Food for Africa through Collaboration

by Professor Frans Swanepoel, Future Africa Research Chair for Sustainable Food Systems, Professor Hettie Schönfeldt, National Research Foundation SARChI Chair in Nutrition and Food Security, Dr Melody Mentz, impact and strategy lead, ARUA-SFS, Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship & Future Africa Visiting Fellow, and  Dr Elizabeth Mkandawire, network and research manager, FSNet-Africa

Food is central to our lives. It holds cultural and social significance, and brings people together. However, the scarcity of food means that it is also a source of anxiety. While the COVID-19 pandemic contributed significantly to people going hungry, food insecurity is not new to Africa. Challenges in the way we produce and consume food have perpetuated hunger and malnutrition on the continent for several decades.

“To overcome these challenges, we need to approach research in new ways,” says Professor Frans Swanepoel, Future Africa Research Chair for Sustainable Food Systems at the University of Pretoria (UP). “Single-discipline research is no longer suitable to address the multifaceted and multi-layered problems that constrain our food systems, especially in Africa.”

The African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) is a network that comprises 20 research-intensive universities across Africa. A founding principle of ARUA is collaboration to advance research excellence. This is achieved through centres of excellence (CoEs) hosted by member universities, including the ARUA CoE in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS), which is led by UP in partnership with the universities of Nairobi and Ghana. 

One of its flagship projects, the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa), concluded its first phase in December 2023.

“The FSNet-Africa project aims to bring together researchers from various disciplines to explore how food can be produced in a way that is sustainable, affordable and accessible to everyone,” says Prof Swanepoel. “It views the complexity of food security holistically, linking academics from multiple disciplines and, importantly, with non-academic stakeholders to create knowledge and move from knowledge to action.”

FSNet-Africa 1.0 was led by UP, the University of Leeds, and the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN). This collaboration – between 10 African universities in six countries, one Global North institution and seven in-country node partners – saw more than 80 researchers collaborate on 20 transdisciplinary research projects. Each team consisted of a fellow, an African mentor, a UK mentor, and a researcher at UP. These teams worked with stakeholders such as members of government, farmers and NGOs to design and implement projects. 

Five of the FSNet-Africa fellows are participating in FSNet-Africa 1.5, through which they will expand their projects, and be mentored by Dr Elizabeth Mkandawire, network and research manager of FSNet-Africa. One fellow developed nutritious recipes from an indigenous crop, and she will collaborate with a women’s association to train communities in preparing this food. Another fellow will train farmers on using moringa in chicken feed to reduce antibiotic use. This can reduce anti-microbial resistance and improve human health. Yet another fellow developed an app to help small-scale farmers use the right amounts of fertiliser to save on their input costs and improve yield.

70% Percentage of the world’s hungry people live in areas afflicted by war and violence (Source: World Food Programme )


50% Africans are food-insecure ~ of the 811 million undernourished people worldwide in 2020, more than half live in Africa and more than a quarter can be found in sub-Saharan Africa (Source: World Food Programme )

The FSNet-Africa 1.5 team is conceptualising FSNet-Africa 2.0 and identifying funding opportunities.

“Through food, the FSNet-Africa project brings together researchers and stakeholders across multiple disciplines, countries and continents to work together to achieve zero hunger in Africa,” says Prof Swanepoel. “FSNet-Africa is more than a project; it is a culture that is embedded in ubuntu, aiming to reshape how we do science in a way that is meaningful and has a beneficial impact on local, national, continental and global communities.”

Why this research matters: Ensuring food security continues to challenge researchers and policymakers. As a multidisciplinary network, ARUA involves researchers and non-academic stakeholders to find ways to make better food available to more people. It is also growing the next generation of scientists who can lead research that benefits society.

This article first appeared in issue 8 of RE.SEARCH magazine published by the University of Pretoria.

Transforming food systems 

  • Another ARUA-SFS flagship project, the ARUA-UKRI GCRF CaBFoodS-Africa, collaboratively built research and policy capacities, with the central message that safe, nutritious food matters. 
  • An ARUA-SFS highlight is the collaboration between The Guild and ARUA, under which an Africa-Europe Cluster of Research Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (CoRE-SFS) is being co-led by UP and the University of Bologna. Building on existing connections, CoRE-SFS is developing an Africa-focused, interdisciplinary, collaborative PhD programme.