The importance of systems thinking in agri-food development: a case study of the Integrated Seed Sector Development (ISSD) in Ethiopia
The last Vijverberg session of 2022 was a hybrid event on 14 December 2022. FoodFIRST invited two guest speakers, professor Ruby Rabbinge and professor Mohammed Hassena, to discuss the importance of systems thinking in agri-food development. First, Professor Ruby Rabbinge, University Professor Emeritus of Sustainable Development and Food Security at Wageningen University, the Netherlands, provided a broad perspective on systems thinking in agri-food development. He primarily emphasized that system approaches are vital for the development of food security at a global scale. Focusing on aspects of the food systems as independent entities will not be enough: we have to combine all the factors into a more holistic and coordinated approach. Only then, we can facilitate the food systems transformations that are becoming increasingly important for ensuring food security.
Then, professor Mohammed Hassena, former deputy manager of ISSD and current project manager of the Ethiopian Netherlands Seed Partnership, illustrated this system transformation by presenting a concrete case study of the ISSD programme in Ethiopia. In his presentation, he demonstrated how the ISSD programme evolved over the past decade and what we can learn from this experience.
Key takeaways and policy-relevant insights
This Vijverberg session was concluded by discussing some points raised by the audience. Prof. Rabbinge and prof. Hassena were asked to share their perspective on the role of the NL in contributing to improving food security in Africa. Agreement was found in the vision that rather than focusing on sharing knowledge on agricultural practices, the NL should assist in facilitating systems transformation and how the government can facilitate this change process. Other key points in this discussion were the biases around Green Revolutions, lessons learned from such revolutions in other parts of the world, and the impact of geopolitical tensions on food systems.
Presentation prof. Ruby Rabbinge
Against the background of systems thinking, prof. Rabbinge kicked off his presentation by informing the audience about the six so-called ‘megatrends’ in agriculture of the past decades. These can be listed as agricultural productivity rise, the change of agriculture’s character from craft to industry, the chain approach, the importance of the interplay between food and health, the biobased economy, and the multiplicity of objectives in the food system.
The first megatrend encompasses the agricultural productivity rise of the last century. We have seen enormous increases in land productivity, and increasingly so in labour productivity. What is counter-intuitive, prof. Rabbinge explained, is that our efficiency in the use of external inputs has increased as well and we thus need fewer inputs, for higher yields. The system not only grew more productive, but potentially also more environmentally friendly.
The second megatrend, the character change from craft to industry, implies that we have seen a shift from adapting agriculture to the environment, to being able to optimally control agriculture through the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. This use of science and technology has resulted in high levels of value-added and increased efficiency.
As a third megatrend, we came to experience a chain approach that became more consumer-driven. Issues such as food quality, -safety, and convenience foods have increased rapidly in popularity.
The fourth megatrend, prof. Rabbinge explained, is the threefold of objectives of the food system: it should be environmentally friendly, animal friendly, and the landscape should be maintained.
Then, the fifth trend focused on the interplay between food and human health, and the aim to produce health-inducing components through choices in inputs, farming systems, and processing.
Lastly, we experienced increased attention for the potential of a biobased economy. We realized that high value products, such as flavours and pharmaceuticals, were produced more efficiently by plants than with inputs from the chemical industry.
Following the presentation of these megatrends, prof. Rabbinge identified the five main challenges of the global food system: food security, biobased economy, human health, stewardship of the environment and the planet, and climate change. With a growing population, we will need to produce twice as much food by 2050, while respecting the planetary boundaries. The key takeaway from these trends and challenges is that we have to produce more, with fewer resources, in a healthy and accessible way. According to prof. Rabbinge, emancipation and increased income for women will be critical for controlling this envisaged increase in population.
He explained that we have to develop the food system by strengthening the four pillars of the food system: availability, accessibility, utilization, and sustainability. In terms of availability, we can further improve as the majority of land in the world has the potential to increase its productivity. Then, this food should be physically and economically accessible for all. Utilization is also extremely important, as the body has to ensure and optimize the uptake of nutrients from food. Then, amidst these efforts, we have to respect the planetary boundaries.
Prof. Rabbinge further explained how unsustainable agricultural production is threatening the resource base. Human-induced causes of soil degradation consist of overgrazing (35 percent), deforestation (29), overexploitation (7), mismanagement (28), and the bio-industry (1). The way out, according to prof. Rabbinge, is to follow the production ecological principles. We have to first consider what is possible where, hereby taking into account the defining factors (CO2, radiation, temperature, and crop genetics), limiting factors (water, nutrients), and reducing factors (weeds, pests, diseases, pollutants). Limiting factors are of utmost importance, according to prof. Rabbinge, as in many situations, soils are not thirsty but hungry. Bringing water in places where there is a lack of nutrients, problems get accelerated instead of solved. This can in turn lead to actual yields far below potential yields, thereby increasing the yield gap.
In Africa, there is potential to decrease this yield gap by improving the production ecological principles. However, in terms of agricultural production, Africa is lagging behind as it has not yet experienced the exponential growth in productivity that happened during Green Revolutions in other parts of the world. Recent developments point to an acceleration of the African green revolution, which is of urgent necessity with the continent’s fast-growing population. Initiatives such as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)- a landmark frontline initiative for African agriculture- contribute to this process.
However, the road to this revolution is often hindered by prejudices, myths, bans, and dogmas about the food system, stated prof. Rabbinge. We have to beware of this and acknowledge three types of ecology; evolution ecology, resource ecology, and production ecology and their applicability to different regions. Depending on the region, one type may be preferred over the other and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
As closing remarks, prof. Rabbinge emphasized the need for the collaboration between policy, science and industry, and society, also known as the golden triangle, in order to foster sustainable development in the agri-food sector. Important here, he said, are the public-private partnerships, high commitment and short lines between these three sectors. If operating successfully, this golden triangle can facilitate new solutions such as climate-smart agriculture.
Presentation prof. Mohammed Hassena
Following the presentation of prof. Rabbinge, Jan Willem Molenaar (speaker of the previous Vijverbergsession) reminded us of the fact that systems can be of any scale; global, regional, and local. But, he continued, whatever system one decides to change, it requires a holistic approach. To anchor system change, it is important to work on the less tangible aspects of this change, such as; relationships between stakeholders, power, trust, norms, values, and mindsets. In the absence of this vision, structural change is extremely difficult. According to Molenaar, an inspiring example of such a system change can be found in the transformation of the seed sector in Ethiopia.
After this introduction, the floor was given to prof. Mohammed Hassena, who shared his experience with changing and transforming the seed system in Ethiopia through the Integrated Seed Sector Development (ISSD) programme.
He explained that in the past, the seed system in Ethiopia was very much supply driven and dominated by public companies. Also, there was little leadership in the system from public authorities. This led to a narrow band of varieties of seeds, a mismatch between supply and demand, and inefficient seed distribution. Against this background, the ISSD programme was brought to life with as goal to foster pluralism and build programs on the diversity of seed systems.
This not only implied increased interaction between informal and formal seed systems but also recognition of the complementary roles of the public and private sectors. Central to the system change they envisaged, was the promotion of entrepreneurship and evidence-based seed sector innovation, as well as support for enabling policies for a dynamic sector.
In his introduction, Jan Willem Molenaar shortly reminded us of the importance of a holistic approach when facilitating system change. Prof. Hassena explained that ISSD took such a holistic approach to the seed sector transformation by including various domains such as services, seed production, marketing, and governance. Hassena continued his presentation by focusing on the governance sector.
In the absence of leadership in the seed sector, ISSD introduced the concept of a regional seed core group in 2010, which was a type of collaborative governance. This group introduced some changes in the marketing of seeds, the regulatory system, and the EGS management system for public varieties. From 2016 onwards, ISSD started working at the federal level as well. The main challenge that arose when coming to the federal level, was to deal with the political turmoil and cabinet change, especially in 2017 and 2018. While these frequent challenges posed commitment challenges in some ways, they also created opportunities. For example, the first minister in 2017 was actually a member of the regional core group in one of the regional states, which evolved into well-established relationships with the ministry. The minister requested ISSD to assign experts to assist the ministry in the seed sector. Consequently, ISSD formulated two strategic interventions:
The establishment of the seed governance was supported by the creation of a seed unit and ad hoc task force comprising experts, senior civil servants, and advisers to the state ministers, that focused on strategic activities to facilitate the change process. Consequently, a major task of the seed experts was to facilitate an advisory group. When brought to life in 2017, the composition of this National Seed Advisory Group (NSAG) unfortunately did not meet expectations. Dominated by senior staff members from the MoA, the group made neither decisions nor made strong analytical recommendations. The ISSD then came to the conclusion that it was not on the same page with the ministry, as the latter lacked internal motivation to change and was more interested in continuing existing practices. Additionally, there was a high power imbalance as the ministry tended to give out orders.
In response to these challenges, ISSD decided to give time, and focus on other activities in the meantime. In 2018, the seed unit and NSAG were under threat, as certain staff of the ministry questioned the legitimacy and effectiveness of the units. The core problem of the NSAG was that those who had to be advised, were its members. However, this threat turned into an opportunity through the decision to reorganize the advisory group. From that point on, the members of the group were limited to external professionals and the NSAG started to work.
Parallel to this development, there was increased attention to the establishment of bottom-up governance in the seed sector on the regional level. In April 2018, ISSD worked on regional seed sector governance, leading to the establishment of regional core groups. However, in the meantime, the minister and the state minister changed again, creating new opportunities as the latter was familiar with the collaborative forms of coordination that ISSD had established at the regional-state level. This accelerated discussions on the governance of the seed sector.
In November 2018, a workshop was organized to consolidate the efforts made by the regional core groups. This workshop resulted in a draft transformation agenda which was then positively received by the state minister. Consequently, the latter tasked the advisory group to finalize the strategic guiding document, and the ISSD Ethiopia to facilitate that process.
Prof. Hassena concludes that the lesson learned from this case study is that this all was a process of clearing the way toward transformation. While the initial phase was not structured clearly, the ultimate goal has always been to transform the system. This leads to the insight that adaptive management is key: we have to think about how to use opportunities and overcome challenges on the road to system transformation. As closing remark, Prof. Hassena reminded us that within system transformation, trust- between stakeholders as well as in the facilitator- is crucial.
Following the two presentations, the audience got the opportunity to take part in the discussion and asked some follow-up questions. The dialogue started off by discussing biases and preconceived ideas around the concept of Green Revolutions. Prof. Rabbinge shared that instead of repeating the Green Revolution that had happened in Asia or the western world, he prefers to use the term ‘Rainbow Revolution. This terminology implies that elements that were neglected in previous Green Revolutions, are now taken into consideration. AGRA, he continues, would benefit from taking a more rainbow-oriented approach instead of building up only productivity in crops.
Another participant asked prof. Rabbinge and Prof. Hassena to share their vision on how the Netherlands can contribute to improving food security in Africa. According to Hassena, the contribution of the Netherlands is twofold. Firstly, the NL should contribute to improving and facilitating technology in the agri-food sector. Secondly, the NL should focus on facilitating system changes. What is challenging in Africa, he explained, is not about knowledge of agricultural practices as such, but rather about system thinking and how the government can facilitate this change process. Prof. Rabbinge agreed that sharing knowledge is not enough. He underlined the importance of understanding the typical characteristics of the groups and countries in order to answer questions that are raised and not answer questions that are not raised.
Furthermore, one of the participants raised the point that we should listen to the farmer and understand what their difficulties are. While prof. Hassena agreed with this statement and acknowledged the role of the farmer in the system, he pointed out that in order to facilitate system change, we should primarily change the mindset in the government. The problems, he continued, arise on the system side and therefore the farmers do not need to be included in the regional core groups.
Another participant proposed to take a closer look at the lessons learned from the far east, and question how countries like Bangladesh and Cambodia are lifting up out of poverty, while Africa is lagging behind. The dialogue continued with another participant questioning the role and responsibilities of the African governments and AGRA in improving food security on the continent.
The dialogue was concluded by discussing the geopolitical vulnerabilities, particularly in the context of the conflict in Ukraine. Prof. Hassena explained that in Ethiopia, the war has been a wake-up call. As a response to shortages, the government made efforts for the wheat sector to be more self-sufficient. However, prof. Hassena continued, it should be taken into account that promoting this self-sufficiency is at the expense of other sectors, such as horticulture, and can in the end lead to an overall loss in GDP.