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By definition, Food systems are the sum of actors and interactions along the food value chain—from input supply and production of crops, livestock, fish, and other agricultural commodities to transportation, processing, retailing, wholesaling, and preparation of foods to consumption and disposal. There are hundreds of organizations working towards building sustainable food systems regionally and globally.
A quick look at the work of organizations working in the food systems space indicates a strong focus of each organization on one or few aspects of the food system. What does that result in? These organizations often start focusing on their missions year after year and eventually start operating in silos. This completely dilutes the purpose of building a sustainable food system. While this is bound to happen as there are limited resources and focusing on everything cannot be the answer; there is a possibility to have a more pragmatic approach and an increased collaboration with more organizations to scale up the impact significantly.
Working in a systemic manner is important as it can scale up impact, improve return on investment for investors/donors and help countries meet their SDG targets. So as an organization (irrespective of the size) working on building a sustainable food system it is key to ask yourself the following questions:
Image Source: https://foodtechconnect.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/food-system-map4.jpg. Produced by shiftN for the Future of Food and Farming project, UK Government Office for Science (2011)
The first question here is what kind of change you envision with the work of your organization. And how does it contribute to the big picture of a better food system. Is the change incremental or disruptive? To understand if the change is incremental or disruptive, we look at two main factors: firstly, is the change in outcome expected to be a minor improvement from status quo or is the outcome expected to be radically different. Secondly what is the number of food system stakeholders involved in driving the change. If there is a higher buy-in and involvement of various stakeholder groups, higher are the chances that a changed outcome will be able to sustain itself over a period of time.
This should not be confused with the scale of operations, which could be small or large based on the focus and capacity of the organization.
Figure 1: The transformation scale
The next step is to assess have you included all levers of change in your strategy that can support driving the impact (ideally disruptive) that is envisioned. All the elements of the food systems are connected and can have an impact on the ability of your organization to achieve the vision. Further it is highly unlikely that one organization can bring about the required change at scale. However, it is important that organizations are designed to collaborate, set SMART goals, track outcomes and continuously improve. As a result, it is imperative that organizations include the 6 key elements in their organizations as levers to drive change. The 6 key elements include: shared vision, actionable strategy, clear roles & responsibilities, business case for action, strong M&E system and an effective organization. A brief description of the 6 key elements can be seen in the figure below.
Figure 2: The six key elements model
Identifying stakeholders and engaging with them is not enough. It is equally important to understand what motivates them to behave the way they do currently? What incentives are needed to change the actions of stakeholders and collaborate effectively?
Understanding the rules of the game played currently in a given market is key in designing relevant incentives for stakeholders to partner with any organization. Organizations must try and map what is the market rewarding currently and what is it competing on. For instance, if low prices are being rewarded, it is highly unlikely that the food produced will be sustainable. It is also key to understand who is getting affected the most by the existing dynamics and what structures exist that support, strengthen or fail to correct the existing behaviors and dynamics. And finally assess to what extent is the change of behavior of actors feasible.
Understanding these elements can help organizations unclog areas that hinder the ability of an organization to become systemic and also identify the right incentives for partners.
Figure 3: Illustration of a 4-loop model that visualizes the rules of the game that creates unsustainable outcomes (From the Changing the Game book)
Having a systemic vision, strategy to achieve the vision, the right configuration of stakeholders, and incentives to drive the right actions can go a long way in increasing the scale of impact in an efficient manner. This approach and three simple questions can enable your organization to significantly contribute to achieving a future-proof food system.
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