A COP27 Priority: Stepping up our support for agrifood SMEs

Global , 9 November 2022 - 

Actors in nutritious foods value chains are the guarantors of billions of lives and livelihoods, and stewards of planetary health. They deserve greater support.

Current crises must not obscure our long-term vision of a thriving food system that provides nutritious diets for all people, while staying within planetary boundaries. In a joint article with One Acre Fund earlier this year, we called for greater attention to be paid to smallholder farmers, whose role is essential if we are to fulfil the needs of an ever-growing population – even in the face of climate change, economic turbulence, conflict, and the many other disruptions that lie ahead.

The importance of SMEs

Moving beyond the farm, 75% of the nutritious foods supplied to low-income consumers in the emerging economies of the Global South are produced and supplied by SMEs. This is why SMEs in nutritious foods value chains, especially those involved in processing, storage and distribution, are a primary focus of GAIN’s work to scale up nutrition in its core countries.

They, too, deserve greater attention and greater support. The global community, national governments, the private sector, financial institutions and civil society must step up to ensure that these essential actors can continue to supply safe, nutritious, sustainable diets to all.

GAIN’s expertise with SMEs

GAIN has over ten years of experience in responding to the needs of SMEs in the food systems by working in collaboration with other global actors, and has produced tools and methodological techniques to achieve just that.

One such example is the Nutrition Impact at Scale progamme: a Dutch MFA-sponsored approach to working with like-minded enterprise support organisations, tapping into their rich network of SMEs to expand the reach of our capacity-building efforts. In so doing, we can turn exponentially more small- and medium-sized food companies into true nutritious food enterprises. GAIN’s model is sustainable, in the sense that it seeks to work with Enterprise Support Organisations (ESOs) within local economies, infusing a nutrition focus into their offerings to SMEs.

GAIN provides tools to businesses of various types, focusing on putting together the right building blocks of a nutritious business model (obtained through research), such as knowledge of the basics of nutrition, training in food safety issues, and business support for marketing and business development to reach low-income consumers at scale and profitably.

Expanding our reach

The need to build such capacity has never been greater. And so our efforts must continue to scale. GAIN is offering direct Training of Trainers to groups of ESOs in six countries, aiming to reach at least five in each country through this NIS project. This will enable these ESOs to offer their services to cohorts of at least 10 SMEs in a three-tiered approach (basic, intermediate and advanced), sharing practices that will support food systems resilience and better nutrition outcomes.

To take another example: in many contexts, seasonality of crop production poses a challenge to availability of nutritious foods to lower income consumers. This issue can only be addressed by adopting a food systems approach that prioritises year-round access to nutritious diets. GAIN has, therefore, worked with SMEs in value chains for biofortified foods, linking producers to consumers through innovative approaches to commercialisation that ensures a reliable and consistent supply of nutritious foods. Biofortification is important because it is a proven way of adding essential nutrients to diets, such as zinc from biofortified rice, iron from high-iron beans, and vitamin A from PVA cassava.

Market stall with avocado, tomatoes, aubergines and apples

75% of the nutritious foods supplied to low-income consumers in the emerging economies of the Global South are produced and supplied by SMEs. © Unsplash / FitNish Media

Creating alliances

GAIN also empowers SMEs through alliance building. Notably, GAIN and the World Food Programme (WFP) co-convene the Scaling Up Nutrition Business Network (SBN). SBN is the private sector arm of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement, which aims to reduce malnutrition in all its forms by bringing together the private sector, government, and other stakeholders to take joint, practical actions to accelerate private sector contributions to improved nutrition.

SBN serves a dual purpose.

First, it is an advocacy platform for improving the policy environment for SME investment in nutrition.

And it is a business networking platform that facilitates partnerships that can funnel critical resources, including financial and technical assistance, towards food system SMEs to scale their business and nutritional impact.

SBN has over 1,400 members, of which 80% are SMEs that are convened through our 26 national networks across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In addition, SBN convenes 25 global members, which are multinational corporations that leverage their technical expertise to help national members.

Working towards sustainability

SBN has utilised its partnership-building activities to initiate mainstreaming environmental sustainability as an emerging thematic focus area across its national networks. Recent examples are partnerships under the EatSafe Innovation Challenge, and the Greening and Scaling "GAIN Access to Better Dairy" project.

On the latter, SBN is collaborating with Innovative Food System Solutions (IFSS) Portal, Arla Foods Ingredients, which is one of its global members, and national SBN members in Pakistan, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

The project was launched in 2021 to improve the nutritional status of children and women by catalysing the market development of the dairy value chain, increasing profitability for small holder farmers, local processors, and other value chain actors. Unique to the project is an emphasis of supporting local dairy processers to convert by- product of the dairy process, which has potential use as a raw material for healthy and nutritious food products fit for human consumption. The pilot phase results have already yielded some positive results. For example, in Pakistan the project saw the conversion of 10,000 litres/day of near waste whey water. Instead of being wasted, it was repurposed into a nutritious and affordable drink, with a three-month shelf life, as a substitute for unhealthy drinks.

Supporting innovation

Over the last few years, SBN has jointly organised with partners various innovation challenges through its national networks as a means of identifying and supporting innovative entrepreneurs that seek to improve accessibility of nutritious and affordable foods in their communities.

In 2022, SBN partnered with IFSS and the USAID funded EatSafe Programme to organise the EatSafe Innovation Challenge. The challenge was launched in April 2022, and called on researchers, entrepreneurs and students to submit innovative solutions that aim to improve food safety in traditional markets, where hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians and Nigerians source their food every day.

The evaluation of applications included

  1. food safety and nutritional benefit,
  2. adaptability to Low Middle-Income Countries (LMICs),
  3. scalability and
  4. environmental sensitivity.

It was the first time SBN had explicitly included environmental sensitivity in its evaluation criteria. And it was essential in challenging applicants to ensure their solutions considered climate and environmental resilience, and reduced greenhouse gas footprint of the food system. In addition, all technical support received by shortlisted applicants throughout the innovation challenge process focused on ensuring that they refined their solutions to bolster their environmental sustainability.

Ten innovative concepts emerged as the finalists to proceed to the EatSafe National Innovation Challenge in both countries, five finalists from Nigeria and five from Ethiopia. The top three finalists from both countries proceeded to the Global Finale at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Copenhagen.

And the winners are…

Helen Weldemichael was the overall winner with the best innovation of converting traditional methods of processing enset, which provides staple food to about 20 million Ethiopians, to a mechanised solar powered processing method to ensure safe foods.

Oyeyemi Fadairo, whose innovation involved the use of inflatable solar tunnel dryers to prevent food spoilage, took the second position.

Ruth Ede, who pitched for the conversion of bio-waste to high-yield organic fertiliser, came third.

Through the innovation challenge experience, SBN will continue embedding environmental sensitivity as a key pillar in its innovation challenges.

We must develop stronger value chains

Value chains for nutritious foods are responsible for nourishing the majority of the world's population today, and they will continue to be just as essential in future. From farmer to processor to distributor to retailer, every link in the chain must be strengthened and reinforced to ensure that nutritious foods reach consumers with the lowest possible environmental impacts. The people in these complex systems are the guarantors of billions of lives and livelihoods. The support they receive should reflect that.