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Food security a "three worlds" problem
Author: AgriSciences: Engela Duvenage
Published: 22/05/2024

The three worlds that South Africans simultaneously occupy in one country seriously impede food security on a household level for all citizens. It is a given that their respective access to assets or capital greatly influences the level of food security that citizens will experience. The more balanced their levels of access, and the greater their ownership and control over assets are, the more resilient households can be, said agrifood systems expert Dr Hlamalani Ngwenya, guest speaker of the May 2024 African Food Dialogue session at Stellenbosch University (SU).

“The African Food Dialogue is an initiative of the Southern Africa Food Lab. It couples the idea of a public lecture with facilitated dialogue around the theme of African food systems. It brings together diverse, influential stakeholders in southern African food systems to respond to systemic issues in creative ways and to inspire change in how we think and act on complex social challenges," explained Prof Danie Brink, dean of the Faculty of AgriSciences, in his welcoming address.

Topics such as the place of a wildlife economy in the African food sector, child hunger and the influence that geopolitical, financing and energy issues have on food security were addressed in previous Dialogue sessions.

The latest session was facilitated by Dr Nyasha Magadzire, a postdoctoral researcher in food system transformations in Africa at the SU Centre for Sustainability Transitions (CST). She introduced Dr Ngwenya, who has worked in the agrifood systems space for the past 32 years and in over 60 countries alongside major institutional role players. She consults internationally and is founder and CEO of Facilitation of Systemic Change Consultation (FoSCC). Dr Ngwenya previously served as the Western Cape Department of Agriculture's Chief Director of Agricultural Producer Support and Development, and also lectured at the University of Pretoria and the Free State. She holds a PhD in sustainable agriculture, specialising in the facilitation of systemic change in the context of agricultural extension service delivery systems, and in 2021 received the South African Presidential National Orders in the category Order of the Baobab (bronze). The award recognised her contribution to sustainable agriculture, education and community empowerment.

Pillars of food security

Dr Ngwenya's African Food Dialogue talk was titled “Three worlds in one: Will we ever solve for X the food security development paradox?". She raised fundamental questions about the value of current strategies used to solve complex challenges, and asked if new options might not now be needed.

She pointed out how the global focus on food security dates back to the so-called Green Revolution following World War II, and initially emphasised increased production. The concept of food security has subsequently evolved over the past three decades around the following pillars: availability, access, utilisation, short-term stability, agency and sustainability.

The United Nations Food Summit states food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Access as a key driver of food security

Dr Ngwenya focused on the issue of access. She borrowed from the Sustainable Livelihood framework that suggests the importance of five capitals (human, financial, natural, physical and social) in enhancing people's resilience to shocks. She argued that “when people have a good balance of the five assets, they are able to resist shocks and achieve necessary levels of their own food security".

“The different worlds people live in is determined by the nature of the assets or capital they have access to, or own," she noted.

“Our country has three worlds in one, sometimes within a 10km radius. Around 10% of the South African population falls within the 1st world, 50% in the second world, with 40% populating the 3rd world.

“This situation is not unique to South Africa. Every country has three worlds, but the difference is that in South Africa the gap between the first and the third worlds is much wider. The divisions are typically along racial lines. There are also significant gender gaps and differences between urban and rural areas."

Dr Ngwenya further pointed out some contradictions or the development paradox that have a bearing on the country's broader food security issues.

She said statistics and rankings can be deceiving and not paint a full picture of the real situation in a country. In 2020 the World Bank rated South Africa as an upper middle income country and 36th in the world according to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, when GDP per capita is used, the global ranking drops significantly. On the Human Capital Development Index (HDI), South Africa only ranks 13th in Africa, compared to for instance Kenya in 3rd place and Zimbabwe in 8th position. South Africa's economy is stronger than that of both these countries. South Africa is said to be food secured at national level, yet food insecure at household level.

Living in different worlds

Dr Ngwenya said that even in an inclusive economy, certain minimum standards still exclude some people, as these tend to be based on first world standards.

Relating from own experience, she highlighted the difficulties and dualities that many South Africans experience in moving between these worlds.

“I am a paradox myself. Sometimes I feel schizophrenic, uncertain about which world I am in, and which aspects in the one I am comfortable to trade in another."

She recounted her roots growing up in Giyani in Limpopo, and how her family and friends enjoyed eating pumpkin leaves and mopani worms as the main dishes. She fails to understand why these ingredients are unavailable in mainstream supermarkets, not even in ones that serve areas where about 80% of the population relies on these food items.     

Quest to ensure food security at a household level

She challenged the audience to help South Africa and the continent at large to achieve an inclusive economy and food security at a household level.

Her experience in the agricultural sector for instance showed her that many people living in informal settlements do sterling work, but struggle to access government support because they are not part of a so-called legal system.

“They are the most vulnerable, and yet the most excluded in terms of access," Dr Ngwenya added.

She said the local agricultural sector, including researchers, should take note of innovations coming from elsewhere in Africa, in their search for relevant solutions to South Africa's own issues and challenges.

“The rural communities in South Africa experience similar challenges to that of many other counterpart countries on the African continent. Some of their solutions can be useful for our communities" she cautioned.

“Finding and addressing the real heart of the problem is key to addressing the complex challenges in South Africa.  Otherwise, all efforts might be rendered vain. Sometimes the solution could be something small but if it is at the heart of the matter, it could have the highest leverage point for better investment," Dr Ngwenya concluded.

* The African Food Dialogue team decided to not only talk about food insecurity but to put their money where their mouths are. They have cut down on snacks served at its events, and to donate an amount to the Faculty of AgriScience's emergency Food Drive that provides meals to students in need. ​

Caption: From left to right:

Prof Danie Brink, Dean of AgriSciences, Mrs Clementine Matsobane, PhD candidate in Sustainable Agriculture, Dr Hlami Ngwenya, guest speaker, Dr Nyasha Magadzire, facilitator of the conversation and Mr Tshepo Kikine, Master's student in Food and Nutrition Security.

​Photographer: Henk Oets