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How To Unlock Change In Ethiopia’s Food System


Join Us On A Collaborative Journey To Map The System


In Ethiopia, one in seventeen children dies before the age of five. Reasons rank from malnutrition, poor sanitation and hygiene and contaminated water, amongst others. Considered as one of the poorest countries on the planet, we wanted to understand:


  1. How do poverty and the current food system relate to one another?

  2. Where are the connections and interdependencies?

  3. Where are the constraints and what could be the opportunities to unlock positive change?


These were some of the many questions we embarked on answering, guided by a systems practice approach. Our team, located around the world, from Brazil to the Philippines, including Ethiopia, provided varied insights and perspectives. With a shared passion for social innovation and nutrition, we decided to put our heads and skills together and go on a collaborative journey to map the food system of Ethiopia. Our goal was to get an in-depth understanding, knowledge, and skills on how to map systems to consequently conduct social projects that have a strong positive impact on the root causes of problems.


System maps help us identify the specific points in the system - the areas where we can create true impact. But understanding an entire system isn’t trivial. So, where to start? Following the Acumen Academy’s Systems Practice course for nine weeks, we developed a simplified systems map that we’ll explain further in this article and by giving you access to our collaborative Miro board.


We are looking for contributors from Ethiopia and beyond - farmers, food startups, innovators, policymakers, consumers, organisations working on poverty and malnutrition, and anyone else involved in the food systems arena. We would love to engage you and get your contribution on how to specify our map further. The more detailed the map, the better it can help identify the root causes of problems and ultimately help organisations tackle them and unlock positive change.


Choosing The Topic


As a team, we chose to dig deeper on understanding “The Impact of the Ethiopian food system on poverty within local communities” for the following reasons:


  • We believe that not all the affected voices have been heard.

  • We wanted to challenge the question of whether different stakeholders have contrary interests and thus constrain further positive development.

  • We saw that there are several initiatives in place, but they seemed not to tackle the root cause of the problem. We wanted to find out why.


Furthermore, we assumed that local people know best. We believe in people’s empowerment; we wanted to see if we can find or create an opportunity for more efficient future development which could help individuals regain power.


Defining Guiding Star, Near Star And Framing Question


Before mapping the system with its stakeholders, activities and loops, we started by identifying our guiding star, a near star, and a framing question. This helped us to stay focused.


The guiding star is the vision of the future. We discussed what kind of “ingredients” it would need to make our future vision possible.


Together, we imagine “A food system that is centred on education, inclusion and self-sufficiency and that ensures the abundance of ecologically produced food for all people in Ethiopia.”

As our near star - or mission, we agreed on “Creating awareness through education to enable individuals and communities to contribute towards a food system that is more transparent, healthy and inclusive.”


Before going deeper into the research, we also formulated a framing question to help us stay focused in the process of understanding the system we were aiming to engage on. The following question guided us throughout the process:


“Which activities and projects have an impact on the food system and why? Where are the gaps and what are the forces that could unlock positive change?”


The Forces We Considered


As we reframed our work, we considered numerous forces that defined the current Ethiopian food system. However, due to time constraints and the vast nature of the work, we delved into the following forces:


  • the country’s history, political & economic system;

  • organisations working within the food ecology of the country with a focus on malnutrition and poverty;

  • agricultural processes and systems that contribute to the food system;

  • current work on building awareness and educating people on food and nutrition; and,

  • the innovations in place to strengthen or compromise food security within the country.


From these, we considered the enablers and inhibitors entrenched within each force - from leadership, the policies in place on food and nutrition, to inclusive community projects, and organisations that focus on education and awareness building. We also looked at issues of corruption in the agricultural and food sector and the inaccessibility of fundamental human needs, i.e. health, water and sanitation, and food supply in rural communities.


We do understand that the forces considered are not exhaustive; hence they may not fully articulate the current situation of the food system in the country. Thus, your inputs are critical to ensuring that our map truly captures the nature of the food system in Ethiopia.


Social Enterprises And Human-Centered Design As Enabling Forces in the System: The Example Of VitaBite


Being optimistic social innovators, we love reframing techniques and looking at the bright side of things - and systems. That is why we were intrigued by the virtuous loops within the system. One of our virtuous loops highlights the success of social businesses and their use of human-centered design.


As part of our systems research, we had a fruitful conversation with Melat Yosef, the co-founder of the Ethiopian social enterprise VitaBite. As a mother herself, Melat wanted to share her nutrition knowledge with other caregivers in the country. She saw that limited information and education on food and nutrition, especially for caregivers, may be a root cause of the high levels of malnutrition in children. She co-founded VitaBite and started by publishing a recipe book addressing mothers eager to improve their children's nutrition by using local foods.


In order to reach marginalised communities, VitaBite started an SMS-based recipe program. It resulted from a human-centered approach and aimed at improving the target groups’ knowledge about food and nutrition and ultimately changing their behaviour in engaging with the food they eat and feed their families.

Using the caregivers’ preferred way of communication and sharing easy yet healthy recipes has proved to be a successful strategy for the social enterprise.


How is this related to our system's loops? The SMS-based recipes not only bring about new ideas for cooking but also provide the caregivers with essential knowledge about nutrition. They learn how to feed their children healthy meals. Their changed behaviour results in a decrease in malnutrition.


Successful projects like this one establish trust in the people implementing them. Trust is essential for appropriate research results. Only authentic answers provided by a targeted group will lead to an understanding of their needs. Human-centered approaches continue to make sense in ensuring continual development and inclusivity within communities as their focus is on the needs of the target audience when implementing solutions.


Our Deep Structure & Minimum Viable Version Of Our Map


A lack of systemic understanding of the root causes and the target group’s needs increases the implementation of programs that only tackle the symptoms. Most programs focus on ending malnutrition while not considering innate causes, such as a limited education on food and nutrition within the communities.


We identified this limited knowledge coupled with a misunderstanding of what basic and healthy nutrition means as some of the factors that lead to a misuse of resources. This affects the health of community members, especially children. It leads to increasing levels of malnutrition and other related diseases.


When implementing programs without truly hearing the voices of the target group, communities lose trust in the work of governments and development organisations. Consequently, they might share information less openly, increasing the gap between them and the institutions trying to assist them.


Socialising The Map


After compiling several loops and further analysing some of the topics, we connected everything to a holistic systems map. Gaining feedback from people not involved in the current process of mapping the system was important for further development. We engaged Diluksion Francis. With a strong background in the humanitarian sector and currently working for Oxfam International in Sri Lanka, he gave us great insights on missing components. He especially pointed out the impact of natural disasters on access to food in Ethiopia.


Furthermore, he strongly agreed with the following facts:


  • Limited education on food and nutrition amongst caregivers plays a role in increasing malnutrition for children; and

  • Most organisations are rather addressing the symptoms instead of the root causes of social issues.

His feedback has been relevant in mapping our system. And we believe that your feedback will also contribute to improving this systems map.


Moving From A Systems Map To Strategy: Our Ideas For A Healthier System


As we moved forward to leverage our systems map, we explored the opportunities for engaging the system in different areas and the impact that can be created in different sectors. Through this, we developed an initial strategy intended at positively shifting the system.


  • We see great potential for impact in courageous leaders taking initiative towards building awareness and educating communities; thus promoting different approaches to tackling malnutrition in Ethiopia and inspiring others to do the same. The work of such leaders creates a ripple effect in the system, and the impact from their work may be seen in the short term.

  • We notice the strength of human-centered approaches in the system. We describe this as an authentic understanding of the community, working on solutions together to meet community needs. We believe it brings an energy for positive change; it is effective and can create long-term solutions at a systemic level.

  • We recognise social enterprises as a beacon within our systems map. Together with civil society and community-led organisations, they become enablers for positive change within the food system. They can promote human-centered solutions while also being financially independent of donors and government fundings. Most of these organisations are initiated by courageous leaders, and thus, connect to our first opportunity for change.

Besides coming up with ideas for a first strategy, we also identified some ways for our team’s contribution.

Our diverse backgrounds bring different perspectives, questions and answers. Our passion for social innovation and doing good for society makes us stick together. After learning and living social innovation together, we can use systems thinking and human-centered design to address the root causes of problems and build trust within the communities. We are ready to create partnerships among social enterprises, train social entrepreneurs, and share our subject expertise in the social innovation and food sectors.

Our contribution can accelerate what other actors are already doing by aiding them to map out their own systems, analyse the findings and ultimately define the strategies for change. Together, we explore opportunities and enable them to build projects and organisations that are sustainable and independent from donor and government funding. We are here to inspire community leaders and train them on human-centered approaches to empower their local communities.


By initiating community design groups for constant learning and improvement, training more locals to become social entrepreneurs, and building a network of innovators, we create healthier systems for all.


Our Learning Journey


Collaboration is key: Diversity in a team comes with varied perspectives, which enhance the outcome of any result. Involving different actors from many different fields and including their feedback is essential for broader understanding.


Visualisation shows important connections: Being able to visualise the map shows how the different forces are interrelated and supports a better understanding of the bigger picture. This is essential to impact a system holistically.


Systems are everywhere: Everything we look at is a system. You can analyse an organisation as a system as well as a country, a division, a project, even a family. Any setup with different forces playing together is a system.


Systems are never broken: Every tiny part of the system works accordingly to the set-up of the system itself. There can be supporting or constraining loops within a system, leading to unhealthy or healthy systems. Only by understanding the bigger picture and its interrelating forces can we unlock (positive) change.


You Are Invited To Contribute To Our Map


We wanted to find the correlation between Ethiopia’s food system and poverty. During this nine-week research, we also managed to learn a lot about Ethiopia as a country. Ethiopia holds the 2nd largest population in Africa. The highest contributor to the country’s GDP is the agriculture sector, while 85% serve the export market. Despite being rich in agriculture, the country still struggles to create a sustainable food system for its own population. Malnutrition and poverty remain high.


We also realised that multiple stakeholders such as non-profits and even policymakers spend a large portion of their time improving the systemic challenges within nutrition and food supply to benefit the locals. Unfortunately, many of these interventions occur in silos. This limits the chances of creating life-changing solutions for the broader population.


Solving the systemic challenges of poverty and food supply in Ethiopia is complex.


We, therefore, want to invite you to contribute to our open-source systems map and together identify the forces to unlock positive change in Ethiopia’s food and nutrition arena.

By clicking on this link, you will have access to our Miro board that demonstrates the path we took, the research done and the key areas within the food system that might serve as critical areas for improvement.


Please feel free to share your knowledge, insights, and ideas to help us better understand and ultimately co-create a food system in Ethiopia that is centered on education, inclusion and self-sufficiency, and that ensures the abundance of ecologically produced food for all people.





Authors: Chandapiwa Olesego Sisila, Piera Mattioli, Patricia Lay, Janica Solis, Faustina Ningá, Janina Peter


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