Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Hivos: Sustainable food projects as a way to spark global change

Hivos doesn’t shy away from the urgent challenges of the 21st century: food insecurity and malfunctioning food systems, the world’s ballooning population, climate change, and beyond. Instead, the Dutch organization supports individuals and communities to develop their own strategies and solutions that fight for social and environmental justice—including food justice.

With operations across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, sustainable food has long been one of Hivos’ key programmatic areas, before being folded into the organization’s climate justice work in early 2020.

Hivos promotes healthy and sustainable food systems through place-specific projects and uses a variety of intervention strategies. At a high-level, the organization works to bring a stronger consumer and citizen voice into food system governance. In doing so, its projects elevate voices that have historically been excluded from these conversations, including small-scale producers, women, youth, and street vendors.

Hivos has a trio of strategies that involve individuals, communities, and national policymakers.

The first strategy is to work with early-stage food entrepreneurs to finance the development of their technical and business skills. Hivos also helps connect these small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) to potential investors who can support their long-term sustainability.

One example of this strategy in action is the Switch Asia Local Harvest project, a partnership between Hivos, the European Union, World Wildlife Fund Indonesia, and other Indonesian groups. Currently underway, that project promotes fair trade agricultural products as a way to support SMEs and small-scale farmers, contribute to healthier diets, and protect Indonesia’s biodiversity, the likes of which is threatened by large-scale, unsustainable agricultural practices.

Hivos’ second strategy is to create coalitions that bring diverse stakeholders together to develop local, national, and international examples of food systems transformation. These coalitions unite as food change labs, places that foster local markets and promote systemic change.

The evidence generated from these food change labs is then used to influence policy at a national level and in international fora—Hivos’ third strategy to ensure healthy and sustainable food systems solutions are scaled at a global level.

Hivos and the Uganda Food Change Lab

This trio of strategies is best illustrated through an example. In speaking about the impact of its approach, Hivos often refers to its work with partners in Fort Portal, a fast-growing city in Kabarole district in western Uganda.

Fort Portal is representative of the challenges faced by many communities across the Global South. It’s population is projected to grow tenfold over the next 20 years, and the city already faces high rates of malnutrition and stunting, despite ample food production around the region. Much of the food produced in the area is exported while community members often have no choice but to turn to purchased, processed food.  Food insecurity rates are high.

Hivos has been working in Kabarole district since 2015 as part of its Sustainable Diets for All program (SD4ALL). The Uganda Food Change Lab is led locally by the Kabarole Research and Resource Centre (KRC) in partnership with Hivos, the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), and local actors and citizens.

The Lab includes a “Coalition of the Willing,” a consumer advocacy group that promotes the consumption of nutritious food indigenous to the region. “[The coalition] is comprised of farmers, artists, food processors, food vendors, chefs, nutritionists, and local and opinion leaders,” writes Bwambale Bernard, a nutritionist with KRC. “Food ambassadors are influential leaders who promote healthy diets for all in their respective constituencies.”

At first, food and food systems were not included in Fort Portal’s urban planning. By convening the Uganda Food Change Lab and starting a multi-stakeholder dialogue, key policies have been established and changed based on the concerns raised by citizens.

For example, consumers managed to reverse a government policy that outlawed street vendors, arguing these vendors provide a source of inexpensive and healthy food, especially for lower-income citizens. Conversations such as this have led to structural food system changes in the city.

With similar food change labs established in Zambia, Kenya, Indonesia, and Bolivia, the goal of SD4ALL is to increase national advocacy around sustainable food systems and have examples of best practices that Hivos can use with their partners to further influence the conversation internationally.

SD4ALL and the Uganda Food Change Lab are just one example of Hivos’ work around the globe. By amplifying the voices of citizens and marginalized groups, facilitating conversations with diverse actors, and implementing projects and strategies on a place-by-place basis, Hivos demonstrates there are new and more inclusive ways to bring consumers and citizens into the discussion around food systems transformation.