by Dr John Ingram
An update on a two-part IFSTAL training course held at Makerere University
Bring together 26 individuals drawn from university students, academics and professionals working across the food sector in Uganda and what do you have? The kernel of a powerful network to help tackle malnutrition in country in all its varied forms.
Equipping participants with the skills to become food systems thinkers was the aim of a two-part training course delivered by Interdisciplinary Food System Teaching and Learning’ programme (IFSTAL) in collaboration with Makerere University, Kampala.
Malnutrition is the new normal
Despite the emergence of food systems approaches to address food insecurity in the content of other SDGs, malnutrition in Africa is becoming the ‘new normal’. This is down to a lack of skills across the policy and practice workforce to tackle food system challenges in the necessary integrated manner.
Fixing systemic problems across the food sector while enhancing livelihoods needs interdisciplinary systems thinkers. The lack of sufficient food systems training – and hence skills in the workforce – is a major impediment. This is partly due to university curricula being ill-equipped to provide the necessary interdisciplinary food systems training for students who will move on into the food sector, and partly due to weak networking across the sector itself.
Creating skills for change
Generously supported with a grant from the Open Society Foundations, the course was planned in two parts. Part 1 held in January 2020, covered basic food systems approaches. Giving participants time to reflect on the first part in their work contexts, Part 2 was designed to follow three months later, covering system change and foresight. Covid-19 intervened, which meant Part 2 was delivered in late March 2020, exactly two years behind schedule.
Building on seminars on food systems dynamics and systems thinking, the course was highly interactive, with participants engaging in group exercises to develop skills as delivered in short introductory presentations.
Part 1 was very well received – as shown in the results of a post-course survey (Figure 1). Recognition of the importance of stakeholders and having the tools to integrate wider stakeholders into planning was valued by participants, as was the the style of training with its emphasis on participation and knowledge sharing. There was also clear demand for further understanding of food systems and systems approaches, a recognition of their importance of applicability, and the benefit of acquiring practical and useable methods.
When it came to the most useful elements, comments included “Understanding how to involve different stakeholders when proposing new strategies, e.g. stakeholder mapping”, “’Rich Pictures’ helped me to improve my understanding of complex problems”, and “Soft skills, such as communication, group dynamics, etc”.
Part 2 training included SWOT analyses of current interventions to address food system issues, backcasting practice, and introduced foresight and scenarios methodology. Participants drew on their different areas of expertise and engaged in collaborative problem solving. They were also encouraged to engage in reflective discussion throughout on food system challenges and the methodologies shared in the training.
Two years on from the initial session, a survey conducted during Part 2 (Figure 2) provided information for a pedagogic analysis of Part 1, showing the lasting benefit to participants: “I have incorporated some ideas into the courses that I teach, and have also borrowed some ideas to feed into a research grant application”, “The whole idea of food systems has helped me in my service delivery which involves dealing with a lot of chemicals which affects the farmers, the environment, and the final consumers of the food” and “Proper planning and evaluation of my business goals through use of the swot analysis and back casting methods”.
Despite the two-year delay, it was particularly pleasing that all but four of the Part 1 cohort returned for Part 2, supporting their Part 1 survey comments.
Deemed a success, the overall project has provided a clear indication of the demand for food systems thinking and practice among a varied group of academics and professionals. Further food systems training is planned in collaboration with RUFORUM and the Foresight4Food programme.
Dr John Ingram is the leader of the Food Systems Transformation Group at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.
On scale of 1-5, 5 being greatly, how much do you think systems thinking has changed the way you think about food systems?