Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Innovation, technology, and the need to be grounded in material realities and contemporary problems

I read a post today by Sally Roever, the Director of Urban Policies Programme at WIEGO, called "You don’t need facebook to tell you how to pick waste’ – Technology and innovation at the base of the economic pyramid," in which she discusses the necessity of engaging people at the 'bottom of the economic pyramid' to develop meaningful and democratic approaches to technological change. She notes that "technology can be embedded in power hierarchies related to gender, caste, occupation and the value chain." Understanding this means acknowledging that any work that promotes technology runs the risk of exacerbating social and political oppression. Likewise, technology can produce liberation, but, in order to do so, it must meet the needs in context of those it is intending to serve. The pathways towards liberation are not intuitive, and will not necessarily follow past trajectories, which is why it is absolutely imperative for any researcher (or other change agent) to get one's shoes dirty.

The same points apply to technology as it relates to food security and food systems.  As I mentioned in my last post, the evolving dominant narrative in agrifood development work in Africa concerns a so-called 'food systems transformation.'  The word 'transformation' here refers to both a 'natural' and universal trajectory that (apparently) happens as a result of urbanizing food demand, as well as the need to invest in structural 'transformation' that can handle that demand. In this narrative, engaging with the people who are actually currently doing the heavy lifting of food distribution isn't a critical feature of the approach because that kind of food system is considered to be 'fragmented,' as well as pre-modern, and therefore time-bound. It won't be the first or last time I say it, but assuming any future trajectory based on past trajectory is dangerous and is fundamentally, at its core, a narrative that serves to oppress people. Why economists, many of whom would probably pride themselves on being driven by empirical evidence, and are probably unlikely to believe in soothsaying or determinism, perpetuate this kind of thinking is something I haven't figured out, yet.

In contrast to approaches to food transformation that see the ‘magic’ in the technology, specific institutional structure and relationship, or intervention, I am of the mind that social and technological change is an outcome of processes that promote co-created responses to locally defined problems and forums that promote creativity, relationship-building, and mutual accountability.   Our focus through the Frugal Innovation Practicum is to support innovation in local food systems, particularly as it relates to small- and medium-scaled food exchange. We are motivated by the recognition that these local food livelihoods play a vital role in urban food security and urban economies, but that they are neglected and often maligned by policymakers and researchers. But viewed through a lens that grounds them in place and according to local conditions, such food-provisioning activities can be seen to be well-adapted to the realities facing many in growing African cities.[i]  For example, these food systems are decentralized and therefore widely accessible to people in all parts of the city; food is generally available in small quantities, which accommodates people who make very small incomes and for whom refrigeration is not an option; due to personal relationships, food is often available on credit; their highly individualized, ad hoc nature makes them extremely nimble and able to adapt to opportunities and constraints as the city changes and grows.  At the same time, and due to underinvestment in the sector, individuals bear the costs of poor infrastructure, poor sanitation, and high transportation costs. Such conditions result in a situation in which food retailers have little energy, resources, time, and power to invest in social and technological change that could help them to improve profit margins and develop their businesses.

Solving such issues is possible and necessary.  Yes, cities are growing, but the future of food is not set in stone.  Taking a wider view that sees beyond the past and recognizes the infinite options that can come out of creative engagement is what is required for sustainable food systems that serve people in democratic and just ways.

[i] White, S (forthcoming). Urban agriculture as adaptive capacity: An example from Senegal. In WinklerPrins, A. & McClintock, N. Global Urban Agriculture: Convergence of Theory and Practice between North and South. (Ch. 11). Oxfordshire, UK. CABI. 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The 'Food Systems Transformation' Narrative: a failure to imagine a new food system for unprecedented times

This post addresses the evolving narrative of 'food systems transformation' in Africa. Food systems transformation (FST) is a way of framing and constructing a discussion about how socioeconomic and demographic trends will affect food supply and demand over the next 30-50 years. Basically, what this narrative tells us is that Africa is urbanizing quickly, and that with this urbanization comes income growth.  Income growth, in turn, leads to a growing (or, 'transforming') demand for perishable foods like meat, dairy, and fresh produce. To meet this demand, food systems will need to 'modernize,' i.e. undergo structural transformation.  Structural transformation includes things like lengthening supply chains over a wider geographic area; vertical integration and consolidation; increased use of purchasing standards and contracts; mechanization; and, increased capacity to process foods (see this and this, for example).  In short, FST is really nothing revolutionary (even though it is sometimes presented as just that, perhaps because it helps to 'sell' the narrative); rather, it is a 'wash, rinse, and repeat' repackaging of the same trajectory that brought western food systems to their current configuration (a configuration that is increasingly charged with being unsustainable and inequitable, and with producing unhealthy results).

The sureness with which this framing is presented, almost as if it is a fait accompli, is the most worrisome thing about it because it truncates the impetus to grapple with uncertainty and therefore undermines the possibility for inventing new food futures. It also negates the need to look at how current configurations are not all that good at providing high quality food at an affordable price to all people. And shouldn't that be the ultimate metric of whether or not a food system is succeeding? (according to at least one economist I know, the answer to this question is a resounding 'no.'  Some level of starvation and malnutrition are just universal, unavoidable truths, apparently).

The narrative is appealing to decision-makers because it is neat and tidy and provides them with a road map for making choices about where and how to make investments.  It doesn't hurt, I'm sure, that this narrative relies on multinational food corporations playing an integral and positive role in the transformation. But, it must be noted that a couple of the assertions that this narrative relies on are questionable.  First, income growth does not necessarily coincide with urban population growth (e.g., see here and here). Secondly, urbanization might be more closely linked with economic growth, but much of what is happening in Africa isn't urbanization; rather, it's population growth in both cities and rural areas (David Satterthwaite and Deborah Potts, both long-time urban scholars, have written extensively and carefully on this subject).*

But, perhaps most objectionable is that this narrative asserts the need for a food systems transformation, comprised by already-defined processes and practices, and thus completely ignores the ways in which current food systems function and how they are important to both food security and livelihoods. I've looked for and failed to find a characterization of the current food environment and an examination of why it is not up to the task of future food provisioning.  It's almost as if those who favor the food systems transformation narrative can see nothing of value or of interest in knowing, appreciating, and understanding current food exchange relationships and practices. I find this offensive as both a scholar and as a human being.

In Africa, food provisioning and exchange is largely the province of individuals.  It makes sense that in agriculturally-oriented economies, many people would find their livelihood in food-based employment, even if they aren't necessarily farming.  This is true in both urban and rural areas. Most of this work takes place in what is referred to as the informal sector, which means that people are very often working for themselves, and are not afforded any social or legal protections. Very often, what goes on in this sector is invisible to those who rely on formal sources of data.**  If you are familiar at all with these highly individualized systems of exchange, you know that they often appear chaotic.  In cities, especially, they can appear both chaotic and unsanitary. When I was doing data collection for my dissertation, I started to refer to them as 'in-your-face-food systems' because, once you start noticing where food is, you see that it is everywhere and is not confined to the strict boundaries found in western food systems. Food roams the streets, is in the back of cars, carried on heads, grown in vacant lots, and is being pounded, killed, butchered, or otherwise processed for consumption in kitchens, on street corners, and in markets. Importantly, these food systems have evolved over time, and in association with local social, political, economic, and physical change.  What they lack in efficiency, they make up for in nimbleness. Furthermore, the various practices in such food systems are well-suited to contemporary social and economic conditions (I've addressed how different conceptual frames can highlight the qualities of these food systems in different ways.)

I believe new food futures are inevitable; I do not believe that the western world holds the key to inventing those food futures. By assuming there is nothing of value in non-western forms of food provisioning and exchange, we do a disservice to the need to dramatically reconfigure food systems to be more sustainable.  In the short term, we undermine the need to generate grounded research on how people navigate situation-specific food environments, and, thus, overlook how we might support their efforts to food-provision their households. Furthermore, we cheat ourselves of important insights that might be applied to fixing our own broken food system.

*It is necessary to distinguish between urbanization and urban growth. Urbanization refers to the proportional increase of urban populations in relation to rural populations and may indicate a shift out of an agriculturally-based economy into a more industrialized and production-oriented economy.  Urban growth does not.
** My go-to source for definitions and statistics on informality is WIEGO.org.  This publication gives a good overview of the history and conceptual understanding of informality: "The Informal Economy: Definitions, Theories, and Policies (pdf)."

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Innovating, but in what direction?

I run an experiential service learning course called the Frugal Innovation Practicum in which I ask students to use an innovation systems framework to understand what enables or drives change in local and regional food systems.  The bulk of active learning in this practicum takes place in urban open-air 'wet' markets in Lilongwe, Malawi.  Prior to our departure to Malawi, I ask students to practice using this framework in the local food system in and around MSU.

This conceptual framework is proposed by Hekkert et al. and is oriented towards system processes or 'functions,' rather than static structures. I think this framework is useful because it helps to disaggregate innovation; in other words, it helps to give some specificity and shape to innovation processes so that it is possible (1) analyze the system and its strengths and weaknesses, and (2) intervene in particular ways to drive purposive change. In general, researchers have used this framework to understand what drives change in relation to a particular technology, such as renewable energy.

Of course, it's not enough to look at innovation systems in a vacuum, because the obvious question is, what are we innovating towards?  Innovation for innovation's sake alone produces things like you'd find in the SkyMall catalog. So, where food is concerned, and to avoid the SkyMall effect, we need to explore and understand what values drive particular innovations and be more deliberative about whether or not we are moving in the right direction.

At this point, if our food systems aren't innovating towards improved sustainability or equity, or generating improved nutrition, then it's not the right kind of innovation.  This is a difficult and contested question. No one owns the concepts of 'sustainability,' 'equity,' and 'nutritious,' and they are commonly stated goals in contemporary discussions on food and food policy. So, maybe all of us working in food systems can agree that these are necessary qualities to work towards, but as to how they influence policy and practice, what they actually look like in practice, and how they are measured, is where things get murky.  There are some fundamental assumptions, as well as power relationships, that influence how someone will define these qualities. I intend to spend some time unpacking some of those assumptions, but I do have a working theory: sustainability, fairness, inclusiveness, resilience, nutritious, and all the other good things that we want from our food systems cannot be 'retrofitted' into the existing and prevailing food regime. Instead, they must emerge as outcomes of food system relationships and practices.

Friday, September 23, 2016

In Lilongwe, Fire Burns Central Market to the Ground

We received the unfortunate news that one of the main markets in Lilongwe burned to the ground last night.  Many, many people rely on these markets for livelihood and easily accessible sources of food.  LUANAR and MSU students worked in this market, known as Central Market, over the summer, where vendors identified a number of problems, and had decided to create a plan to improve access to water.  The money that students raised with MSU's CrowdPower was going to go directly to this critical need.

Fire is an all-too-common occurrence at markets throughout African cities. Just two years ago, there was a fire that razed Tsoka market, just down the road from yesterday's fire.  Improving the safety and habitability of these places is critical to supporting livelihoods, and where it relates to food exchange and provisioning, has implications for city food security.

The article highlights the frustration and anger that vendors feel, but also highlights the struggle that municipalities have in responding.  Relationships between city small- and medium-scaled business-people and government officials can be improved by addressing critical needs.  As it is, however, municipalities have few means or resources to draw on to begin to improve these relationships, the physical environment, and the capacity to respond to emergencies.

A Malawian student from the first Frugal Innovation Practicum, Flora Shonga, visited the scene and sent a few pictures along, and also noted that vendors were weeping and that 'the source of the fire is not yet known.'

Friday, July 22, 2016

Small- to Medium-Scale Urban Legume Exchange in Lilongwe

This report has been finished for quite some time, but we've finally got it posted on the GCFSI website: Small- to Medium-Scale Urban Legume Exchange in Lilongwe.  It reports on research conducted over the summer of 2014 in association with researchers at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR). The following is lifted from the Executive Summary.

Through a coordinated series of intensive studies, several teams of researchers sought to shed light on the question, “Where and how can multipurpose legumes be scaled for sustainable intensification of maize systems and what would the potential impacts be, in the medium term, across the food system in Malawi?” The integration of multipurpose legumes into maize-based farming systems is a well-known and well-regarded agronomic innovation that can improve soil fertility, raise maize yields, and diversify and improve household nutrition and livelihoods. To date, most multipurpose legume research has taken place in relation farmer adoption and the on-farm production environment. In contrast, this GCFSI research project recognizes that farming systems go well beyond the farm gate, and that innovation in off-farm food system policy and practice can have a profound impact on farmer decision-making.

This particular study is qualitative and is meant to understand better the constraints and opportunities in the legume sector as small- to medium-scaled entrepreneurs describe them. Findings are largely based on response rankings. Due to the conventional wisdom that pigeon pea is a legume of the south and not widely available in Lilongwe, it was surprising to find that most respondents carried it. Given demographic patterns that show population movements from south to north, it is expected that the demand for pigeon pea will grow as more southerners settle in the central region. To enhance the ability to accommodate demand, innovations should target the well-defined problems people face in storage and transportation infrastructure, and should improve their ability to invest in their businesses. Where possible, solutions should aim to leverage existing infrastructure and organizational forms. Importantly, the identification, creation and scaling of innovation in urban areas should occur through collaborative mechanisms and involve municipal officials.

In a deliberate effort to maintain and intensify interdisciplinary efforts, the report identifies a number of synergies with other GCFSI research. Recognizing that urban food provisioning and exchange occurs within a social, economic, and environmental context, future urban food research should always consider how farmers are affected, present and future ecological uncertainty, and gender/other sociocultural factors.

Lastly, the report identifies several next steps, which include building mixed methods research capacity, continuing to address local research needs, and addressing specific intervention areas, in part through a targeted RFA process. Those intervention areas include storage, access to capital for those working in urban food-based livelihoods, and organizational models that concern food transportation.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Neoliberal Food Environments

Over the last six months or so, we've seen some passionate and widespread rejections of the status quo, most notably, the rise of Donald Trump and the success of the Brexit campaign. Most media explanations blame racism, ignorance, and stupidity in large segments of the population for those occurrences. For the most part, I think those explanations miss the forest for the trees. Rather, I think that there's much more insight to be gained by taking a look at how contemporary economic theory and the practices generated by it have systematically marginalized large numbers of people. Articles such as this onethis one, and this one*** discuss the fear and hopelessness felt by those who sense they've become economically and socially irrelevant, and are probably closer to the mark. When one feels irrelevant, they raise their voices until they can seem 'extremist' by those who hold the keys to the kingdom.  The remedy, then, would be to find ways to make them relevant again, and to begin making policies as if people mattered. Current policy trajectories, which continue to privilege capital over labor, aren't going to do it, and, in fact, will only create more discord, disenchantment, and disenfranchisement.

The reason I preface this food-related blog post with that commentary is because I am urging those engaged in agrifood development to look at how current global trajectories towards obesity, food price volatility, and unhealthy food environments are, like social and economic disenfranchisement, the result of policy that privileges capital over human well-being.  Another way of saying it is that there is a need to understand what goes on in global and local food environments as an outcome, or an expression of, the encroachment of neoliberal economic policies.* Like those economic practices and policies that are responsible for increasing inequality, how are the economic policies that promote comparative advantage, consolidation of capital, and concentration of power in the food system determining the quality of the food environment?            

Honestly and rigorously investigating that question means understanding that trajectories, of whatever kind, are not universal, linear, and pre-destined. It means understanding that values and choice underlie systems and inform the practices and relationships that animate that system. It also means more closely linking food practice and policy with material realities, including climate change. Unfortunately, much of the research that currently informs food system investments and policy prescriptions treats agrifood development as if it's a one-size-fits-all neoliberal endeavor. The fundamental relationships that comprise a 'modernized' food system go unquestioned, and policy instead focuses on the tweaks that need to be made to enact those same relationships.  In other words, copy-paste policies to enact copy-paste food systems.  The assumptions underlying that thinking means that things like obesity are assumed to be an inevitable outcome of modern food system and will have to be addressed retrospectively.**

Pierre Bourdieu characterized neoliberalism as a scourge and a myth.  A myth, he says, that draws on the promise of a "Utopia of Unlimited Exploitation. (pdf)" Applied to food systems, assumptions of unlimited exploitation lead to production practices that seek to transcend biological limits, to processing practices that 'value add' by stuffing as much subsidized commodity crops into food as possible, to distribution practices that are driven by narrow conceptualizations of 'efficiency,' and to eating practices that are are disconnected from place, shaped more by corporate values than local history. In this kind of unlimited and exploitative food system, the goal is for supply and demand to be boundless, seasons meaningless, and calories endless. In turn, the means for achieving that kind of food system, like in other part of the economy, rely on capital accumulation, economies of scale, and almost limitless exploitation of labor and natural resources.

New realities require new abstractions.  Resiliency theory is one; there are undoubtedly others. One thing that I feel pretty confident saying, though, is that the economic relationships that are collectively referred to as 'neoliberalism' are outdated and should go the way of the dinosaur.

Recommended reading:
Brenner, N., & Theodore, N. (2002). Cities and the geographies of “actually existing neoliberalism”. Antipode34(3), 349-379
Guthman, J. (2011). Weighing in: Obesity, food justice, and the limits of capitalism (Vol. 32). Univ of California Press.
O'Conner, A. (2016, July 19). How the government supports your junk food habit. New York Times. Retrieved from http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/07/19/how-the-government-supports-your-junk-food-habit/


*I should define neoliberal here.  This is a term that is not usually used by the economists or policy-makers that prescribe neoliberal policies, and is instead used more commonly in critiques of contemporary economic policy. The promise of neoliberal economics is that the market is the force that will cause all boats to rise. Some of the key features of neoliberal policies are deregulation, public sector austerity, privatization, and free trade. These things, in combination, are perceived to enable the development of markets that best serve the public interest. There are countless critiques of this philosophy, and what's become clear in recent years is that market-led development, with the coincident privileging of capital, has been a recipe for environmental devastation and increasing inequality.

**Julie Guthman's "Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism" is an important critique of neoliberal food environments.

***I inserted this link to the JD Vance interview on July 23rd, 2016.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Reblog: Next Round of Innovative Program Gets Funding from Early Participant

The original story is here on GCFSI's Food Fix at Michigan State University.

Trish Abalo won a grant to help people in dire need in Malawi. Photo Credit: Kasey Worst

By Kasey Worst
A little funding can go a long way.
Trish Abalo won a $1,200 grant to help people in dire need overseas, and she knows exactly what she is going to do with it.
The Michigan State University senior plans to help out food vendors in Malawi through a program she helped launch last summer.
The money will fund projects to improve storage, access to electricity and other food-related problems in the markets of Lilongwe, Malawi. 
The grant comes from the MSU Honors College Schoenl Family Undergraduate Grant for Dire Needs Overseas, which awards year-long grants to undergraduate students pursuing projects that help people in dire need outside the United States. Students write proposals for what they would like to do with the grant. Selected applicants receive either $1,200 or $1,800 for their projects.
In 2015, Abalo went to Malawi to pilot the Frugal Innovation Practicum. The Interdisciplinary Studies in Health and Society major was among the students and faculty looking for inexpensive innovations to improve food systems in Lilongwe.
Abalo hopes the funds strengthen partnerships this year among the Michigan State University team, the Lilongwe market vendors, the Lilongwe City Council and the Lilongwe University of Agricultural and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in Malawi.
“The funds are a way to say, ’We understand that we went in, and we understand that there’s these needs and you are already doing all these wonderful things to address this,’” Abalo said. “So how can we help with the existing initiatives?”
The money would likely deal with problems identified last year. But that plan may change. 
“It’s been a year,” Abalo said. “Lots of things could have cropped up since then that are more immediate needs.”

Trish Abalo speaks with a vendor in Tsoka Market. Photo Credit: Alyssa Cleland
Trish Abalo speaks with a vendor in Tsoka Market in 2015. Photo Credit: Alyssa Cleland

The money Abalo is bringing to the project comes as the Frugal Innovation Practicum evolves. 
Stephanie White, an MSU faculty member leading the initiative, spent the past year developing a new version. Budget cuts mean that a program that was free to students last year now comes with a price tag.
“I’ve asked the students to be prepared to kick in $2,500 for the plane ticket, but I think I will be able to subsidize that to some degree,” White said. “I don’t think any of them will have to pay that much.”
Some students, who come from disciplines like supply chain management and agribusiness, have been requesting funds from their departments, White said.
“If an adviser has a discretionary fund of money, they’ll kick in $500 or so,” she said. “A couple of them have had luck doing that.”
White’s team has found alternative funds, including MSU CrowdPower, a crowdfunding site for Michigan State University affiliated groups.
The money would be spread across the four markets in Lilongwe that students from MSU and from LUANAR studied in 2015.
 “We’ll have a little bit of money for each market for them to apply towards whatever issue they deem most important and most manageable, given the funds,” White said. “Probably not more than $1,500 or so for each market.”

Students conducting a focus group with vendors in Central market.
Students conducting a focus group with vendors in Central market in 2015.

The MSU team is also coming up with ways to manage the money and decide which projects will be funded, she said.
“The students built a lot of goodwill in markets,” White said. “What we’re going to do is build on what the students did last year by trying to get further down the road toward solutions.”
Abalo said her time in Malawi was one of the most amazing experiences of her life. Although she is not returning this year, she wanted to find a way to contribute to the program.
“Probably my biggest inspiration is Dr.  White and her team,” Abalo said. “They continue to do this research. So then (I asked), ‘how can I as a student contribute something to that?’” 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Ruth's Legumes

This video follows Ruth, a small-scale legume trader in Lilongwe, as she goes about her work.  It highlights some things about her life and business.

These small-scale livelihoods are key to urban well-being throughout African cities, but they are a neglected area of research and policy. As urbanization proceeds and as a focus on urban spaces intensifies, it is critical to understand how these livelihoods work, as well as how to support them so that those engaging in them can enjoy increased profit margins.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Theory and how it can help to re-configure and re-invent food systems (Link to Webinar)

Theory has an important role to play in re-inventing our food systems to be more sustainable, but I have the impression that the word 'theory' causes people to want to turn away and move to the next thing. Please hear me out before you do. I'll try to keep it short(ish).

First, you have to accept the basic premise that we all see and make judgments about the world using abstract concepts, otherwise known as 'theory.'  You may not think you apply theory to your judgments about the world and your valuations of what's important, but you do.

Take a look at the Merriam-Webster definition and you'll see various definitions, but all of them refer to the idea that theory is a set of principles or ideas, and their relationships to each other, used to explain phenomena.

Sometimes people don't realize that they are viewing the world through theory or abstractions, and this can get them into trouble. It gets them into trouble because theories, by their very nature, make sense of the world through a finite number of abstractions.  When I was doing my dissertation, this idea crystallized for me when I read this passage from Alfred North Whitehead's "Science and the Modern World":
The disadvantage of exclusive attention to a group of abstractions, however well-founded, is that, by nature of the case, you have abstracted from the remainder of things.  In so far as the excluded things are important in your experience, your modes of thought are not fitted to deal with them.  You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction.  It is here that philosophy finds its niche as essential to the healthy progress of society.  It is the critic of abstractions.  A civilisation which cannot burst through its current abstractions is doomed to sterility after a very limited progress. An active school of philosophy is quite as important for the locomotion of ideas, as is an active school of railway engineers for the locomotion of fuel. (p. 73)
Wow.  That's some powerful stuff.  A civilisation which cannot burst through its current abstractions is doomed to sterility after a very limited progress. 

And, here's where I'll make the case for applying different theoretical lenses to our food systems.  We cannot afford any longer to see them through a set of abstractions, that, among other things, sees (very limited notions of) efficiency as paramount; that views 'comparative advantage' as a key operating principal; and in which ecological boundaries are not acknowledged. In light of the challenges we face, this is an urgent project. Before we can fundamentally re-configure our food systems to be more sustainable, which I maintain is what's needed, we need to see them differently, and we need to understand what values need to be put into action.

And that's what I'll be talking about in my upcoming webinar on May 3rd.  My dissertation research was primarily about applying different theoretical frames to food systems, and showing how they reveal different values, which, in turn, creates locally-specific food practices and relationships. One of my papers was on applying resilience theory to an exploration of urban agriculture and urban food practices in Senegal. That paper is currently in the final editing stages and will be published in an edited volume entitled, Global Urban Agriculture: Convergence of Theory and Practice between North and South by CABI (Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International).  I hope that you will join me in that discussion.  Registration is online here.

Thanks for reading!

Trip Blog: Human-Centered Design to Diversify Opportunities for Value-Chain Participation

First, I'll just apologize for the length of that title.  It's quite a mouthful, but I wanted to capture the essence of what I wrote about in the last entry, All Innovation is Social! Essentially, what I'll write about in this entry provides an illustrative example of what I wrote about in that one, namely that innovation is inherently a social process with social outcomes, and that it is important to be deliberate and inclusive about goals.

One of the center-led projects we're working on at GCFSI (in collaboration with researchers at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR)) concerns the design of a technology that is intended to promote greater participation of small-scale farmers and retailers in, and control over,* the pigeon pea value chain.** Pigeon pea is a legume that has been promoted as an agronomic innovation that can improve the sustainability of maize-based cropping systems, but adoption rates among farmers remain low.***

Many of the efforts to improve pigeon pea adoption have not engaged with value chain dynamics.  Historically, commercialization of the crop has been largely controlled by export companies that are exporting pigeon pea to India. This means that farmers can only engage with the value chain as price-takers. Farmers reported that they might be promised one price by the export companies, but, come harvest, would receive a much lower price. Such asymmetry, where control clearly is one-sided, results in a system where incentives to grow pigeon pea are minimal and unsure, especially for small-scale farmers who cannot take advantage of economies of scale.

In general, agricultural investments have focused on supporting small-scale farmers, but have not considered the larger food system within which farmers work.  The same is true of investments into pigeon pea production.  An almost exclusive focus on commodity production for export means that other local food system activities have not received support, effectively stifling development of local pigeon-pea related food industries and entrepreneurship. In contrast, we are exploring how the development of a more diversified pigeon pea value chain, one from which farmers and other local value-chain actors are able to derive more benefits and realize more of their interests, might be encouraged.

We hypothesize that local small-scale processing of pigeon pea can provide additional income generating opportunities, particularly for women (my colleague, Nathalie Me-Nsope, will write on the gender dimensions of this work). Our earlier research found that there is unmet demand for pigeon pea in urban markets, but that the current exchange relationships that comprise the value chain do not allow farmers to take advantage of this demand.  We are working with the idea that a locally-designed technology that splits pigeon pea would be a cost-effective tool for diversifying opportunities in local pigeon pea value chains so that farmers do not have to rely solely on the terms dictated by the large-scale exporters/processors. In turn, we hypothesize that increasing farmer choices in this way, and improving their capacity to connect with urban consumers, can incentivize them to plant more pigeon pea.

Image 1: Meeting with enumerators to discuss content of initial assessment
The first step towards an appropriately designed technology (what is often referred to as 'human-centered design') started with the testing of an instrument that will be used to gather data about local preferences, constraints, opportunities, and practices on pigeon pea growing, seed-saving, exchange, and consumption.  This will require interviews with actors all along the pigeon pea value-chain.  In order to develop an assessment that will provide us with the kind of foundation we need, Nathalie Me-Nsope and I traveled to Malawi earlier this month and met with LUANAR partners, Sera Gondwe, Charity Chonde, Joseph Dzanja, Joseph Chimungu, and Hankie Uluku.  We spent five days going through our instruments, tweaking them to be more relevant, and translating them into the local language, Chichewa.  We engaged in long and intense discussions over two of those days about the phrasing or applicability of certain questions (Image 1).

Image 2: Developing a plan for carrying out the field test of the initial assessment instrument

When we got to a point where we were relatively happy with the questions, we spent two days in the  field, where we interviewed farmers, retailers, transporters, and agrodealers in both Lilongwe and Dedza (Images 2 and 3).

Image 3: One of the enumerators testing out the questionnaire with a farmer in the Dedza region of Malawi
Upon completing those interviews, we again re-evaluated, re-configured, and re-worded our instruments according to the experiences and insights of all involved members of the team.  It was an exhausting process, sometimes contentious, but one which has resulted in the kind of data-gathering we need to put towards the development of a technological design process that meets the needs of users and informs us about the kinds of networks and training programs we should focus on developing.  Such a process not only recognizes the need to develop and test innovations in relation to the social context, but also recognizes that the context itself is a constituting factor in innovation design.

I'll periodically return to this project with updates about the process and design phases.

*I'm emphasizing the issue of control because development projects rarely engage with power relationships. In contrast, the work that we do explicitly recognizes that power and information asymmetries are fundamental.

**This project has evolved from a major research effort that MSU and LUANAR began in 2014, which set out to answer the question "“Where and how can multipurpose legumes be scaled for sustainable intensification of maize systems and what would the potential impacts be, in the medium term, across the food system in Malawi?”* The use of multipurpose legumes to sustainably intensify agricultural systems is a promising agronomic innovation, but adoption rates among farmers in Malawi remain low. For the most part, low adoption rates have been primarily addressed via farmer education, but there is increasing recognition that factors such as socio-economic context and off-farm food system dynamics heavily influence farmer decision-making and, thus, the potential for scaling agricultural innovations.  

***Pigeon peas are part of a group of legumes referred to as 'multipurpose legumes,' and are commonly found in Malawi, especially in the southern region. The use of multipurpose legume technologies is a common component of “sustainable intensification.” A legume is considered “multipurpose” when it serves several functions in a cropping system. For example, in addition to providing a food source for humans, a multipurpose legume may also provide a source of fodder for livestock; a reliable and sustainable source of soil nitrogen; wood that, when coppiced, can provide a source of fuel or building material; and, improved soil structure as a result of deep-rooted growth. 

Friday, April 22, 2016

All Innovation is Social!

I work for an organization called the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, the mission of which is to 'create, test, and enable scaling of effective solutions and evidence based approaches to a defined set of future critical global trends impacting food systems.'  We are based at Michigan State University, and are one of eight development labs funded by US Global Development Lab at USAID.

Since coming to work for GCFSI, I've thought a lot about the concept of innovation. I like unpacking words and concepts, and think that doing so can force one to be more precise and thoughtful about how concepts are enacted and how those enactments are measured.

The word 'innovation' is used so often, by so many people, in so many different contexts, that it's no great insight on my part to say that, in common parlance, it carries more emotional weight than scientific. If you asked 10 people to define 'innovation,' you might get a consensus on the idea that it is something new that provokes change for the common good, but if you started asking about definitions of 'common good,' you'd get as many answers as people asked.

My favorite museum is The Henry Ford, a museum dedicated to the history of technological innovation. At The Henry Ford, there are many examples of technological innovations that changed the world, but less about the negative social, environmental, and economic implications of those technologies. For example, there's no denying that the steam engine was an innovation that provoked major social and economic change, but the consequences of that change were not always positive; in fact, they were pervasively negative for certain groups of people.  Clearly, innovation is historically situated and its effects are socially stratified, and whether or not an innovation is 'successful' depends on what the metric for success is.

Our food systems are facing some major challenges. Doing things differently is going to be required, but it is important to be clear about what the goals are, as well as who is served by any particular innovation.  For example, if conversations about innovation are guided by the imperative of meeting demand, but there is little discussion about the quality of demand and its interaction with supply systems, we are not acknowledging some fundamental truths about planetary boundaries. A so-called 'modern' food system has been operating without consideration for planetary boundaries, which, in turn, has resulted in extremely energy-intensive diets and food practices (one excellent article on the subject: "What Do Chinese Dumplings Have to Do with Global Warming").  Acknowledging boundaries means that trajectories towards energy-intense food systems must not be assumed, and that innovation needs to be shaped not only in the demand space, but also the supply space.  In other words, food security and ecological sustainability need to be simultaneously addressed in integrated ways (for one recent discussion, see this paper by Roberta Sonnino et al).
Figure 1: technocentric problem-solving

Furthermore, these are not just technical issues, but social issues.  Technology is never neutral; technological solutions have unintended consequences. Food systems, though often treated as a mechanical series of activities that get calories from farm to plate (or bowl), are intensely social and political, a fact that is often considered inconsequential or incidental by mainstream economists and engineers. I'm reminded here of a conversation I had with a wise engineer colleague here at MSU (Ron Averill) who says that engineers typically problem-solve with a techno-centric perspective (Figure 1), while he insists on a socio-centric approach (Figure 2).  Done properly, this kind of problem-solving would by constituted by the experiences and knowledge of those whom the innovation is supposed to serve.
Figure 2: Socio-centric problem solving

In Africa, where most of GCFSI's work takes place, food exchange is a highly decentralized affair, contingent on the activities and relationships of many small-scale entrepreneurs. Those livelihoods may not be well-served if metrics of success are shaped by, for example, conventional (i.e. western) notions of 'efficiency.'  As much as food is needed for sustaining bodies, it is also a vehicle for social and economic growth, and, thus, a primary platform for livelihood.  Innovations must be shaped not according to discipline, but by local realities and relationships.

Friday, April 15, 2016

A Blog's New Direction

This blog has been on hiatus for about 4 years, in which time I've finished a dissertation and entered a new phase of life.  I'm now very happily employed with the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation and also supported by the Center for Regional Food Systems.  I do a lot of my work in Malawi with faculty researchers from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources .

From here on out, I'm going to make an attempt to keep this blog focused on food issues in a changing world.  I want to use it to explore food narratives and trajectories, as well as to unpack assumptions that are often used to justify certain courses of action or advocacy.

My interest is in contributing to efforts that support food systems that provide easily accessible and nutritious food, diverse livelihood opportunities, and which are environmentally sustainable (or regenerative).  I see food systems and food-related work as a forum for creativity and innovation, social and economic justice, and improved community cohesion.  I think my posts will end up being a combination of the political and the scientific, as well as observations about my work and the work of my colleagues.  I would also like to provide a forum for academics to discuss issues that concern them, but to do so in ways that are compelling to the general public.

I'm going to try mightily to balance every critical post with a positive one, because while there's a lot to complain about, there's so much good stuff going on that it would be a crime to dwell on the negative.

I look forward to building networks with a wide range of people who are also interested in these and related food issues.