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The Southern Africa Food Lab: Linking action research to collaborative innovation on food security

Ralph Hamann
Associate Professor and Research Director, UCT Graduate School of Business
Chair, Southern Africa Food Lab

The Southern Africa Food Lab (SAFL) is a multi-stakeholder initiative that brings together diverse role-players with passion and influence in the regional food system to identify and pilot innovative means to achieve long-term, sustainable food security. It seeks to respond to the ‘wicked problem’ of hunger, which threatens to worsen in southern Africa due to poverty, stretched bureaucracies and infrastructure, resource degradation and expected climatic changes.

The Food Lab’s origins lie in research conducted on the topic of ‘co-opetition’ – we asked, when and under what conditions will private sector competitors collaborate on issues of common and public interest, specifically food security? This research put us in touch with colleagues at the Development Bank of Southern Africa working on similar issues and we agreed that there was a need for more committed, hands-on action.

We established a working group with a number of key role-players from business, civil society, and the government, and then organised a multi-stakeholder workshop in February 2009. This workshop led to a proposal to implement a year-long ‘Change Lab’ process, and towards the end of 2009 funding was committed by GIZ and Reos Partners were contracted to apply their innovative facilitation methods.

The Food Lab was developed in three phases during 2010. The convening phase involved in-depth interviews with 21 members from the different parts of the food system. In Phase two, three Learning Journeys were undertaken in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo to experience first-hand the challenges and opportunities in the production, distribution and consumption of food. Phase three focused on identifying and implementing promising innovations in a collaborative manner, including in particular a two-day innovation workshop.

The resulting innovation teams, which communicate and act under the umbrella of the Lab, have coalesced around four themes:
1)    Supporting primary producers, particularly emerging farmers, by building upon and providing targeted support to the various existing initiatives – this group has recently received a boost through a partnership with the University of the Western Cape funded by the Ford Foundation;
2)    Enhancing the distribution of food in low-income communities – this initiative has, among other things, led to a study focused on the role of packaging in low-income communities (conducted by Massmart) and the development of an appropriate food basket for such studies (involving UCT’s Sharmilah Booley, among others);
3)    A national conversation on food security – this group has initiated training programmes for journalists on food security and has also supported the establishment of a ‘Section 5 Committee’ on the Right to Food by the South African Human Rights Commission; and
4)    Food security and urban planning – this group is the most recently established and has facilitated a presentation to the Green Building Council Convention in October this year (by UCT’s Jane Battersby-Lennard).

The Food Lab has continued into 2011 with dedicated support from the University of Stellenbosch’s Food Security Initiative and with Prof Milla McLachlan taking on the Director position. It is an innovative partnership between researchers and practitioners, with unusual collaboration opportunities and resulting benefits for both groups. The initiative itself has been the subject of popular and scholarly publications, and it has given rise to a special edition on food security of the scholarly journal Development Southern Africa. Our involvement has also provided numerous teaching benefits, with dedicated lectures on the topic provided inter alia to the GSB’s MBA and EMBA students.
The Lab thus illustrates the possibility of committed, hands-on contributions to policy and action with direct links to research and teaching. It also shows the potential role for universities to provide much needed spaces for deliberation between diverse role-players. Special thanks in supporting the Food Lab go to the GSB’s research coordinator, Tamlyn Mawa, and our support staff in the GSB’s Events, Finance, and IT departments.

Rural Women’s Action Research
Faculty of Law

The Rural Women’s Action Research Project (RWAR) of the Law, Race and Gender Research Unit (LRG) sits at the nexus between interdisciplinary scholarship, public interest litigation and social mobilisation.  It was established with the broad objective of supporting rural women who are engaged in struggles for change in relation to land, power and custom in South Africa’s former homelands, home to 17 million South Africans.  In doing this it aims to fill a substantial knowledge gap on the operation of “living customary law” and to develop more nuanced theoretical understandings of the nature of customary law and governance, and the relationship between rights and culture.  The paucity of such evidence often means that codified colonial and apartheid versions of patriarchal customary law triumph by default in court and in policy debates.  RWAR’s research has provided a novel point of departure for further scholarship and local activism.

RWAR is consciously structured to involve external partners and to facilitate dialogue in a number of ways.  It is explicitly participatory in its methodology, working through and actively supporting and building the capacity of rural CBOs.  RWAR partners with public impact litigators in identifying cases, developing strategies and building an evidence base, and seeks out collaboration with academics in South Africa and abroad.  RWAR’s partnerships are based on mutual respect for the different knowledge possessed by individual partners, a commitment to learning from each other, and a sincere engagement on this basis.  Participatory research methods also demand partnerships with local communities in developing shared understandings of social problems.  As such, RWAR’s research and legal interventions are guided and directed through in-depth consultation with rural people, and consciously draw on local knowledge.  RWAR partners with rural men and women and CBOs and NGOs to make submissions to parliament and to intervene in policy debates.  While seeking to build a rigorous scholarly evidence-base, the project is inherently responsive, using the research it generates to respond to related threats and opportunities.  RWAR then feeds back the findings of further research to its partner organisations and communities through newsletters, seminars, workshops and electronic media.  This reciprocal transference of knowledge is at the centre of the RWAR model.

RWAR works across a range of issues relating to traditional leadership and governance in South Africa.  Fieldwork is focused primarily on three areas: Msinga (KwaZulu-Natal), Keiskammahoek (Eastern Cape) and Ramatlabama (North West).  RWAR partnered with the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE) to survey 3000 women in these areas about changes in women’s access to communal land.  RWAR is also increasingly working in other former homeland areas, particularly in Limpopo.  A number of workshops have been hosted by RWAR for traditional community members, dealing with matters such as customary marriages, communal land rights, traditional leadership, traditional council elections, and the Traditional Courts Bill.  The workshops have served to illuminate problems such as the resurgence of tribal levies in traditional communities, in response to which RWAR has launched a tribal levies project.  This project has drawn on historians, constitutional lawyers and economists for expertise and now forms the basis for strategic litigation to challenge the practice of extorting levies.  RWAR was furthermore involved in the ongoing process of preparing research and evidence for the legal team and in briefing the rural communities involved with the Tongoane case, in which the Constitutional Court declared the Communal Land Rights Act of 2003 to be unconstitutional.