Systems approaches to achieving the goal of zero hunger

"Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life." – Nelson Mandela


Achieving the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger is an extremely complex task, but not an impossible one. According to the United Nations, the proportion of undernourished people worldwide increased from 10.6 percent of the total population in 2015 to 11 percent in 2016. This means there were an estimated 815 million undernourished people worldwide in 2016.


Statistics South Africa reports that the number of people in the country living in extreme poverty – i.e. below the 2015 food poverty line of R441 per person per month – increased from 11 million in 2011 to 13,8 million in 2015. This is despite the fact that, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the world produces enough to feed the entire global population.


According to the UN Hunger Report 2017, hunger is the term used to define periods when people are experiencing severe food insecurity – meaning that they go for entire days without eating due to lack of money, or lack of access to food or other resources.


The African continent, in particular is trapped in the hunger cycle. For a family, community and national at large to be innovative and productive, access to basic food and nutrition is essential. Breaking the hunger cycle requires a systematic and transformative interventions that push the barriers of sustainably eliminating hunger.


You don't have to look far to witness hunger. Having two meals a day seems normal in a fast-paced city like Johannesburg, yet most people who enjoy such luxury are oblivious to the fact that someone down the street has gone for days without a meal. This is a common trend in cities across the world. And in South Africa, societal issues such as inequality and the resulting high crime rates further compound the challenges around reducing hunger.


A number of social, economic, environmental and political dynamics contribute to hunger. These dynamics are extremely complex, yet we have no option but to co-create solutions that will contribute directly to ending hunger both at community and global level.  


Among the challenges affecting the execution of programmes aimed at eliminating hunger is the high sensitivity of African farming systems to fluctuations in the climate compounded by limited infrastructure, skills and resources. Without mechanisms to cushion farmers on the continent from unpredictable weather conditions such as floods, drought or unevenly spread rainfall, the majority of people who depend on these farmers will continue to be affected by hunger. With the advent of climate change, such weather conditions are expected to increase.


Furthermore, regional conflicts remain one of the major contributors to continuous and increased hunger in Africa. During civil war, communities can neither grow food nor gain access to markets.  Women and children invariably bear the brunt of this. For example, the civil war in Sudan resulted in millions of deaths as a result of hunger. More recently, conflicts in the Central Africa Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have displaced millions of people, the majority of whom are women and children. This has greatly worsened the already existing hunger and poverty challenges in the region.


Locally relevant solutions informed by a multitude of disciplines


No one solution is adequate when it comes to tackling global hunger. Attaining zero hunger requires holistic approaches in the way we address the challenges and develop solutions, considering the complexity and interconnected nature of the challenge.


Systems analysis offers new approaches that involve developing locally relevant solutions informed by a multitude of disciplines and expertise working together towards a common goal. Applying systems analysis involves taking a multifaceted approach to understanding linkages in the food system and identifying actions that can increase access to nutritious food.


This integrated approach allows for investigation at the nexus of hunger challenges, enabling synergies and trade-offs among potential solutions to be considered and implemented. 


Effectively implementing practical hunger alleviation initiatives requires the participation of stakeholders across the entire food system value chain (i.e. production, processing, distribution, packaging, storage, outlets and consumers). These stakeholders should include government, the private sector, development agencies, civil society, decision makers and, importantly, scientists of all relevant disciplines.  


Science, technology and innovation are crucial to addressing the challenges around hunger and poverty. South Africa and the continent can take advantage of opportunities in technology advancement to modernise the agriculture sector, for example, through the use of technology for early warning systems and increased access to markets. 


The South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) continue to invest in various holistic initiatives aimed at reducing hunger in South Africa and the region. In addition to numerous grants and bursaries for research geared towards eradicating hunger, dedicated investments – for instance, in the UNESCO Chair in African Food Systems – seek to contribute, through research, training and innovation, towards building a sustainable food system that provides adequate, nutritious and safe food to vulnerable populations across the continent.


Over the past decade, South Africa, working closely with its partners, has made significant investments in developing the systems analysis skills needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This has mostly been through the Southern African Young Scientists Summer, the Southern African Systems Analysis Centre, and South Africa's participation in numerous collaborative research projects. 


Effective collaborations will add significant value if leveraged to implement sustainable multi-layered, multi-year, multi-country strategic programmes directed at ending hunger. Achieving this objective will require the implementation of tangible solutions that make a difference and create opportunities for local communities, especially the youth and women.


Dr Sepo Hachigonta is a Director for Strategic Partnerships at National Research Foundation, an entity of Department of Science and Technology.


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