Monday, 20 May 2013

Why Africa should listen to how South Africa’s food retailers are responding to environmental and social change

Digital Prices on Shelves (Pick 'n' Pay, South Africa)
by anastaciah on Flickr (cc-by-nc-sa)
The journal Sustainability’s recent special issue on Sustainable Food Chains provided the perfect platform for a paper arising out of my DPhil thesis that looks at how food retailers in South Africa are trying to adapt to social and environmental changes.

I talked to executives in South African food businesses to find out how they are responding to changing conditions in the food system - as climate change, for example, continues to affect environmental, social and economic systems in complex ways, affecting the food system from the global level right down to the local level.

Broadly speaking, companies are focussing on four areas in response to these changes:
  • innovation of new products;
  • an increased focus on customer awareness and marketing;
  • adjusting their procurement policies , and
  • working on building local capacity.
The executives also told me about important barriers, areas where they are uncertain as to how to proceed. Maintaining competitiveness in the face of ‘unsustainable’ consumer demands is one of these; another is how to engage in fruitful discussion with other key stakeholders in the system, most notably the government.

This final point raises the interesting question of perspective. The paper’s scope was limited to the opinions of those working in private sector companies, but there are many other important actors in the food system.

In particular, the role of government is crucial in building a food system that can meet food security needs. The government’s main role as identified in this paper lies in creating an enabling environment for companies to make the necessary changes in their strategies, in response to changing socio-environmental conditions. However, this requires both sides of the table to talk to each other effectively, which often turns out to be easier said than done.

At the other end of the spectrum are the farmers who supply these retailers – in particular, smallholder farmers, who are still extremely under-represented as suppliers.

Over and above issues of capacity building, there are complex power dynamics and path dependencies that make it difficult to transform into a more equitable and sustainable supply chain. These are big issues that companies cannot deal with in isolation. They require attention from a diverse set of stakeholders.

One final point is worth noting. It is in the nature of South African food retailers that many of them operate outside South African borders and are therefore important players in the wider African food system. The issues raised and discussed in this paper therefore have impacts not only for South Africa, but for food and farming systems across Africa – especially as other companies start to move into the food retail space on the continent.

An agricultural revolution in Africa will need to include the retail sector as important players. If this is to be truly transformational, then the lessons learned and questions raised from the South African experience will be vital for creating adequate policies for enabling a sustainable food system on the continent.

Read the paper

Pereira, Laura M. (2013) "The Future of the Food System: Cases Involving the Private Sector in South Africa." Sustainability 5, no. 3: 1234-1255

A prior version of this paper was presented at FAC’s conference on Young people, farming and food in March 2012 as well as the IFSA symposium that took place in Aarhus in June 2012. You can download the final paper free of charge from the Sustainability journal website.

Follow @futureagrics on Twitter here.