Women in Science (WISA) celebrate a team of female research experts leading transdisciplinary research in Africa’s Food Systems at the African Research Universities Alliance’s Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS) at the University of Pretoria (UP).
According to UP researchers leading this thematic area, Professor Hettie Schönfeldt and Dr Nokuthula Vilakazi, 80% of women participate in and contribute to different processes in Africa’s food system. With roles in the production, post-harvest handling, processing, packaging, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, it underscores women’s role in driving the food system. Women also represent half of the workforce in agricultural-based livelihoods and constitute the majority of workers in different sectors of the food system.
At household level, women are central in providing for and preparing nutritious food for their families. Yet, Africa’s food system is plagued with complex challenges that limit women’s full access to productive assets such as land, nutritional foods, incomes and food security benefits. This falls short of the gender quality, women and girls empowerment targets set under Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5. Researchers, development partners and policymakers are therefore confronted with addressing these disparities through conducting evidence-based research and proffering transformative solutions to improve the food system.
In addition, Africa continues to lag in meeting SDG 2, which aims to ensure access by all people to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round and to end all forms of malnutrition. According to recent statistics, over one in five people faced hunger in 2020 and millions suffer from micronutrient diseases.
Despite a positive shift in development worldwide, Africa continues to face mega problems such as stunted growth, obesity, low agricultural productivity. Food insecurity and malnutrition have led to a significant rise in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and various cancers.
Against this background, the UP-hosted African Research Universities Alliance Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS) has put together a team of research experts across multiple food-related disciplines related to food systems to work towards addressing systemic challenges in research, practice and policy throughout the food system.
ARUA-SFS was established in 2018 as a collaborative partnership of three universities; the host, UP and two the Universities of Ghana and Nairobi. The primary objective is to harness partnerships in research and innovation to drive food systems transformation and ensure sustainable food security and nutrition in Africa.
Research in food systems is expansive and covers multiple sub-disciplines. However, the siloed and sector-specific approach adopted across research disciplines limits cross-sharing of evidence, research findings and possible solutions to addressing food related challenges. The ARUA-SFS team adopted a transdisciplinary approach seeking to reduce gaps between disciplines while promoting multiple-level sharing of research outputs. Director and Chair of ARUA-SFS, Prof Sibanda says that transdisciplinary research challenges researchers to think beyond their field of expertise while tapping into the insights and evidence from other disciplines.
Through ARUA-SFS, an innovative trans-disciplinary approach to investigating Africa’s food systems seeks to join multiple research topics. A total of four thematic areas were identified as of primary importance anchor transdisciplinary research spearheaded by ARUA-SFS:
Unleashing the potential of Africa’s Crops by Prof Cecilia Onyango from the University of Nairobi. Together with post-doctoral fellow, Dr Sussy Munialo, they coordinate research on mapping studies focusing on Africa’s crops by scholars in various fields. African households depend on indigenous vegetables for the much-needed nutritional seasonally consumed by households in sub-Saharan Africa.
Improving Africa’s Herds: The thematic area focuses on the improvement of African livestock considering the different climatic and productions environments. It also addresses the interface between pastoralist communities and wildlife populations. The generally held belief is that livestock is owned and managed by men. However, research shows that women also participate in the tending of livestock and contribute to food security and nutrition. Prof Esté van Marle-Köster leads the thematic area and works closely with post-doctoral fellow, Dr Pamela Pophiwa.
Safe and nutritious foods: the triple burden of malnutrition continues to hamper progress towards eradicating hunger. This thematic area focuses on research and pathways into providing safe, sufficient, nutritious and consumer driven food. Drawing on locally available and indigenous food sources, people can have access to affordable, balanced, nutrient dense food. Prof Hettie Schönfeldt leads the thematic area and is supported by Dr Nokuthula Vilakazi.
Evidence-led policy: the crafting of actionable policies requires evidence-based research that provides accountability. The thematic area is coordinated by Prof Irene Egyir from the University of Nairobi and supported by the post-doctoral fellow, Dr Elmer Ametefe.
“Women smallholder farmers produce over 70% of Africa’s food, yet less than 20% of women own rights to farmlands. It is important for researchers to engage in dialogue leading to appropriate policies towards gender equity for sustainable food systems.” – Dr Elmer Ametefe
Across all four thematic areas, cross-cutting issues such as empowering vulnerable groups, using technology and big data to harness new innovations, climate-smart thinking are considered. ARUA-SFS aims to create an engaging global network of talented researchers to move institutions forward in pursuit of a common goal. Each research cluster also draws on the expertise and experience of seasoned researchers in other regional and international universities. Presently, ARUA-SFS has a strong African footprint through its two ongoing flagship programmes Capacity Building Food Security for Africa (CaBFoodS-Africa) and the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa)
As the research progresses, gender concerns and the plight of women are guaranteed to be addressed by the entirely female composition of the transdisciplinary research team. This decisive and intentional move seeks to address gender disparities and inequality in the contribution of female scholarship to the research agenda. Tapping into the diverse research backgrounds of animal science, biochemistry, nutrition, agriculture resource management, food science provides an analytical basis for responding to key questions around Africa’s food systems.