How to make change in urban food systems happen?

How to make change in urban food systems happen?

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Charlotte Flechet
Charlotte Flechet
Good Food For Cities programme director

In early December, Rikolto had the pleasure to welcome representatives of 7 cities from Africa, Latin America and Asia in Leuven, Belgium for the event "We feed the city". Over the course of one week, we exchanged about our challenges, solutions and ideas to make local food systems more sustainable and discovered over a dozen concrete initiatives that try to make safe, fair, local and healthy food available to consumers.

While it was evident that cities have a critical role to play in creating a favourable environment for those solutions to blossom, it was also clear that they cannot make this change happen alone. Policies and strategies create incentives for change through obligations, restrictions, taxes and subsidies but the bulk of resources are in the hands of economic actors.

For change to happen, there need to be incentives for all actors in the food chain to modify their behaviour: from food producers to processors, vendors and end consumers – and this can be done by ensuring fair prices for all, and long term commitments. At Rikolto, we have been working with food producers and companies for decades. If there’s one thing that we have learned, it is that without a good business model than works for everyone, sustainable food chains are unlikely to scale up. This is why we are convinced that inclusive business relations between urban buyers, transformers, and (rural and peri-urban) producers is a key enabling factor of the transition towards sustainable food systems.

Without a good business model than works for everyone, sustainable food chains are unlikely to scale up.

What do we mean by inclusive business?

When we talk about inclusive business, we refer to the inclusion of often forgotten groups such as smallholder farmers, low-income consumers, youth and women into the value creation process within the food system. Inclusive business calls for the need to look for sustainable solutions implemented by economic actors that can sustain long term achievements, beyond the timeframe of a project.

Our assumption is that to ensure long term environmental and social benefits of our global and local food system, we need to come up with solutions that are economically sustainable and able to support themselves financially. This is of course not the only pathway, but one that we consider critical to deliver impact in our current society.

Today, it is estimated that up to 70% of the food consumed in many developing countries, including in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia is produced by small-scale producers. At the same time, the majority of smallholder food producers, both in the global south and global north, are struggling to access business development and financial services that would enable them to enhance their productivity, marketability and ability to meet high quality standards that are increasingly demanded by local urban markets.

In order to sustainably include smallholders in urban food chains, we must go beyond a mere value chain approach and embrace an approach that simultaneously tackles various other drivers of change: e.g. consumers’ trust in local food, a policy framework that promotes local food sourcing, the dynamics among young people in rural areas and in the cities.

How does this inclusive business approach work in practice?

There are many entry points for action. Inclusive business models are the responsibility of both private and public actors. During the event "We feed the cities" two weeks ago in Leuven, my colleagues presented a series of initiatives that contribute to changing the recipe of how food is sourced, produced and consumed in cities.

In Leuven, Belgium, a group of actors that include the city and provincial authorities, the farmers’ union, and various civil society organisations, is developing a B2B local food distribution platform “Kort’om” to connect farmers from around Leuven with different buyers in the city: retailers, restaurants, schools and catering companies. In contrast to traditional distribution channels, farmers are able to set their own price – within a certain margin – and make sure that they always recover their production costs. Earlier this year, we were also involved in launching Generation Food, a movement composed of farmers, students, and entrepreneurs working to build a sustainable foodture through entrepreneurship.

In Hanoi, Vietnam, Rikolto works closely with Hanoi’s Plant Protection Department to put Participatory Guarantee Systems on the agenda of the city’s agricultural policies. As an affordable participatory certification, it supports the inclusion of smallholder farmers in safe food chains and the accessibility of safe food to urban consumers.

In Tegucigalpa, Honduras, we collaborated with a local supermarket chain and a consortium of local producers to develop an inclusive business model to source local vegetables for urban supermarkets, which has already led to a dramatic decrease in vegetable imports.

In Arusha, Tanzania, together with the members of the Arusha Food Safety Committee, we are developing a KIOSK model to make local food that complies with food safety standards, available to consumers on their local markets at an affordable price while ensuring a fair price for farmers.

Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) – an often-forgotten ally

SMEs have an important role to play in the transition to sustainable food. In Africa, for example, they control 64% of food consumed across the continent (AGRA, 2019). In October, I had the chance to participate in “Cracking the Nut”, an international conference investigating how market-based solutions can improve nutrition and health. Together with Dr. Christine Chege from CIAT – the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture – and Mamadou Ciss from the farmer organisation APROVAG, we hosted a session on “Bridging the rural/urban gap: how inclusive business models can feed cities sustainably.”

The experiences shared by my two co-hosts were beyond inspiring. In Uganda and Kenya, CIAT worked with two local SMEs to develop new porridge flours that are affordable, nutritious and available to consumers on local markets. The purpose of this initiative was to replace existing flours by more nutritious ones that would be similar in price and meet consumers’ preferences, to improve the nutrition of poor consumers and ensure a fair income of all value chain actors. In Senegal, Mamadou Ciss and the members of local producer organisation APROVAG are striving to reconquer the banana market in Dakar which is currently dominated by imported bananas. APROVAG is working to improve the production, marketing, quality management, packaging and transportation of bananas from the Gambia river valley to ensure good jobs and income to its banana producers.

The keyword? Collaboration!

Clearly, there is no such thing as a “one size fits all solution”. To move towards local food systems that deliver value and quality products to all, we need to carefully investigate the risks, constraints and trade-offs made by the myriad of actors that constitutes cities’ food environment. More than ever, this calls for a close collaboration between research institutions, local authorities, the private sector, and civil society.

This systemic inclusive business approach is at the core of Rikolto’s contribution to more sustainable city region food systems. With our Food Smart Cities programme, we are willing to take up this challenge and co-create solutions with partners to make sure that all the actors in the chain get a fair deal, that all consumers have access to healthy food, and that future generations can live on a healthy and prosperous planet.

Do you want to read more about how different cities take the lead towards more sustainable food?

Do you want to read more about how different cities take the lead towards more sustainable food?

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Pictures on this page: Paul Currie (ICLEI), Selene Casanova (Rikolto), EOS Tracé