Sir Gordon Conway
Sir Gordon Conway is Professor of International Development at Imperial College London. He was previously Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department for International Development, President of the Royal Geographical Society, President of The Rockefeller Foundation and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex. He holds a Ph.D. in Systems Ecology from the University of California, and a Bachelor of Science in Zoology from the University College of Wales. He was also the Chair of the Montpellier Panel between 2010 and 2016. Sir Gordon is a fellow of several universities among which the Universities of Wales, Sussex, Brighton, and of the West Indies. He is a Fellow of the America and World Academy of Arts and Science, recipient of the Leadership in Science Public Service Award and a Royal Medal from the Royal Geographical Society (2017). In 2002 he was named Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science by the University of Sussex.

Scaling catalytic business and policy innovations to take a bite out of food waste

Interview with Sir Gordon Conway (Professor of International Development, Imperial College London) by Dana S. Gulley
Middle East and North Africa
Sub-Saharan Africa
4. Sep 2019

With 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted each year, the cost to the global economy is estimated to be USD 1 trillion annually. But what are some of the other negative impacts of such waste?

If wasted food was a country, it would be the third largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world. But food waste is not only about ethics or economics: it also means waste of precious water resources and extensive use of lands in an increasingly carbon-constrained world. Food waste is not just about “onion skins and banana peels.” An increasing number of people today understand that. Crucially, food waste is about people and about preserving the planet we live on. As such, the methane from decomposition makes food waste a significant contributor to climate change.

Given the massive scale of this problem, what are some of the different ways it can be addressed?

Food waste occurs at each stage of the food value chain. This is important to understand so that interventions targeting the different stages can be designed and implemented.

For example, at post-harvest level, good storage and drying technologies can help to reduce food losses or waste. This can also improve food safety and preserve the nutrient content of crops. Estimates indicate that around 1 million tonnes of additional milled rice could be available in Africa south of the Sahara by halving on-farm post-harvest losses alone, using locally available, suitable and adapted milling machines. This translates to 17% percent of current rice imports per year, worth US$410 million.

A wider access to improved and more cost-efficient transport systems is also an absolute must for farmers, as they are essential to minimizing the time lag between harvest, processing and retail. Our latest report with the Malabo Montpellier Panel on Digitalization, Byte by Byte: Policy Innovation for Transforming Africa’s Food system with Digital Technologies, highlights the crucial role that ICT could play here. In fact, with ICT, it is possible to set up an electronic transport system that connects farmers and truck drivers to manage and organize the transport of agricultural products from fields and rural areas to urban centres. In a sense, it could become the Uber service of agricultural goods! This is something worst investing in.

I could draw on many more examples. One of them is cold stations. Cool storage is crucial to reduce the loss of perishable food, especially fresh fruits and vegetables, that start to deteriorate immediately after harvest. In some countries, such as Nigeria, the introduction of solar-powered cold stations in some markets has extended the freshness of perishable foods from two days to 21 days and reduced post-harvest loss in markets and farms by up to 80 percent, increasing farmers’ incomes by up to 25 percent.

These—again—are just a few examples that have been covered in our reports.

What is the Malabo Montpellier Panel, and how is it addressing the issues of food security and improved nutrition in Africa?

The Malabo Montpellier Panel convenes 17 leading experts in agriculture, ecology, nutrition and food security to facilitate policy innovations by African governments to accelerate progress towards food security and improved nutrition in Africa. The Panel identifies areas of progress and positive change across the continent and assesses what successful countries have done differently. It then identifies the most important institutional innovations and policy and program interventions that can be replicated and scaled up by other countries.

In 2017, we published a report addressing the issue of food security and improved nutrition “Nourished: How Africa Can Build a Future Free From Hunger and Malnutrition. The report showed that there has been a substantial improvement in how nutrition is prioritized and funded at the international level, and nutrition has been elevated to a top priority on the development agenda.

Several recommendations pertaining to the adoption of a comprehensive policy on nutrition for a more inclusive approach were drawn out of it. We concluded this document with 12 recommendations (see picture attached).

12 recommendations for a more inclusive nutrition policy. Photo Credit: Malabo Montpellier Panel

How do the goals of the Malabo Declaration—to halve the number of people in poverty by 2025 through inclusive agricultural growth—dovetail with efforts to achieve the SDGs?

Achieving the Malabo Declaration goal of halving the number of people in poverty by 2025, through inclusive agricultural growth requires the transformation of African agriculture. That objective is rightfully encompassed under Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 1, which aims to “End poverty in all its forms everywhere.” But, it is also included under SDGs 2 that aims to “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”. However, these convergent views are only possible if productive agriculture systems are implemented. 

The African Union Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security, adopted more than 10 years ago in Maputo, already placed strong emphasis on ensur­ing food security and nutrition, and the Malabo Declaration reinforces this commitment.

Delivering on the SDG agenda will only be possible if African governments successfully deliver on the ambitious goals of the Malabo Declaration and Agenda 2063 of the African Union, which reflect the common African position on the socio­economic transformation of Africa.

As you mentioned, you recently published a report, “Byte by byte: policy innovation for transforming Africa’s food system with digital technologies.” Tell us more about what you found?

The application of digital technologies and services in African agriculture presents enormous opportunities for governments and the private sector to sustainably transform food systems to such that are employment enhancing for young people and those living in rural areas, that provide nutritious and healthy diets, lead to wider economic growth and use natural resources more efficiently and sustainably. To do so, the Panel looked at 7 African countries that lead the way and developed an action agenda for African governments to use as a roadmap. (see infographics attached)

The goal of this report was to identify interventions that have been effective and recommend options for policy innovation that can be supported by the government and private sector. What are the critical mechanisms in place to facilitate public-private dialogue regarding your recommendations?

The Malabo Montpellier Panel provides evidence-based research that facilitates decision making and the design of effective policies and programs that benefit smallholder farmers. The Malabo Montpellier Forum provides a platform to promote policy innovation by using the evidence produced by the Panel to facilitate dialogue and exchange among high-level decision-makers on African agriculture, nutrition and food security, including private actors.

How can inclusive business entrepreneurs in the seven African countries analysed in the report utilise your findings?

The Byte by Byte report analyses which institutional and policy innovations were implemented and what actions were taken by the private sector and ag-tech start-ups to increase the development and use of digital tools and services in the agriculture value chain. As this report clearly points to key interventions that work and benefit farmers and other actors, our findings will certainly help inclusive business entrepreneurs to:

  • identify how best to cooperate with governments;
  • identify where governments and private sector interventions are complementary to achieve best possible outcomes;
  • identify where private sector interventions can be most useful and catalytic.

Is there anything you would still like to add?

On behalf of the Malabo Montpellier Panel Members and staff, I’d like to extend my gratitude to our donors, specifically to Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), The UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the African Development Bank (AFDB), for their continued support and interest in the Malabo Montpellier Panel’s work.

Additional Resources:

Water-wise: Smart Irrigation Strategies for Africa (2017)

Nourished: How Africa Can Build a Future Free from Hunger (2018)

Mechanized: Transforming Africa value Chains (2018)

Byte by Byte: Policy Innovations For Transforming Africa’s Food System with Digital Technologies (2019)