“Whether you call them wicked, complex, intractable, or just plain broken, our society is facing many tough issues. We can’t sit back and hope for the best. It’s up to us to work through the complexity and create thoughtful, sustainable solutions…But simplicity doesn’t come easy. To get there, we first must embrace the complex world we live in.” — Jeff Mohr, CEO of Kumo.io.
For the last four months, a team in UNDP Zimbabwe has been in a deep huddle making sense of the urban food system in Zimbabwe and exploring a system transformative approach to tackling challenges within this system (read our last blog to learn more here). We moved away from a single point solution mindset and embraced a portfolio logic to tackling complex systemic challenges, in the urban food space. By taking a system view to identify the immediate problems within the system, we were able to see underlying patterns and ways we could leverage the system, whilst learning and adapting as the system continues to change.
The capability we built puts us in a position to do three things. First (sense) to understand the system (what is going on in the urban hunger and poverty space) on the basis of strategic intent or a direction we want to pursue. This (position) then leads to ‘seeing’ new possibilities and entry points for policy and community interventions — putting us in a better position to be a trusted partner for governments in addressing complex policy issues that require a departure from a traditional way of planning & implementing policy, and engaging with societal groups. Third (transform), and this is the phase we will move into next — by deploying and dynamically managing the portfolio of interventions that are coherent with the scale and nature of complex issues like urban hunger, we take a stab at shifting systems toward a more resilient state. Fundamentally, we are building a muscle that allows us to continually churn out (hence the visual of a pump) interventions that are coherent with the way the system is changing externally.
From the start, looking at the urban food system as a whole, we realized that urban hunger was one of the key entry points to tackle urban poverty which is on the rise in cities. Therefore, our objective was to look at urban hunger from three perspectives; affordability, accessibility and sustainability to understand why people were hungry. By looking at the factors of accessibility, affordability, and sustainability of food in urban areas, and as an integral part of it, we identified three critical parts in the urban food system. The three critical parts would allow us to look at underlying causes of challenges and low resilience to shocks and stresses in urban areas, in Zimbabwe. For example, there is a need to increase the accessibility of nutritious food to the most vulnerable and promote a variety of choices. We need to make food equally accessible across different regions of the city in order to promote a variety of choices and fair pricing (affordability). To feed the most vulnerable in cities the food system needs to become more sustainable — a feature that is lacking in current production, distribution and consumption and which results in food waste. The interaction between these three parts is shaping the dynamics in the system and the outcomes it produces and creates more entry points for us to engage with to shift the system to a different state (toward affordability, accessibility & sustainability of food supply chains).
In order to explore the many drivers of urban hunger in Harare, we treated the three core parts as 3D problem space in which we could explore the challenge of urban hunger. This approach helped us visualize how the three parts were interconnected and the effect they had on urban hunger. We were able to navigate the space iteratively, exploring which dynamics among the three parts could teach us the most about urban hunger and how to fight it. We unpacked each of these parts through the lenses that we found most relevant, for us to understand where to intervene in the system and that generate both negative and positive dynamics that can be calibrated to achieve development effects. This approach led us to an iterative learning process during which we questioned our understanding of urban food systems from different lenses/perspectives. Take for example information about the food systems, who are the key value chain players generating information? What information is being generated and how is it being shared? Can answers to these questions help us understand infrastructure gaps within the urban food systems?
Once we understood where we wanted to intervene in the system, we often asked ourselves the following questions;
● How do we test our assumptions and hypotheses about how your system works so that we can learn and adapt effectively?
● How can we highlight the interactions between the elements to generate insights we were unaware of?
● How can we design a balanced portfolio of experiments that tackles all three perspectives — affordability, accessibility and sustainability of urban food?
With these questions continuously running through our mind, we designed a portfolio of experiments which would allow us to learn from three very distinct areas. Primarily learning about the complete food supply chain from production to consumption, and the human dynamics that govern market forces determine the efficiency of the processes. Additionally, we aimed for a portfolio of experiments where each experiment can be deployed independently, but at the same time interact with the others in a way that helps us learn about and tackle the challenge.
The interaction of the three experiments is based on how we can modify the relationships people have with informal and formal systems in urban areas in relation to food, markets and price to build resilience. Through these experiments we want to gain new insights on ways to create equitable access to food and markets amid shocks challenging urban systems in Zimbabwe. The three experiments were designed to ensure that they are interlinked to fight urban hunger by tackling major bottlenecks along the whole urban food value chain. Experiment one is looking at the relationship between food production and innovation finance methods, whereas experiment two focuses more on data relationships. The third experiment explores the relationship between value chain players. This means the portfolio is taking both a quantitative and qualitative approach, to closing gaps along urban food systems and reducing hunger. The linkages between the experiments are also from a risk sharing perspective.
At the height of the Covid-19 crisis, there was an increase in urban agriculture in many cities in Zimbabwe. As such, urban agricultural infrastructure and actors began to also significantly contribute to and become important players in urban food systems. Urbanites began to utilize their backyards and open spaces for agricultural food production purposes and a number of Non-Governmental organizations also established nutrition gardens in low-income areas to augment the food security of the urban poor. In a country where the traditional food basket is maize, this experiment intends to test the hypothesis that “if underutilized land is made available for community nutrition gardens to grow produce for consumption and if innovative farming methods and peer to peer learning is enhanced, will this increase household level food security in Zimbabwe?”.
Urban food supply chains in Zimbabwe are highly informal which creates two challenges from an urban hunger perspective. First, the supply chain functions as a black box with no data to drive policy aimed at making food more accessible and affordable at neighbourhood markets. Second, it creates localized price manipulation and makes it difficult for households to compare and locate markets with the most affordable food. This of cause has direct implications on chain players up the pyramid like vendors and farmers who could benefit from an efficient supply chain, that directs them to demand. A price tracking platform could address these challenges, by using technology and incentives to have players report pricing of produce as food moves along the supply chain. The current price tracking platforms utilize human price trackers to record the average prices which vendors pay to suppliers at large markets for select produce. Augmenting human driven platforms with an automated system will enable more data to be tracked in real time, from more markets than “foot officers” can currently cover. Having two sets of data- one auto collected, and the other human collected will also increase the overall quality of the data as the datasets can validate and verify one another. Another key feature of the automated data collecting platform, will be its immediate benefit to society via the price comparing interface. The platform will be both app and USSD driven, to offer all citizens a service to query the database for locations and availability of affordable food produce.
The enforcement of hard lockdowns caused a displacement of the old food system, which led to the actors in the food supply chain using innovative ways to cope and function in the new normal. With this displacement, there has been a proliferation of informal markets in and around the neighbourhood of Mbare, Harare, that houses the biggest wholesale food market in Zimbabwe. To understand how we can programme better around this, there is a need to understand how the current food system functions using the network theory on Zimbabwean food systems. The data gathered will then inform the market reorganization strategy centred around the Mbare market. This process will be done through participatory city making techniques, that will put the market user experience by different stakeholders at the centre of planning. Inadvertently this will start the conversation on the review of by-laws that are conducive to the people who interact with markets and urban spaces.
The systems thinking journey does not end with the three experiments discussed above. The skills the team acquired during the process can transform the way the country office designs and implements projects. We successfully pitched a portfolio approach to programming to our country office and in the coming months we will be working with programme colleagues to transfer knowledge. Primarily approaching challenges with a 360 mindset, looking deeper at root causes of issues, and continuously asking why systems are working the way they are working. This is key, because it is usually easy to approach a challenge from a solution mindset, without diving deep into understanding why it is functioning the way it is.
Looking ahead, one key ingredient to the success of the experiments is strategic partners. Instead of individual projects, how do we partner from a “collective portfolio” approach of interventions? Look out for the next blog as we dive deeper into the financing instruments for this type of work.