates, ‘We supported the development of the label through critical analysis and advice, and encouraged the business community, who are major stakeholders, to get involved. All in all, this constitutes genuine sector transformation’.

Pragmatic and cooperative: the Dutch approach

Solving problems in an agro-food sector often calls for cooperation between farmers and their organizations, businesses and policymakers in the sector. ‘Making this cooperation happen is something WUR and other Dutch parties do well’, explains Walter de Boef, ‘The Netherlands stands out from other countries because of our experience in reaching consensus - finding solutions based on consultation with all stakeholders by working with them in a calm, focused way. We are good at that because that’s how we do it in the Netherlands. The successes and innovative power of our agro-food sectors shows the Dutch approach can take you a long way. We want to inspire others to do the same’.

WUR supports the transformation of agro-food sectors in partner countries using a fundamental and practical evidence base, while also facilitating multi-stakeholder partnerships and managing complex programmes; it is driven by the aim to achieve inclusive and sustainable food systems worldwide, and to fight hunger and malnutrition.

WUR is involved in several sector transformation programmes

WUR through WCDI coordinates complex multi-annual programmes to strengthen agro-food sectors, which include:

The rapid assessments and alerts are a new avenue in the sector transformation work.

We collaborate with SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, within the COVID-19 Response and Resilience Initiative for Food Value Chains in Africa (CORE-Africa), supporting rapid assessments in:

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