A tricky relationship: the nexus between food security, business and collaborative change

Introducing Dr Marijn Faling
Photo of a market with assortment of fruits in Nairobi, Kenya
A portrait photo of Dr Marijn Faling

In an era marked by profound global changes, the challenge of ensuring food security has emerged as a pivotal concern, affecting the present and our collective future. As we grapple with the ever-increasing demands of a burgeoning global population, it is crucial to recognize the intricate factors in this dynamic landscape.

We recently sat down with Marijn Faling, Assistant Professor of Policy and Project Evaluation, at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). Dr Faling teaches within the Governance and Development Policy (GDP) MA track. Originally from the Netherlands, Dr Faling has conducted research in Kenya, the Philippines and Bangladesh. Her extensive expertise and research have shed light on the multifaceted dimensions of this issue from the perspective of cooperation between governments, NGOs, civil society, the agricultural sector and communities to combat hunger. 

In this interview, part of our Assistant Professor Portrait series, we explore the pressing issues, innovative solutions, and real-world examples that underscore the mounting importance of food security on a local scale. From local sustainability initiatives to business approaches, the rise of food security is a topic of paramount significance, and Dr Faling is at the forefront of this critical discussion.

Foods such as sweet potato and kale in large blue bags at a Nairobi food market
Nicholas Githiri

Thanks for this interview! How do you define food security?

'I approach food security by looking at how people, with differing levels of resources are able to access food. This is operationalized through four dimensions: affordability, availability, appropriateness and acceptability. Food security is contingent on these four dimensions.

Affordability relates to the ability and willingness of the consumer to buy food products. Affordability connects, on the one hand, to the cost of production, marketing, and design of the food product and, on the other hand, the consumer's income to afford the food. 

Availability concerns the geographic availability of a food product and whether it is being made available in a specific location where consumers or users can access it. For instance, it might be much more difficult for someone living in a rural village in the northeastern part of Kenya, to access certain products as compared to someone living in the capital city of Nairobi. 

Acceptability relates to whether consumers are aware of certain products and whether these products fit their norms and cultural preferences when it comes to eating food. For instance, fish might be available in this same rural village in Kenya during the rainy season. However, culturally, these populations aren't used to eating fish, so they won't consider fish a protein source. 

Lastly, appropriateness relates to the food's quality, whether it is safe or produced through specific quality criteria and whether it meets the needs of people. It furthermore relates to how the household prepares and consumes food products.' 

Watch this explainer with Dr Faling

Dr Marijn Faling describes food security

Your research specializes in collaborative change processes to issues related to food security. Where did this interest begin for you?

'Relationships are fascinating to me! On an individual level, we know that positive relationships can spark your energy and lead to great things. On the other hand, a difficult relationship can drain your energy and lead to nowhere. While I don't study food security at the individual level, I enjoy researching the relationships between organizations and different actors. 

My first research project focused on the inter-organization dynamics and alliance between Dutch non-governmental organizations to implement aid. When I began my academic journey a while ago, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs focused on having different non-governmental organizations in the Netherlands work together through a co-financing scheme concentrated on strengthening the capacity of civil society and sustainable development in the realm of climate change and disaster risk reduction. There was recognition that different issues are interrelated, such as environmental degradation and disasters, and food security. The goal was to have the Dutch government and various organizations partner together to reduce fragmentation in the aid landscape and ensure taxpayers' money is spent effectively and efficiently. 

The focus on inter-organizational dynamics has been a red thread in my research to this day. My more recent research on private-sector engagement in development has a similar focus.'

That’s interesting! Today, we're seeing that interrelation of food security with other contemporary issues, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and extreme weather events. Can you explain how poverty and climate change also influence food security?

'Climate change and poverty are interrelated and may exacerbate their effects predominantly on the most vulnerable populations. We're seeing weather extremes rise, like droughts, heavy rainfall patterns and more unpredictable weather events. Dire weather events influence food production because your arable land suddenly becomes inaccessible due to flooded or droughts.

You also see that poverty exacerbates the impact of climate change because the most vulnerable people usually have limited means of protecting themselves against the consequences of climate change. For instance, smallholder farmers don’t always have access to drought-tolerant seeds and irrigation systems, so they rely entirely on rain-fed agriculture. They cannot sell food on the market which leads to reduced productivity from food producers to fewer products being available in the market, which raises the prices of certain food products and influences the affordability and availability of foods.’

Photo of chicken on the grill at a bustling market in Nairobi, Kenya
Nicholas Githiri

We’re also seeing more private sector involvement and partnerships to enhance food security.

'It is the dominant trend to focus on collaboration, and it's likely based on the idea that contemporary challenges like climate change, food security and inequality are more challenging to tackle individually.

Therefore, the idea is that they need to team up and do it together because the private sector and civil society are incapable of addressing food insecurity on their own, and governments face the scrutiny of failing to take the lead in addressing such issues. The assumption is that these parties can unite all their resources, and the benefits will be more significant than the sum of what everyone individually contributes.' 

Speaking of dominant trends, inclusive business approaches has been a strategy to combat food insecurity. Why are we seeing more uptake in this particular approach?

'Inclusive business approaches combine commercially viable business models with development impact. Quite often, it is organized in a way that, for instance, smallholder producers or micro-entrepreneurs are included in the value chain. For instance, smallholder farmers produce a specific raw material for a business to process, or micro-entrepreneurs are included as distributors who can reach far-off consumers and earn an income.  

But at the same time, these inclusive business models also try to address food insecurity by making nutritious products — such as nutrient-rich, fortified porridge mixes or milk — available in low-income markets.’

Who are the actors or stakeholders involved in inclusive business approaches? 

'It can be a range of different types of actors, who may play different roles. Typically, the involvement is as follows. The business partner is essential for the commercial viability of a food product to guarantee the initiative's sustainability by retaining donor support. If the support dries up, the initiative will continue because stakeholders will have this financial incentive to continue it. Quite often, the second actors are government actors involved as donors who financially support such initiatives. But you also see, for instance, local government's involvement in helping implement or create a particular regulatory environment in which these initiatives can exist. 

Civil society organizations and NGOs often link the business to the local community, ensuring that inclusive approaches benefit low-income consumers, smallholder producers or micro-entrepreneurs. Civil society organizations and NGOs are often well-embedded in these local communities and know key community members and how they should navigate this environment. Universities or other knowledge institutions can be included as actors to develop specific knowledge on producing certain crops. Or it could also be microfinance institutions which make loans accessible to smallholder farmers.' 

Are we seeing examples of progress regarding this model?

'You see positive examples happening today. For instance, I recently studied a milk processing company in Kenya, a small business owned by several farmer cooperatives. They don’t have a profit orientation but are a member-based organization. They would collect the milk from all the smallholder farmers in the cooperatives, and they would sell it as raw milk in the market or produce yoghurt, serving their local low-income markets. You could see that through the support of these farmers, their linkages were strengthened. This milk processing company has existed in the market for quite some time. It has a reputation as a relatively reliable partner that can be trusted with a huge reach.

The inclusive intervention focused on supporting these farmers to produce higher quality and higher quantities of milk by supporting the cultivation and supply of animal feeds. This system was working so well that it started attracting other partners who were crowding in on this initiative. For instance, the local government increasingly began working with these cooperatives to provide them with veterinary services for their cows and training for farmers. There were effects beyond the inclusive business initiative—a change in the broader system could be identified.

However, specific disclaimers need to be put in place. Commercially viable models only work for some people, which are usually not the most marginalized, vulnerable communities.  commercial viability is a key concern for the business partner as well as an overall objective of the inclusive business initiative. This usually requires for instance a certain level of quality requirements of raw materials produced by smallholder farmers, which may be unattainable for marginalized groups. Inclusive business models are furthermore focused on the more formal markets and businesses. However, informal food markets are essential for food security for low-income or difficult-to-reach consumers. Yet, they are hardly ever included in inclusive business models.' 

So, in short, inclusive business models can have risks. 

'Yes! For instance, inclusive business can involve more dominant partners, such as large multinational corporations. The advantage is that they may guarantee a secured offtake. Suppose you're producing for these large transnational corporations. In that case, there will always be a market for your products. Furthermore, there is potential to include a lot of smallholder farmers because these businesses operate on such a large scale.  

However, these partners could dominate inclusive business initiatives and make economic choices to reduce operating costs, making the position of smallholder farmers or micro-entrepreneurs insecure. For example, the dominant business partner could include a clause in a contract stating they could take over distribution areas, leaving no chance for farmers or entrepreneurs to grow their business or advance to a better position.' 

Commercially viable models only work for some people, which are usually not the most marginalized, vulnerable communities.

What indicators are used as keys to development impact?

‘Measuring impact—that is a challenge. It's important to know that there is a context in which these projects happen, and I don’t want to portray these dominant players as evil forces either. Budgets for monitoring and evaluation tend to be limited in development organizations or collaborations. It's often the partners responsible for implementation are also the ones doing the monitoring and evaluation because they tend to have a portfolio of different programmes. Unfortunately, it's also not always feasible to find a third-party evaluator.

When food security is measured, you see that it is often measured through indicators that are close to the level of the inclusive business. So, you'll find an output indicator, such as counting the number of products sold on the market, as a proxy indicator for advancing food security. However, such a proxy indicator is based on quite a range of untested assumptions and is relatively unlikely to hold when scrutinized. For instance, one assumption is that the product reaches low-income consumers, whereas it may be equally purchased by more well-off groups. When products are purchased by people with limited budgets, these products usually replace another product. It depends a lot on the characteristics of that replaced product whether the product offered by the inclusive business actually means an improvement in food security.

Another is related to the dimensions I stated earlier—availability and acceptability—are also essential to measure. You'll find that certain households have specific cultural norms, preferences, and habits, which can be related to certain household members consuming particular foods, for instance, pregnant or lactating women, who cannot access certain products because it would be considered inappropriate. If nutritious products are consumed by household members who are relatively food secure instead of more food insecure household members, the impact of the inclusive business on food security remains limited. All kinds of cultural ways of thinking about food consumption determine who takes in certain foods that need to be assessed or unpacked when measuring only products sold.’

How would you recommend improving these indicators to policymakers to ensure everyone can benefit from inclusive business approaches?

A collaboration in an inclusive business initiative, for instance, between a private partner and an NGO or a donor government, requires safeguards to secure development impact. For instance, the inclusive business partners must be clear on what they want to achieve. And it's fair not to expect they can solve all societal challenges with one initiative. There's also no need to claim that. By defining development impact goals very clearly, it becomes more apparent where and how inclusive business partners should navigate, when day-to-day decisions need to be made, whether a specific decision serves the development impact or not.’

Thanks for the great chat, Dr Faling! Best of luck in the future!

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