Food Change Labs tackle complex issues with the whole system in the room

Felia Boerwinkel describes how 'change labs' have successfully brought together diverse stakeholders to find ways to improve local food systems in Uganda, Zambia and Indonesia.

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Insight by 
Felia Boerwinkel
Felia Boerwinkel is Hivos change lab coordinator
30 January 2019
Uganda food lab participants add their names to a declaration that came out of the lab discussions (Photo: Nimrod Bagonza)

Uganda food lab participants add their names to a declaration that came out of the lab discussions (Photo: copyright Nimrod Bagonza)

There is a paradox in many places around the world: regions rich in natural resources, but with high levels of undernourishment and untapped local economic potential. How do we tackle the intricate web of factors that keeps the unsustainable and damaging practices of our food system in place, and how do we mobilise local potential for a healthy, productive food system? 

Hivos and IIED have run Food Change Labs in three countries, and are starting on a fourth. Our Food Change Labs are multi-actor social innovation processes that address pressing issues in local food systems, by aiming to better understand them, build coalitions of change, generate ideas, and test these ideas on the ground. 

We have seen that with the right facilitation and design, with attention to citizen’s voice and allocated resources for the co-creation and implementation of ideas, these multi-actor processes can deliver very tangible results.  

Three countries, three food labs

In 2015, we started setting up labs in Zambia, Uganda and Indonesia. The labs differed in focus, each related to its own local food context. 

In Zambia (PDF), the lab’s main focus is the country’s agricultural practice of maize monocropping, which has led to depleted soils and a national food system that is vulnerable to climate change and crop diseases on the one hand, and malnutrition (due to maize’s lack of crucial nutrients) on the other. 

We convened our second lab in rural western Uganda (PDF) against a backdrop of rapid urbanisation. People in Fort Portal and the surrounding areas did not capitalise on the potential of nearby natural resources, while the municipality was struggling to adapt to low-income newcomers and a related growing informal food system. 

In Indonesia, we convened a lab in Bandung, a city in west Java. This lab’s main focus was to raise the profile of informal street food vendors as providers of healthy food for the city’s low-income consumers. 

Trust building is a key indicator for success

Although the labs differed in focus, they all sought to translate on-the-ground experience and practice into national advocacy messages and results. The three labs used the same methodology to achieve their results. This method gives special attention to building trust among different actors that don’t normally meet – let alone talk and act together. This approach yielded quite remarkable results.

After two days of discussing and working with representatives from rural and urban low-income families, the director of Uganda’s National Planning Authority announced a change in approach of the country’s policy planning. Being part of the Food Change Lab had made him realise the importance of planning for the food system and valuing input from the bottom-up. 

The lab made an effort to connect street food vendors with law enforcement bodies and local policymakers, to increase all parties’ understanding of each other’s realities. In Fort Portal town, this resulted in the city authorities changing their previously hostile attitudes to representatives of the informal food sector. Vendors are now offered better working environments (such as street lighting and clean, designated areas for selling) and have in turn organised themselves and pledged to uphold certain hygienic standards. 

In Zambia, collaboration with the municipal government has started, and is looking at the potential set-up of a food policy council in Lusaka, with street food vendors as members. 

In Indonesia, the government’s Food Safety Agency specifically asked for street vendors to be included in a newly set-up platform called the New Generation of Indonesian Cooking (NGIC).

Labs as vehicles for knowledge production and new initiatives

The labs have functioned as safe spaces to discuss local food systems, including local production practices, traditional food culture and access to healthy food. As such, they have been platforms for knowledge production, and we have produced a range of publications that have been useful for advocacy processes. 

Lastly, the labs have resulted in the set-up of new collectives and organisations that can sustain the labs’ outcomes, such as the Lusaka Municipal Food Council, a Youth for Sustainable Food Group in Zambia, and a local multi-stakeholder Coalition of the Willing in Fort Portal that has pledged to safeguard the local food system as urbanisation continues to challenge current realities.

Delivering impact through ‘inclusive lobbying’

We have published three booklets on our labs, outlining the specific process, results and lessons. And there are plenty of lessons.

Mainly, we wish to stress that the change lab approach has been instrumental for impressive advocacy results. By inviting the ‘whole system’ into the room, from informal actors to policymakers, the labs employ what we might call ‘inclusive lobbying’.

In this model, policymakers are part of the analysis and proposed solutions, in a co-creative process with the citizens they serve. The process of ‘convincing’ becomes part of an organic process of trust building and social innovation.

In 2018, we started our fourth Food Change Lab, in La Paz, Bolivia. The lab focuses on nutrition challenges in families and neighbourhoods, giving centre stage to women as actors of change – low-income women from the neighbourhood but also female policymakers. The lab is building on lessons from our other labs. Stay tuned!

About the author

Felia Boerwinkel ([email protected]) is Hivos change lab coordinator

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