'Transformation agri-food sectors needs a new narrative'

Published on
June 21, 2018

People working towards sector transformation need to develop a communal language. A narrative that embeds different schools of thought. This was one of the subjects addressed at the recent seminar on Guiding sector transformation: Ensuring wider reaching impact in agri-food. Gareth Borman of the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation explains why this narrative is essential.

Transformation of agri-food sectors is needed in order to sustainably feed nine billion people by 2050. This is a complex challenge. Not only just in terms of satisfying calorific needs, but people need to be ensured access to safe and nutritious food at an affordable price under ever increasing pressure to make production and distribution practices more inclusive and sustainable. This calls for wider reaching impact than individual supply chains, and there is no blue print solution.

Complementary principles

Different approaches are being used to guide sector transformation: the chain approach (vertically oriented), the sector approach (horizontal) and the landscape approach (spatial). But people should stop competing for ‘the state of the art’ as the principles are complementary, and find a communal language, states Borman. He is advisor sector transformation at the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation. ‘Reflecting on our work, we see the need for this new narrative and want to develop this in dialogue with society.'

'All different approaches have their merits. But sector transformation is not a linear development. Often the problem is that the sector is headed down one pathway, striving towards the achievement of one outcome at the expense of others. Taking other goals of sustainable development on board, means potentially changing the direction of that pathway,' states Borman.

Zooming in and out

On the seminar ‘Guiding sector transformation: Ensuring wider reaching impact in agri-food’ of 24 May in Wageningen, the over 50 participants discussed the subject of widening the scope and integrating more objectives in development initiatives. Among the persons present were the participants of the WCDI-courses Integrated Seed Sector Development and Horticulture Sector Development for Emerging Markets.

Two arguments are important, according to Borman. ‘One, what we see is that guiding sector transformation is about zooming in and zooming out. You zoom in on technical aspects, for which the value chain is a suitable lens. But you also need to zoom out from time to time, to not forget about the landscape for example, about the effect of your technical change on the larger system. What if intensifying irrigation effects the drinking water availability? By zooming out, you discover these competing claims on resources that affect the performance of your value chain.’


A good example is the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation led project on improving the sesame business network: anything that could be key to or intersect sector development is addressed here. Production of pulses, teff and sorghum appeared to be supportive to the farming system of sesame for example. Pulses for crop rotation and soil fertility, and the other two as important food sources for the seasonal labourers the sesame production relies on.

Next, among other things, the sesame business network works towards improving the living conditions of these workers, empowering workers, improving financial literacy of farmers and setting up loan guarantee schemes, and incorporating youth in the sector. Borman: ‘We need to challenge ourselves to explicitly find a vision for the sector and pragmatically work towards it step by step, keeping an eye on where we are headed and where we actually want to go.’

Need for larger, longer term programmes

'Two, longer term, larger and integrated programmes are important,' Borman continues his statement. ‘If funders want programmes to have greater impact, fragmentation of investments must be diminished, efforts better aligned and synergies created.’ This argument is in line with the lessons recently drawn by the directie 'Internationaal Onderzoek en Beleidsevaluatie' (the independent International Research and Policy Evaluation Office) of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

They evaluated the contribution of the Dutch food security policy in partnering developing countries to higher agricultural productivity, higher farmer’s incomes, improved access to healthy food and the entrepreneurial climate. Subsequently, they considered the contribution to lessening hunger and undernourishment, and to sustainable food systems that can feed the world also on the long term. The evaluation learned, among other things, that the agricultural and chain oriented programme should be expanded to a coherent approach of food systems, from production to consumption, connecting initiatives.