What kind of leadership is needed to transform food systems in Rwanda and the continent as a whole?
This was the conversation between the Director of African Food Fellowship Joost Guijt and renowned food systems leaders, Dr Eliane Ubalijoro and Dr Sigrid Wertheim- Heck, during the launch of the Food Systems Leadership Programme in Rwanda on November 1, 2021. Dr Ubalijoro is the Executive Director of Sustainability in the Digital Age and the Global Hub Director in Canada for Future Earth, while Dr Wertheim-Heck is an associate professor at Wageningen University & Research. Below are excerpts of this conversation:
What kind of changes do you think are the priority for food systems in Rwanda, and what should be done to build the leadership we need at different levels to address these challenges?
Rwanda is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa and we also happen to have a lot of beautiful biodiversity, so our challenge is how to feed the population while conserving the biodiversity. It’s really important that we adopt regenerative agricultural practices that promote biodiversity while increasing soil health and local productivity.
It’s also critical that we harness technology to enhance logistics so that products reach customers fast and in the best quality. Additionally, farmers need to be paid the best prices possible for their produce. We must move from a resource-intensive agricultural production system to a knowledge-intensive agricultural production system.
The African Food Fellowship is really intriguing to me because it’s a combination of how to harness sustainable technologies in the digital age and how to harness mindsets to truly live the interdependence needed to bring about the needed transformations where people and planet prosper in Rwanda.
What kind of leadership do we need to make these kinds of changes possible?
Rwanda is very hilly and has high rates of erosion. We have a high number of women farmers and so it’s important to understand the context of how gender, age and finance all work together. We need a systems view around how we’re navigating these issues.
We have turbulent systems and live in an uncertain world and so leaders must navigate volatility, complexity and ambiguity, and transform that into vision, understanding, clarity and agility. Those are the qualities I would like to see in Rwandan food systems leaders.
Sigrid, what kind of role do you see leadership playing in the dynamic, unpredictable and volatile systems that Eliane has described? And what does that mean in terms of systems leadership as opposed to individual leadership?
First of all, congratulations to this new cohort. Leadership starts with sharing what we don’t know and our curiosity to learn more. Food systems thinking and ambitions are very complex but address what I call the illusion of an isolated solution.
We try to find solutions for specific issues and often ignore the causal relations. We believe that if we change agricultural production systems or if we change consumption behaviour, then certain problems will be resolved.
Sharing our questions and our vulnerabilities and being humble in our own capacities while working with others towards solutions or to articulate problems is a very important aspect of leadership. Sharing these responsibilities starts with enlarging our understanding and broadening our horizon, and opening up to other perspectives that help us also discuss trade-offs and barriers and articulate issues comprehensively.
How would you make this tangible and workable? It can be quite paralysing and overwhelming to deal with the complex interconnected frameworks.
I think that the the level of complexity and the urgency of the issues require ambition that isn’t about self but collective needs. Rwanda’s population is growing. Our farmers have an average farm size of 0.5 hectares. We know that soil degradation is a problem. We’re entering the decade for ecosystem restoration, so there is no choice but to be deeply ambitious. It is not about self; it’s about the children and the future.
It’s about ensuring that there is no malnutrition as we move forward. It’s about building resilience to climate change. I think the nine years ahead of us in terms of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals require a level of high ambition for humanity. It’s really a pathway to disaster if we don’t work together. The more we embody interdependence, the easier change will come.
Sigrid, what does this say to you?
I will give a personal reflection because there are different perspectives on how to approach food systems transformation. For me, it starts with the simple plate of an individual consumer. We have learned that food systems are very important and there are sustainability challenges and that consumption is acknowledged not only as a problem, but also as a potential opportunity for creating increased sustainability.
I look at social consumption practices across the globe with a focus on urban areas because they are major consumption hubs. Look at a plate of food and see how it relates to food systems on a local, national, regional and global scale. And what you see from an individual plate is that often, all these different skills and these different food systems approaches are combined on one simple plate.
So choosing a certain starting point, a certain perspective from which to approach food systems, whether that is an agro-ecological or high-tech or horticultural or food consumption perspective, is really important.