How the EU supports food systems change: Lessons from Malawi

Members of the village natural resource committee in Zomba district, Malawi. Photo: Paulina Bizzotto Molina, ECDPM.


Even before the EU Farm to Fork Strategy launched in 2020, the EU took action to make food systems more resilient to shocks. But did the EU’s ambitions bear fruit? Cecilia D'Alessandro and Paulina Bizzotto Molina break down lessons learned from their evaluation of the EU’s support to food systems abroad, focusing on Malawi.

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    We are standing on a hillside that only a few years ago was completely deforested. Now, after seven years of restoration efforts, local groups harvest wild honey there. We are in Zomba, a district close to Blantyre in Malawi, to understand how the EU has contributed to making food systems more inclusive and sustainable. 

    The projects in Zomba are part of the €13.2 billion the EU spent on food and nutrition security as well as sustainable agriculture between 2014 and 2020. The beekeeping provides enough incentive for the community to protect the trees on the hillside. Community members, organised in groups, co-manage the protected areas. As a result, the risk of flooding and landslides has reduced significantly. 

    A group of lead farmers, mainly women, has also been researching different environmentally-friendly farming practices, such as producing organic fertiliser. This enabled them to make their livelihoods more resilient to shocks. “The groups still function after three years of the project phasing out”, comments Innocent Kaponya, regional coordination officer for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). “But the empowerment of the groups is the most important impact”, he is sure to add. 

    Similar efforts are underway in the Kasungu district, in the central region of Malawi, where local NGOs, with EU funding, promoted community-based beekeeping and other income-generating activities (like weaving and pottery) and supported the afforestation efforts of individual farmers like Sophia, the proud owner of a tree nursery with over 4000 trees.

    Farmer Sofia (right) with a representative of Malawi’s Kasungu district’s forestry department (left). Photo: Cecilia D’Alessandro, ECDPM.

    Over the past years, the EU has put research and innovation at the heart of its support for food systems transformation. The EU’s Farm to Fork Strategy, launched in May 2020, comprises all its ambitions into a single overarching frame. To make food systems fairer and healthier, the strategy acknowledges the links between food, health, (gender) inequality, climate change and resilience, to name a few.

    But did the EU’s ambitions bear fruit? Our joint evaluation with Particip of the EU’s support to food systems in partner countries shows that translating ambitions into practice is challenging: while EU efforts have led to valuable contributions in several domains (such as enhancing resilience to crises and fostering nutrition outcomes, as we have seen in Zomba and Kasungu), there are still many obstacles in the way of a more coherent and integrated approach to supporting food systems transformations. 

    One thing is clear: if the EU is serious about making a change and having a lasting impact, it must intensify its investment in innovation in a way that empowers local communities. It also needs to strengthen knowledge sharing and accountability mechanisms and improve collaboration and alignment among European actors. Taking Malawi as an illustrative example, we dive deeper into some of the lessons that emerged from the evaluation.

    Empowering local actors to innovate 

    The working definition of innovation used by FAO is simple: doing something differently from how  you did before. And doing it so to solve the problems experienced by the most vulnerable communities.

    A recent review of 100.000 scientific papers on sustainable food systems convincingly shows what solutions have been most effective in changing people’s lives. These are solutions that strengthen the skills, capacities and connectivity of farmers: extension services, farmers’ organisations and informal markets. Despite the apparent logic that solutions need to be relevant to those who should benefit from them, the same review finds that most studies didn’t even involve farmers in the research.

    Luckily, an important part of the EU’s support to sustainable agri-food system changes has been to empower local food system actors to innovate. In Malawi, for example, the EU partnered with FAO to help adopt their tried-and-tested ‘farmer field school’ approach and anchor it in the reform of the national strategy on agricultural extension and advisory services.

    The EU interventions paid off: the ‘farmer field school’ empowered small-scale farmers, especially women and youth, to find solutions by experimenting on their own fields and improved their access to the advice of agricultural extension officers by training them and enhancing their reach.

    Link researchers to farmers and move beyond a passive technology transfer

    What’s even more important, especially for the long term, is that the EU programmes created new connections between researchers, agricultural extension officers and farmers, ensuring that agricultural research centres work with the farmers to respond to their needs.

    This innovative, more participatory process helped, for example, in rehabilitating the banana sector after the outbreak of a disease that wept out almost all banana trees in Malawi. With support from researchers and extension officers, farmers identified and multiplied new banana varieties resistant to the disease in orchards managed by the local communities. Together, they also found low-cost solutions, such as spraying fish soup on maize plants to attract the predatory ants who eat the devastating fall armyworm, thus averting large crop losses. 

    Banana shoots of the Wilson variety at the Chitedze Research Station, in Malawi.
    Photo: Cecilia D'Alessandro, ECDPM

    The experience in Malawi also illustrates that more efforts are needed to improve farmers’ access to finance so that they are able to invest in the innovations they have developed. Supporting innovative start-ups and enabling a diversity of business models can help spur the adoption of more sustainable practices throughout the value chain. 

    The examples above show how the EU made important steps to move beyond a passive ‘technology transfer’, thus making innovations more likely to be taken up because they respond and are adapted to local needs. 

    While promising, achieving a real mindset shift of research and extension towards co-creation approaches for a more effective uptake of technologies will require time and sustained investments. Simply pouring more money into top-down innovations will not do the trick. Investments need to enhance spaces for learning and knowledge sharing to effectively reach and respond to the needs of local actors.

    Social and institutional innovation is key

    Innovations are also necessary when it comes to policies and institutions. The EU delegation in Malawi knows that well. That’s why EU interventions also focused on promoting changes in policies and regulations governing key priority domains such as land governance, forest management and social protection. 

    For example, an EU intervention supported a group of international and local civil society networks in advocating for changes in the (formal and informal) rules to access and own land. Their objective was to make it more inclusive towards women and smallholder farmers, to contribute to secure livelihoods and reduce the rising conflicts over land. 

    The project led to a reform of the registration and titling of customary land, which established local groups in charge of land demarcation and dispute settlements. Once the reform passed, some districts, including Kasungu, tested this new model, showing that it could increase farmers’ tenure security (thanks to the registration of land titles), reduce conflicts in the community and empower women by allowing them to own land.

    This pilot project demonstrated that it is crucial to include community members and leaders throughout the process. Initially, the new laws did not give traditional village leaders – who used to take most of the decisions concerning the use of customary land – a specific role in the newly created local groups and tribunals. This led to resistance, lack of trust and difficulties in implementing the reforms. Understanding this and formalising the role of village leaders in the new system made the implementation of the new laws much smoother.  

    Although promising, the way ahead is long. Ensuring that the results can be sustained over time and scaled up to other communities and districts will require efforts to capitalise upon and systematically learn from experiences and initiatives like this one. 

    Farmer in Kasungu showing her recently-acquired land title (left) with Griffin Zgambo, local consultant part of the evaluation team. Photo: Herbert Mwalukomo, Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (CEPA)

    Generate evidence to track progress and improve accountability

    Any investment in innovative practices or institutions needs useful, credible and timely evidence on core targets and indicators to learn what works and what doesn’t. This is key not only to tracking progress and delivery but also to holding governments and donors accountable. 

    In Malawi, the EU contributed to establishing or strengthening information systems at the national and local level for agriculture as well as food and nutrition security. These help plan development interventions, monitor progress and identify delays or even unforeseen negative consequences of well-intentioned interventions. 

    Local civil society organisations then used this evidence to put pressure on national and local authorities to increase funds for nutrition and hold the government accountable for the lack of progress on nutrition targets. 

    Establishing common frameworks to track progress across the interventions by the EU and its member states would help improve coordination and coherence and enhance mutual accountability. This would require developing a shared understanding of the challenges based on comprehensive assessments rather than sectoral analysis and agreeing on common objectives and complementary strengths. 

    The Team Europe Initiatives offer an opportunity in this regard, by developing joint monitoring frameworks, for example at the country level, with clear targets and indicators. 

    Innovation is an important key to the transformation of food systems.

    Making a difference

    Doing things differently is not easy. But when we look at how the lives of the farmers we met in Zomba and Kasungu have changed for the better, it is clear that it is worth it. 

    It requires all actors, from farmers to governments and development partners, to experiment, adapt and systematically capitalise on the lessons learned along the way. It also requires establishing common frameworks to measure progress and developing politically-smart strategies to build coalitions of allies who can push for the necessary reforms and overcome the resistance from vested interests that these efforts are inevitably bound to meet. 

    For this to happen, we need to invest in joint assessments of the problems rather than come up with predetermined solutions. Developing accompanying measures that compensate potential losers of a reform can also help to manage conflicting interests. 

    Innovation is an important key to the transformation of food systems. To unlock it, we need to include and empower local communities, strengthen monitoring and accountability, and promote alignment and collaboration across the actions of governments and development partners alike. 

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