Using digital technologies to harness better food systems

Africans are embracing agriculture technology (agritech), such as artificial intelligence, mobile platforms, drones and more to combat the various threats to agriculture, food security and accessibility.

Mmabatho Montse
Sep 22 · 5 min read
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In light of the importance of food security in Africa, the Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN) hosted a webinar to discuss the role of civic tech and digital transformation in food security, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impact of coronavirus on food security and nutrition, mainly affecting the most vulnerable communities has intensified food insecurity. The webinar opened a discussion about leveraging civic tech in mobilising communities and enabling public engagement to assist with hunger, food accessibility, and looking to indigenous food culture for better nutritional value.

Lesley Williams, pan-Africanist and CEO of Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct facilitated the webinar. Tshimologong is one of Johannesburg’s newest high-tech addresses in the inner-city district of Braamfontein and aims to realise African digital innovation for global markets. Lesley opened the webinar by posing pivotal questions ranging from the impact of Covid-19 on food security, the dualities between the culture of foodies and food insecurity, and between hunger and wastage.

She implored the speakers and audience to think about how these myths can be burst, how questions around seed development should be framed differently and how the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals can be achieved. Lesley spoke further on how COVID-19 has deepened the disaster of food insecurity, making South African one of the hotspots of hunger.

Our speakers included Kevin Naidoo, who is the co-founder at Food Equity, Equality and Democracy (FEED), Rorisang Tshabalala, founder and Chief Executive of Chapter One Innovation and Namhla Skweyiya, Food Technologist and Farming Management Professional, who is passionate about the accessibility and security of food, particularly among vulnerable communities.

Kevin has spent many years as an entrepreneur, exploring how business, technology and culture could be used as mechanisms for change. This included time in sectors as varied as financial services (working predominantly with under- and un-serviced communities), software development and technology (particularly in financial services), agribusiness, the food and beverage industry, the creative industries (with a primary focus on the music industry) and the social enterprise/non-profit space (particularly with social entrepreneurship and indigenous knowledge); with exposure throughout the African continent.

Some of Kevin’s critical reflections focused on how more equitable food systems can be healthier for the food ecosystem, the necessity for all people to have equal opportunity to access healthy and culturally appropriate food produced using cost-effective and sustainable methods. When asked how things can be improved to ensure the accessibility and sustainability of more nutritious and culturally relevant food in communities, “I believe the collaboration of small farm-holdings and entrepreneurs through cooperatives and using bottom-up approaches to find solutions can enable improved efficiencies and overcome unfavourable market forces,” said Kevin.

In his role at Chapter One, Rorisang has been involved in building ventures and servicing clients globally across sectors including the mining, media, healthcare, ICT, retail and education sectors.

Passionately talking about the transformation of food systems in South Africa, Rorisang emphasised the need for change at all levels to achieve access to a just and equitable market. He spoke about the role and influence of food systems. How the fresh produce value chain significantly impacts the foods consumers have access to and eat and the nutritional and economic implications on township and rural communities.

In some of his deliberations, Rorisang indicated that he believed entrepreneurs have a significant role to play in capturing the value chain and offering the market something different, something that is more than just about profits! “To the extent that we cannot do much about policy — more can be done from an entrepreneurial perspective”, he said.

Namhla Skweyiya is a Food Technologist and Farming Management Professional who’s passionate about food safety, food security and human development. Her professional background and experience have allowed her to steer some individuals toward a sustainable future. She has a wealth of knowledge attained through her twelve-year career as a Food Technologist in two of the leading Food Retailers in South Africa; Woolworths (Pty) Ltd and Pick n Pay (Pty) Ltd. She also amassed excellent knowledge in the farming industry as a Farm Owner and Manager of Milane Farms (Pty) Ltd, a subsidiary of In2Food (Pty) Ltd.

Lesley asked Namhla to share some of her thoughts on opportunities for the redistribution of value within the food value chain. Namhla said that collaboration between large scale farmers and small holding-farmers could increase value for consumers. She added that some of the drivers of food insecurity include food wastage, the inability to increase efficiencies in the food value chain and the slow integration of technological innovations to reduce food wastage and loss.

Namhla also spoke about the lack of sufficient data collection to enable holistic approaches to some of society’s challenges in securing food accessibility. She emphasised the importance of open data and the centralisation of data in promoting efficient planning and solutions-driven interventions against food insecurity and inaccessibility, particular in far-flung rural areas that are challenging for NGO’s to reach.

Issues and challenges around the impact of land grabs, equitable land redistribution and restitution were discussed. The speakers identified constraints of access to capital to work the land as a significant stumbling block for emerging young black farmers. The current patterns (profit-driven) of capital markets were identified as one of the drivers of food insecurity.

There was a consensus among the speakers that there needs to be a better and more coherent understanding of the full food value chain, with young farmers being encouraged to investigate the production of seeds and the inculcation of a culture that promotes indigenous food options. Amongst other challenges, high costs of food make nutritious and healthy food options inaccessible to vulnerable communities. Issues around the cost of capital, brand investment, food processing, distribution and logistics were identified as the factors influencing the high cost of food.

The speakers identified the role of technology as pivotal in ensuring effective harvest and post-harvest practices to minimise food wastage, ecological storage and sustainable practices in supporting economic growth, social growth, increased food security and accessibility.

Some of the key questions asked included how we can start packaging African solutions as value, identifying the extent of the role played by NGO’s in ensuring food security and accessibility to vulnerable communities and how we can create Ubuntu centred value chains. These questions are critical in finding inclusive and sustainable solutions and systems that will lead us to a more equitable society.

Civic Tech Innovation Network

Mmabatho Montse

Written by

Mother, Entrepreneur, Humanist, aspiring Social Activist & Writer

Civic Tech Innovation Network

The CivicTech Innovation Network newsletter and online magazine is produced by the journalism and media lab, university of the witwatersrand, johannesburg

Mmabatho Montse

Written by

Mother, Entrepreneur, Humanist, aspiring Social Activist & Writer

Civic Tech Innovation Network

The CivicTech Innovation Network newsletter and online magazine is produced by the journalism and media lab, university of the witwatersrand, johannesburg

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