Posted on July 23, 2021

With food insecurity being one of the leading challenges facing the African continent, the University of Pretoria (UP) is co-hosting a research project aimed at understanding African food systems better and identifying solutions to achieve zero hunger in Africa.

On 12 July 2021, the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) fellowship officially began and 20 early-career researchers from six African countries joined their mentors from the UK and Africa in the first week of activities.

When designing the two-year fellowship, the FSNet-Africa team were aware that in order to have a meaningful impact and tackle the challenges within African food systems, they needed to come up with non-traditional ways of conducting their research.

FSNet-Africa Project Network and Research Manager Dr Elizabeth Mkandawire explained that the team came up with a model that, unlike traditional research, engages with stakeholders outside academia at all stages of the project to bridge the gap between science and society.

“The model that we use is novel and innovative. The challenges that our food systems face today require new ways of thinking. They require partnerships. As researchers, we need to collaborate with stakeholders to ensure that the research we produce is relevant and meets the stakeholders’ needs. The FSNet-Africa model aims to draw on partnerships with stakeholders to create and design research that is relevant and can inform policymakers how to transform the African food system,” Dr Mkandawire said.

She explained that the 20 early-career research fellows went through a rigorous selection process to be part of the project. “We received 98 applications from our ten academic partner institutions. The applications were reviewed by the respective academic institutions of the fellows and they submitted the names of their top six applicants to us. Each application was reviewed by at least two FSNet-Africa researchers. A selection panel then met to further shortlist 30 applicants. These applicants were interviewed by the FSNet-Africa team and in-country stakeholders. In a final selection panel meeting, the 20 fellows were selected. The fellows come from 12 different disciplines and 80% of our fellows are female.”

She added that each fellow will be provided a grant of up to £20,000 (approximately R400 000) to design and implement a research project related to the African food system.

“Fellows will work with their mentors (one from our ten academic partner institutions and one from the University of Leeds, UK) and food systems stakeholders to develop and execute the research project. Fellows will also participate in structured events in the next two years to strengthen their capacity to conduct transdisciplinary research and become research leaders. The project has made provision for each research team to be supported by a UP host who will help teams build networks within UP. These hosts come from across 14 departments and six faculties at UP,” Dr Mkandawire said.

Dr Melody Mentz-Coetzee, the project’s Senior Researcher and Network Learning Lead, said the project received funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund.

“Through the ARUA and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) partnership, institutions who host ARUA Centres of Excellence were invited to submit proposals to the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) for funding under the ARUA-UKRI Research Excellence call. Because UP hosts the ARUA Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS) with the Universities of Nairobi and Ghana, the university was invited to submit a proposal for a project. The FSNet-Africa proposal was jointly developed by colleagues from the ARUA-SFS and the University of Leeds (UK) along with colleagues from the Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN). FSNet-Africa is one of the activities under the broader collaboration between UP these two strategic partners – the University of Leeds and FANRPAN,” Dr Mentz-Coetzee said.

According to Professor Frans Swanepoel, FSNet-Africa Principal Investigator and Director, the COVID-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for researchers to explore the disjointedness of African food systems: “The COVID-19 pandemic made us more aware of how disconnected the different aspects of our food system are and the need to better understand and transform African food systems. In some areas, we had food going to waste because farmers were unable to access markets. Yet in other areas, people were going hungry. Examples like this highlight the importance of understanding how the different aspects of the food system affect each other. These are the type of connections we hope to unlock through the fellows’ research projects.”

Professor Lindiwe Sibanda, ARUA-SFS Director, said the Centre was excited about the opportunities that this research project presents.

“FSNet-Africa is an ARUA-SFS flagship project, and we are excited about the opportunities that the project brings for us to build sustainable partnerships with institutions and stakeholders across the continent as we work together towards zero hunger in Africa,” she said.

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