Building sustainable food systems is key in accelerating Africa’s ambition to be a food secure, economic self-sufficient and climate-resilient continent in line with the Sustainable Development Goals and Africa Union’s Agenda 2063. In an exclusive interview with Dr. Catherine Mwema, an award-winning agriculture scientist, the DrumBeat elaborately explores how agri-value chain systems and inclusive start-up models can strengthen the continent’s food systems thus increasing productivity and improving livelihoods. 


  • Who is Dr. Catherine Mwema?

I am a food systems researcher and enthusiast with a background in agricultural economics and agribusiness. I have worked across various realms of the food systems including food production, market systems, nutrition, climate resilience, as well as social and gender inclusion. I hold a doctorate in Agricultural Economics with over 15 years of experience researching and developing inclusive food systems in Africa.

I am currently the Director of Research and Learning at BOMA with a goal to alleviate extreme poverty and enhance nutritional security and climate resilience in the dryland regions of Africa. Previously, I was a Post-Doctoral researcher at WorldFish working on aquatic food systems in Africa. In 2022, I was awarded an inaugural Rockefeller Foundation-Acumen Food Systems Fellowship for my work on piloting inclusive aqua-business models in Zambia and Malawi.


  • What are food systems in the context of Africa’s agricultural development?

In a nutshell, food systems entail a nexus and connectedness of all actors, enablers, and activities that include production, selling, and consumption of food. 

We envision African food systems to be regenerative, nourishing, inclusive and sustainable to ensure all the actors, especially the poor, benefit equitably. Our food systems should also ensure consumers are well-nourished and the planet is conserved for future generations. 

Transforming African food systems, therefore, requires a systems approach where actors collaborate and invest with a shared value to address and challenge the existing gaps. Key challenges in African food systems include poor access to productive resources and inputs, lack of access to affordable financing, inequitable market systems, infrastructural and institutional challenges, socio-cultural barriers and climatic changes among others. A growing concern in food systems also includes food safety and post-harvest losses.   


  • You are passionate about transforming Africa through effective agri-value chains and food systems. What motivates you?

I draw my motivation from seeing smallholder farmers and small agri-enterprises sustainably and equitably benefit from agricultural value chains. It has always been my inspiration to help in building proper value chain systems that give more value to agriculture and open up markets for agricultural produce thus earning African farmers more money and better livelihoods. Indeed, smallholders are central to the food systems transformation, but their voice is most often ignored. It calls for a decent return on investments for all actors – especially the most vulnerable – if we are to ensure safe production and utilization of nourishing food in a way that conserves our planetary earth. 


  • You have registered remarkable success in developing pro-poor, inclusive, profitable and sustainable aqua-business models. Tell us about this success?

This was the highlight of the success – driving through the rural dust roads of Zambia and Malawi as I visited the aqua businesses and farmers we established, seeing how they were able to make a decent income, and one step at a time bettering their livelihoods out of poverty.

In most African countries, access to quality inputs for increased fish productivity by smallholder fish farmers is a huge challenge. Fish feed outlets are located far from farmers and in some countries, quality fish feed has to be imported from neighboring countries. In Zambia and Malawi, majority of rural farmers could not access information on best farming practices and inputs needed to sustain productive fish farming practices. That necessitated a need to be innovative around business models that are pro-poor, inclusive, profitable, and can be sustained and scaled over time. 

This called for a multi-stakeholder approach in testing last-mile inclusive aqua-business models that can work. I applied action-oriented research, adapting research to meet practice. I worked with various stakeholders in the aquatic food system, including the Department of Fisheries, the private sector – particularly feed manufacturers, cooperatives, agro shops and farmers – to test these business models in underserved regions of the two countries. We recruited, trained, co-financed and mentored small to medium-sized business enterprises to be the middleman and meet the farmers halfway.

We were able to set up a total of 70 last-mile aqua-businesses reaching over 3,000 fish farmers with quality fish farming inputs and knowledge on better farming practices. 


  • How can these models be replicated in other forms of agriculture?

The aqua-business models are anchored on strong theoretical framing of smallholder market system development. There is a huge potential to apply these models in other agricultural market systems in the sub-Saharan Africa with almost similar context. However, replication of the models requires capacity to learn and adapt to contextual nuances. It also requires engagement of local stakeholders to spearhead and own the change process.


  • Women and youth play a key role in the agricultural sector. Suggest a few interventions/approaches for supporting African women and youth to establish agri-food start-ups that can empower them and ensure sustainable food supplier for our population?

Empowering youth and women through agri-food start-ups has to be very intentional, well-meaning, and pre-designed. Women and youth have inadequate capacity to access financial and productive resources like land and skills. Making deliberate investments towards their involvement and success will go a long way in supporting their meaningful engagement in food systems. Strong and elaborate mentorship and coaching programs coupled with the corresponding financial investment will not only jump-start their businesses but provide growth and opportunities to employ and mentor other women and youth. Challenging prohibitive gender and socio-cultural norms is an approach that will also call for community and policy engagement. 


  • What is the place of private/industry players in enhancing agri-tech value chain?

Private sector is the engine that drives sustainability of market systems. Therefore, engagement of the private sector in any intervention cannot play second fiddle or be wished away; it has to be integral to the design. Private sector can be leveraged to provide investment in the value chains; and complement efforts of development partners and the government. Industry players immensely contributed towards the success of our the last-mile business models in Zambia and Malawi. Feed companies that we engaged deployed resources to proactively build the capacity of fish farmers and local SMEs.


  • Science is the fulcrum of evidence-based policy decisions. What are some of the strategies for enhancing effective policy engagements for transformative food systems?

Effective policy engagement is anchored on data and evidence and by unpacking findings and lessons to meet and address policy gaps, and build onto the government’s broader goals. A key strategy is the continuous engagement with policymakers in the life cycle of an intervention, and building onto the broader policy goals. Developing action-oriented policy recommendations and mapping them to key policy arms helps in policy engagements.


  • What are your final thoughts?

The interconnectedness of food systems calls for concerted effort across the board, to make meaningful and beneficial food systemss transformation.