We're “focusing on single solutions rather than systemic solutions”
A new organisation looks to "disrupt" food systems
This week, a new organisation was launched with the expressed aim to “disrupt the global food systems” to end hunger. It’s called the Shamba Centre for Food and Climate so it is *right* up my alley.
*Full disclosure* I know one of the co-founders, Carin Smaller, and really respect her work. I first met Carin virtually when I wrote a story based on a report by the Ceres2030, a partnership between Cornell University, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
She was co-director of Ceres2030 at the time and that report spoke to me because it talked about how investing in small scale farmers could achieve climate goals and end hunger.
We’ve since stayed in touch so when I found out she’s setting up this new organisation and that the three founders are all women - Carin from South Africa, Francine from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Oshani from Sri Lanka - I knew I had to talk to her.
The press release announcing Shamba Centre’s launch said, “Ending hunger is possible - now and forever - but it requires radical departure from the status quo.”
How? With an extra $330 billion in public investment for a start, Carin said, based on a roadmap and a budget provided by the Ceres2030 report. Below is a Q&A with her.
Q: If ending hunger is possible, why hasn’t it happened yet? What’s the barrier?
A: We’ve lost our sense of global solidarity. We’ve gone inwards, more nationalistic, less empathetic. There are too many politicians who thrive on division and hatred rather than unity and caring for one another.
COVID was a perfect example of that where the rich world hoarded vaccines, protected patents, and signed secret contracts with the pharmaceutical industry, that ensured the rich world was protected and the poor world left vulnerable. We could have saved so many more lives if we had chosen to first vaccinate all the vulnerable people in the world and then helped the rest.
We have enough money and knowledge to end hunger. It’s just not the priority of those in power. I hope this year has and will continue to be a wake up call that we should no longer accept this scourge.
Q: Tell us about the Shamba Centre for Food and Climate. What’s the idea behind the name, and more importantly, the organisation?
A: The mission of the Shamba Centre is to disrupt agriculture and food systems to end hunger for good. We launch in the midst of the worst food security crisis in our lifetime.
The crisis is the result of a systemic exclusion of the poorest and most vulnerable, and failures in how food is produced, distributed and consumed. It has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, energy price-driven inflation, climate change, and loss of biodiversity. And it shows that we need a radical departure from the status quo.
Shamba in Kiswahili means a farm or plantation that grows several crops. The “S” in the Shamba Logo is emblematic of an African shield, which is used for protection. The S is also representative of sustainable development, especially its social pillar. We must be the change that we seek to achieve.
As co-founders we bring 30 years of shared experience in food, agriculture, trade, investment, infrastructure, and sustainable finance. We are supported by a diverse and expert board and thought leaders who will help us keep our eyes on the horizon, challenging, searching, and pushing for lasting solutions.
Q: The three founders are all women. Is this intentional or a coincidence?
A: This is intentional. We will nurture, train and empower young women from diverse cultural and multi-sectoral backgrounds.
Q: Do we need another food organisation? What do you think the Shamba Center is bringing that is different from what’s already there?
A: We are not just another food organization. We are different. We are a new generation food and climate “do tank”.
How are we different?
First, we start with the system rather than a single problem. We then identify entry points to lower the barriers to transformative change. And we influence those with power to lift those barriers.
Second, we support evidence-based policy making, and not policy-based fact-making. We research the synergies and trade-offs across food production, distribution, and consumption, and advocate for interconnected solutions. We know the evidence and data is not always there. In these cases we build the evidence with well informed anecdotes and use our guts to go the extra mile.
Third, we know that where we need to be as a society is somewhere we cannot even imagine today because the challenges are so complex. We need to return so much of our agricultural land back to nature and move production off the land, and into urban and vertical farms, and even in the lab.
The answers for how to imagine an unimaginable future is through innovation and we are going to keenly follow innovation – indigenous, traditional and modern – because that is where the solutions are and we want markets that are ready for these solutions.
That is why we are different. We will always keep our eyes open on innovation while keeping our head in evidence, but still understanding (that) complex systems do not have the evidence we need fast enough and soon enough for us to act.
Take climate change - we waited too long for the evidence that human industrial activity is causing accelerated global warming and now, climate change has become the greatest existential threat of all times.
We can’t let that happen again. We need to look at what’s out there. What holds promise. That ambition is what makes us different.
Q: Are there any specific areas that the Shamba Centre is hoping to tackle? Why these particular areas?
A: We think the greatest impact will come from investing in producers in Africa and Asia, helping them become more economically, socially, and environmentally viable. We will advocate for rural enterprises to have better access and education on climate, nature and yield technologies, accompanied by extension services and training across the value chain. We will keep track of innovations that can help accelerate change from precision-tech to modern agroforestry.
We will help entrepreneurs scale up low-carbon solutions to reduce food loss and food waste. We will focus on sustainable technologies for energy, connectivity, processing, storage and transport.
We will back innovation in urban and vertical farming, plant-based proteins, and non-farmed meats as part of the longer term solutions.
We’ve already started our work.
Q: Yes, the press release lists quite a few things that are already on your plate, including the Zero Hunger Coalition and the Zero Hunger Private Sector Pledge and advising multiple governments. Can you explain a bit more?
A: We have been supporting and advising the G7 on the Global Alliance for Food Security, developing evidence-based and costed country roadmaps in Africa, and working with GAIN, FAO, IFAD and WFP, and others to build the Zero Hunger Coalition & Private Sector Pledge.
Last week the Zero Hunger Private Sector Pledge reached a tally of 44 companies pledging half a billion dollars to end hunger in 43 countries.
And, given how severely the debt crisis has affected hunger, we are advising countries on how to restructure their debt by swapping it for agricultural conservation and restoration projects.
Q: Where is the world going wrong when it comes to tackling the food price crisis we’re facing today?
A: It’s focusing on single solutions rather than systemic solutions that achieve multiple outcomes. The grains are blocked at the Black Sea ports, we try to unblock the ports. The fertilisers are not getting out of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, we try to get more fertiliser from other producers. These are band-aid solutions that fail to see the system and the potential for transformative change.
We should be using this crisis to rethink our over-reliance, over-use, and over-application of synthetic fertilisers. We should be using this crisis to invest billions of dollars in research and development to find alternatives to fossil-fuel based fertilisers.
We should be using this crisis to rethink our dependency on the few big staple crops, to rethink the effects of the big staples on our nutrition, on our soil health, on our emissions. We should be using this crisis to invest billions of dollars in research and development to boost innovation for traditional crops like millet, sorghum, and yams.
And instead of being obsessed with physical commodities, like wheat, or vegetable oils, or fertilisers, we should be launching the biggest social protection programme in modern history and giving people a minimum basic income to sustain a decent livelihood.
Q: What are your/Shamba Centre’s biggest concern(s) in the coming 6 to 12 months?
A: This crisis is far from over. What keeps me up at night is the ballooning number of people that are going to bed hungry every night. The generation that will be lost because they couldn’t get the calories, nutrients and vitamins they needed to sustain a healthy life.
And I think it will get worse before it gets better. Famine is about to be declared in Somalia. Debt crises are looming for far too many low and middle income countries. And we have lost any sense of global solidarity to help those in need.
The G7, the richest and most powerful nations, have taken steps to show leadership and do more with the Global Alliance for Food Security and the pledge to give an additional $4.5 billion in aid this year. But most of the money will go to emergencies and the humanitarian crises, and whilst this is critical to save lives today, it doesn’t fix the problems that I mentioned above. We have to be bolder.
Q: It seems everyone agrees we need to transform our current food systems, but there’s no agreement on how. I see the disagreement in two broad areas - those who see technology and innovation as key in producing as much as we can to feed a growing population, and those who say we need to tackle the broader political ecology and historical injustice and want to promote food sovereignty and agroecology. Where does the Shamba Centre fit?
A: The ideological differences are there and they are real. But when you put those aside, there is actually a lot of agreement on what we need to focus on.
There is agreement that we need to use technology and innovation to solve the problems in the food system today. The disagreement comes on whether we are finding those technologies and innovation in traditional and indigenous production systems or through industrial production systems.
We all agree that synthetic fertilisers are over-used and over-applied but we disagree on whether we need to phase them out completely and find alternatives ways to put nutrients into our soils, or if we need to find more precise technologies to help us apply the same synthetic fertilisers in a more efficient and effective way.
We all agree that the food system is rife with unequal power relations. We all agree that small-scale producers, fishers, foresters, particularly women, are the most excluded from progress and the most vulnerable. Where we disagree is how to empower them. Is it by helping them better organize in cooperatives and producer organisations, or through better competition law and policy that reduce the concentration of market power?
Where the Shamba Centre fits in, and why we are different, is that we see all these issues from a systems lens, and we find the barriers to transformation in the specific context where it is playing out.
This enables us to block out the ideological noise and find the most impactful entry points to lifting barriers. Sometimes that will be through supporting producers to better organize, and other times it will be to work with governments to reform competition laws. Sometimes it will be by supporting traditional crops and indigenous innovations, and other times it will be scaling up precision technologies.
Emerging Hunger Hotspots - Egypt
I’ve been working on this series for The New Humanitarian with some really talented local and regional journalists and we just published a new story, this time on Egypt, the host of the upcoming UN climate negotiations, where a combination of COVID-19, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and climate change, are wreaking havoc on its poor communities.
As the article says in its opening -
“Egypt, an African nation of more than 106 million people, finds itself at the heart of two of the largest and most pressing challenges the world is facing today – the food and climate crises.”
It is the world’s largest importer of wheat and Egyptians on average consume more than double the global average when it comes to wheat products. With domestic production insufficient to meet demand, it imports most of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
But since Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year and commodity prices have spiked, Egyptians are feeling the pinch. Interviews conducted by The New Humanitarian show cash-trapped households are cutting back on what and how much they eat.
Have a read here.