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07.03.2022

Nine practices that define food systems leadership

At the core of our Theory of Change as the African Food Fellowship is the notion that renewed system-oriented leadership is necessary to tackle the root causes of food system failures. If leadership and governance do not step up, efforts to transform food systems will be jeopardised at the expense of the most vulnerable, who depend on these food systems.

The African Food Fellowship focuses on supporting food systems leaders. Our leadership programme is uniquely designed to unlock individual and collective systems leadership practices. We have identified nine practices that characterise food systems leadership, which we are using in our curriculum and our knowledge agenda.

Herman Brouwer from the Wageningen University & Research during an inspiration session with the Kenya cohort of the African Food Fellowship in Nairobi.

Where are these leaders found?

The emphasis on ‘leadership’ should not be mistaken for a bias towards high-level political leaders and captains of industry. Although their role is critical, we have chosen to focus on the leadership gaps that exist throughout the food system. These gaps exist at different levels and scales – not just at the very top. The leaders who will make the difference in the end may come from surprising places. They could be district-level officials, agri-entrepreneurs working on a start-up, or nutritionists working with vulnerable groups in society, to give a few examples.

Knowledge Agenda Lead Herman Brouwer (left) and African Food Fellowship Director Joost Guijt share a light moment with Horticulture Fellow Winnie Yegon and Grace Njoroge (Agri-Finance).

What do food system leaders actually do?

Yet, one may ask what these leaders (both seasoned and emerging) are actually doing and could do differently. A systems leader, according to Harvard Business School, has “the skills and capacities to catalyse, enable and support the process of systems-level change”. Systems-level change is a radical idea: not a tweak or optimisation, but a complete rethink of the attributes of a (food) system, including its purpose, rules and power structures.

It is about reshaping the so-called ‘normal’. If we apply this to food and agriculture, systems-level change implies that food systems must be redirected or nudged to deliver different outcomes than they currently do: Healthy diets, living incomes for everyone involved, in an environmentally beneficial manner – all at once. We don’t expect food systems leaders to do all of this as if they were all-knowing magicians. Rather, food systems leaders act in a way which is consistent with the dynamics of systems change, and therefore make it more likely that they will influence systems to evolve in the desired direction.

Agri-Finance Fellow Sieka Gatabaki (left) and Horticulture Fellow Charles Muteithia share insights with Stage Lead Hamish Wilson.

At the African Food Fellowship, we have identified nine practices that define food systems leadership. The practices are divided into three thematic areas, namely:

Collaborating

  • Being open to different views and mindsets;
  • Accessing and engaging a broad network;
  • Bringing people together and make collaboration happen;

Acting

  • Being able to take steps forward, even when ‘I don’t know’;
  • Trusting that my team/partners will step up and contribute;
  • Daring to try out something new;
  • Influencing decisions in the network/system;

Knowing

  • Being able to link the large food system picture to actions needed in the here and now;
  • Being self-aware (reflexivity).

More details on these nine practices and specific observable actions for each of them, can be found in this publication.

This conceptualization of food systems leadership practices is based on existing approaches of Wasafiri (Systemcraft) and Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (multi-stakeholder engagement for food systems transformation). We use these nine practices to guide the curriculum for the Food Systems Leadership Programme. We track progress towards these nine practices among Fellows in the Impact Areas they are working in to better understand this process. Working in partnership with the Southern Africa Food Lab, we are conducting longer-term research on African perspectives that shape food systems leadership practices.

As our community of Fellows grows in the coming years, we will be able to share insights with the wider community of those interested in food systems transformation, and systems leadership. If this appeals to you, or if you wish to join us in this inquiry, don’t hesitate to get in touch with us: herman.brouwer@wur.nl.