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Unpacking The Food System Story by Story

Exploring Levers Of Systemic Change And Narrating Better Stories For The Future Of Food

In April, we invited you to contribute to our open-source systems map that we had created to understand How To Unlock Change in Ethiopia’s Food System.

Guided by the vision of “a food system that is centered on education, inclusion and self-sufficiency and that ensures the abundance of ecologically produced food for all people in Ethiopia” we continued our journey as #FoodSystemsHeroes and organized an Independent Dialogue online. The results contributed to the United Nations Food Systems Summit that was held in September this year.

Intending to gain further understanding and insides while holding space for different ideas and perspectives, we identified humanity-centered design, social entrepreneurship and courageous community leaders, as well as education as some of the key levers of change.

To keep the conversation going, we are sharing some of the ideas, projects and stories from different parts of the world that inspired us when holding the UNFSS Independent Dialogue.

We Need to Tackle Systems, Not Silos

Kinza Mahmud, Senior Associate for Leadership at Acumen, was one of our keynote speakers at the Dialogue. She spoke about the organisation’s mission, her own role at Acumen, the importance of thinking in systems and what to expect when taking the Systems Practice course. Acumen is “changing the way the world tackles poverty“. The organisation aims to serve and educate social innovators and individuals that are ready and willing to find solutions for the world’s toughest problems.

“It is going to take all of us. The work of social change is tough, it’s complex and, most importantly, it’s relational. So it really does take all of us to do it.“

Thinking In Systems And Designing For Humanity Amplifies Our Actions’ Impact

Have you ever encountered yourself facing a challenge to which a straightforward solution didn’t work? Have you asked yourself why? Maybe you were even confronted with unintended consequences? If so, it is likely that there were several forces at play within the system that you didn’t yet see or understand.

Thinking in systems helps us to see the relationships between different actors and forces. It helps us to understand the underlying root causes of complex challenges. Gaining this understanding enables us to build holistic and sustainable strategies, so that we get the largest impact for our actions.

Community Leaders Are Key Drivers To Realize Solutions

Danielle Marques, an Amani fellow currently working as a product owner at IBM, serves as a volunteer for an NGO in Rio das Pedras, one of the biggest favelas in Brazil, located in the city of Rio de Janeiro.

Aiming to reduce malnutrition within the community, Semeando Amor’s mission is teaching people how to eat a healthy diet while taking full advantage of the food they get or buy. Introducing new recipes to the people is part of the solution.

Understanding the target group, including their culture, circumstances and beliefs, is key. Vegetarian recipes, for example, are not accepted by some households as eating meat is seen as a privilege and sign of a “proper meal”.

“If you teach something that is not aligned with the food culture, they won’t cook it or buy the idea”, says Danielle, “As a consequence, they won’t trust the initiative or they will not incorporate it in their lives”.

Building connections with community leaders is crucial. The leader’s daily experience and relationship to the beneficiaries provide a unique perspective about the local culture. Gaining their trust and confidence, and sincerely wanting to understand the needs of the community, help the team pave the path towards new approaches and co-creating a solution that is humanity and reality centered.

Leveraging The System: Partnering With Existing Organizations In Benin

In Benin, Alessia Andena, a project manager and Amani fellow, contributed to a project run by the Camilian Sisters in Zanvié. The team works on solving severe cases of undernutrition by using natural superfoods like Moringa and Spirulina algae. Both superfoods are produced by the sisters themselves.

In Benin, Alessia Andena, a project manager and Amani fellow, contributed to a project run by the Camilian Sisters in Zanvié. The team works on solving severe cases of undernutrition by using natural superfoods like Moringa and Spirulina algae. Both superfoods are produced by the sisters themselves.

Using the existing infrastructure of a hospital, children, together with their mothers, were admitted for a certain period of time. Following a holistic approach, the team first concentrated on improving the children’s health situation while also supporting the mothers by teaching them how and what to feed their children.

Having gained this knowledge throughout the project work, the mothers then shared their learnings with other mothers in their community. Thus, the project created a positive ripple effect.

Think Local, Share Global: Leveraging Indigenous Knowledge

Alessia shared insights about a second project, quite similar but located in the Amazon in Brazil, which she also contributed to. The project focused on the creation of a multivitamin food which was made from local ingredients. The indigenous population benefited from a new superfood to treat undernutrition and an additional income.

“Very often there are amazing projects around the world that you cannot find on the web because there are not enough resources, usually human resources, that can dedicate themselves to sharing what they do.”, says Alessia.

Connecting to local leaders and their communities, being willing to listen with empathy and truly embracing the realities people live in is one part of the journey to find the right solution. Giving project leaders and their teams a global platform can be another one. The three initiatives mentioned here all have one goal in common: finding solutions for undernutrition. What if they were able to share their knowledge and insights effortlessly, learning from and with each other, and thus, being able to create even more positive impact?

From Motherhood To Self-made Nutrition Expert And Change Leader

Melat Yosef Dejene is a mother of two and the founder of VitaBite Nutrition. In 2011, when she had her first daughter, everything was new. One of her biggest challenges was the moment when her daughter was supposed to start eating solid food.

"I was shocked. I didn’t know what to give her. I went to the supermarket and bought packaged child food which I gave to her every day.“

Even though Melat realized the lack of diversity in her daughter’s diet, she had no idea how to feed her differently. Besides receiving advice from a friend, Melat started to educate herself: on children’s nutrition, on causes of undernutrition and on treatment possibilities. Stunned by her findings, Melat decided to do something about it.

Melat started writing down recipes for her children’s nanny to prepare for them when she was at work. The recipes turned into a draft book that she shared with friends and family. Wanting to make this knowledge available to more caregivers, Melat published her first recipe book “1000 days”. VitaBite Nutrition was created.

Undernutrition is highly related to poverty. Especially low-income families often lack access to resources and knowledge.

Based on humanity-centered research, VitaBite started an sms-based recipe service for those families to gain access to knowledge they would otherwise not have received.

Founding a business in Ethiopia is not easy. The country lacks networks, funding opportunities, knowledge and infrastructure. Existing policies can be challenging.

But Melat resisted.

„What made us continue throughout the years was the feedback we got from our customers and how our products and services were helping them“, she says.

Melat is one of the courageous leaders in the food system, transforming it step by step. She also co-created “Social Enterprise Ethiopia”, a network for social businesses aiming to build a more conducive ecosystem for social enterprises in Ethiopia. Currently, they are developing policy reform, capacity building initiatives and a broader networking ecosystem.

Education And Agriculture Should Go Hand In Hand

When trying to change any system there is no way around education. But what do we actually mean by education or sharing knowledge?

Education itself needs a transformation. Most people still think of education as a top-down approach. But as we stick to this way of educating, as societies around the globe, we miss out on taking advantage of the talents, resources and creativity that lies within every human being.

Sharing knowledge empowers people. It means enabling them to be and live the best versions of themselves while contributing to the benefit for all.

An agricultural project that some of our team members are going to implement in Ethiopia, aims to empower local smallholder farmers and their communities. The project team is going to use regenerative agriculture in symbiosis with education to unlock the human potential to live in healthy, equitable and regenerative societies.

When analysing the system, they uncovered the need to not only educate local farmers and their communities but also and above all project staff, industry leaders, politicians and all stakeholders involved in trying to create alternative systems.

Every single one of us working in the social change arena needs to develop a way of thinking that is driven by collaboration, continuous learning and adaptation. We have to gain the awareness of the interconnectedness of all things within complex systems.

The project team starting the regenerative agriculture revolution in Ethiopia will therefore collaborate with international partners while making the Ethiopian locals the protagonists of their own change success story.

In order to further innovate we need to constantly question our own and other people’s assumptions, listen to each other with respect and empathy and never stop asking why. We can certainly learn a lot from each other as well as when consulting nature or ancient knowledge and wisdom that has long been forgotten.

As we have seen in the stories narrated in this text, it is imperative to involve regional cultures, traditions and wisdom in the process of creating truly positive change for all.

What is your connection to food?

Food connects all of us. It touches every aspect of our lives. What is your connection to food?

From farm to fork, we would love to hear your story.

Share your food story here to be highlighted and included in the Eat. Share. Connect. project, a collaborative, crowdsourced book unpacking the food system story by story.

We are excited to continue on our journey as #FoodSystemsHeroes. Stay tuned for more inspiration to come.

Authors: Patricia Lay & Janina Peter

Special thanks to all other contributors: Danielle Marques, Alessia Andena, Tsholofelo Wechoemang, David Moore, Suruchi Anand, Sandra Mbuli-Mwangi, Piera Mattioli, Faustina Ning'a, Chandapiwa Olesego Sisila, Janica Solis, Melat Yosef Dejene, Kinza Mahmud & everyone who joined us on the journey!

Images: Omotayo Tajudeen (Titel image), Piera Mattioli (Graphic recording), Semeando Amor (Rio das Pedras, 2 images), Bana du Bénin (Spirulina production), VitaBite (VitaBite community in Ethiopia, 3 images), IFAD (Cabbage farmer), Cheervinska

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