GAIN Interview Cruncher - The Urgent Need for Investment in Food Systems Infrastructure

London, United Kingdom , 13 July 2023 - 

This Interview Cruncher will highlight the crucial role of "food systems infrastructure" in enabling access to healthy and sustainable diets in low- and middle-income countries. It will aim to offer a clear definition of what food systems infrastructure entails and identifies gaps that still need to be addressed. 

Shiulie Ghosh: Hello and welcome to the latest Interview Cruncher by GAIN. I'm Shiulie Ghosh. I'm delighted to have you with us. Today, we are going to be examining the urgent need for investment in food systems infrastructure, which is critical to enabling access to healthy and sustainable diets in low-and-middle-income countries. 

Efficient and robust food systems infrastructure is what enables foods such as fruit and vegetables, animal source products, grains and pulses to be produced distributed and sold. But in many countries, there are substantial gaps in this infrastructure, particularly in parts of Africa, which makes it a struggle for many people to access nutritious and affordable diets.

So today with the help of our expert speakers, we're going to be looking at how we can accelerate infrastructure development. Where investment needs to be directed? Who do we look to, to mobilise funding? And why exactly this investment should be considered as an urgent priority.

So, without further ado, let me introduce my speakers. We have Saul Morris, Director of Programme Services at GAIN, Maha Hoteit, Professor of Nutrition at the National Council for Scientific Research, Lebanon. Brian Mangwiro, food systems and infrastructure expert. And Jennifer Blanke, Vice Chair of Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture.

A warm welcome to all of my speakers. Saul, let me start with you, because you've authored a report in which you very strongly make the case for the need for more investment in food systems infrastructure in low-and-middle-income countries.

So, can you explain for us - what exactly we mean by food systems infrastructure and where are the gaps?

Saul Morris: It's a great pleasure to be here with you today Shiulie and with our fantastic panel to talk about such an important topic. And I think it's really interesting that we are doing it in this webinar format because so many of us take for granted that we have access to wonderful infrastructure like IT infrastructure in our daily lives.

But for many other people around the world, the physical components of systems that provide the commodities and the services that sustain our living conditions are lacking in their day-to-day lives, as we said.

And that's true, especially for the food system. So this map, which I took from The Food Systems Dashboard, which is publicly available, really gives a sense as to the gaps that we see. This represents the Agriculture Infrastructure Index, which talks about the
ability of countries to store and transport crops to market. And it includes things like road and rail and air transport. It also includes irrigation and crop storage.

So, it's a bit of a sum up of everything. And you can see that while countries like Canada, France and Austria are way up there, in fact they score a hundred out of a possible a hundred on this index, you have other countries like Niger, Nicaragua, Laos, that are down in the twenties in their scores. So there's really a huge difference.

Let's zoom in on one particular nutritious food, kale. It's full of fantastic vitamins and minerals that are great to meet your nutritious needs throughout the life cycle. And we can see here's a graphic showing going through from the production of kale on the farm right through to the bowl on the consumer's table via the stages of aggregation and wholesale and retail.

And you can see all the different kinds of infrastructure that you need just to produce a stem of kale. You need irrigation on the farm. You need a packhouse to collect it all. You need machinery to process it, electricity, water, cold storage, cold transport and so on, and effective waste disposal as well.

So, there's a whole mass of different kinds of infrastructure needed in different locations just to make sure that we have access to this one fantastic nutritious food.

And the same kind of thing can be said for all sorts of different nutritious foods.

So recently I had the privilege of visiting two milk processing plants in Ethiopia. And they had lots of machinery there, they were owned by private owners who had invested heavily in the machinery that's needed to pasteurise or to produce yoghourt or cheese. But there was one thing missing in those factories and it was the milk.

And why were they not able to get their hands on sufficient quantity of milk?

It's because close to the farmers who own the cows, there just weren't enough dairy collection centres with the cooling facilities to ensure that the fresh milk is immediately brought down to a lower temperature so that it can then be safely moved around the country.

India does this really well. They've set up a huge network of dairy processing and collection centres, so we can use that as a benchmark to how much more infrastructure Africa needs to have.

So overall Africa, based on the number of cows that we see in Africa, needs another 150 million litres a day of processing capacity for dairy. And even Kenya, which is a country that has relatively advanced dairy sector, would need eight times more infrastructure than it currently has to take advantage of its herds of cows.

Markets are a particularly critical element in the food system. If they're well designed and well run, they can shorten food supply chains, keep final prices down, promote healthier eating, reduce food waste, and generate scores of dignified jobs. 

But amazingly, when we looked at the 20 biggest cities in sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, we found that only one of them currently has what I would call a modern and efficient wholesale market. Just amazing.

What do we need to spend to put this right? Well, Ceres2030 produced a report called "Sustainable Solutions to Hunger" and we took 1% of the
amount of money they said might be needed to solve the world's hunger problem and thought, "What could you do? What could a country invest in with 330 million?"

Here's some illustrative things that you could do with irrigation, roads, maybe a dairy processing plant, maybe small mills for fortified grain or some markets. It's a lot of money, but it's not an impossible amount of money in the bigger scheme of things.

We just need to plan and mobilise the resources as we'll be hearing more in this set of talks.

If you found this interesting, please read our GAIN Discussion Paper: Number 13 "The Case for Increased Investment in Food Systems Infrastructure in Low-and-Middle-Income Countries." Thank you.

Shiulie Ghosh: Saul, thanks very much indeed. There's obviously a lot of moving parts involved in food systems infrastructure, and I think you've highlighted some of the complexities, particularly with your example about milk. And I know we're gonna talk a bit more about some of the gaps a little later on, but for the moment, thank you.

Maha, let me come to you because one of the things which is very clear is that when critical food systems infrastructure fails, the consequences are massive and dramatic. And never did we see that more clearly than in the Beirut port explosion in 2020. I remember the sheer destruction of that. We did a lot of reporting on that at the time, and of course that had a massive impact on nutrition and availability of food.

Talk us through the consequences of a failure in food systems infrastructure.

Maha Hoteit: In general, the failure of the food system infrastructure is associated with the disruption of the process required for food provision, which may results in decreases in food security in affected countries and mainly in Lebanon where this is the basis what we call food insecurity, the basis of the definition of the food insecurity.

Usually the failure of the food system also provide a kind of unbalanced nutritional intake, which can be significant to cause of many global illness, disease and inability to build immunity to infection. So the changes affect, or the consequence, results, will make a kind of challenge of social inequalities and inequity that will appear and lead to hunger and inappropriate allocation of power inequalities in the term of distribution of natural resources for agriculture production and also in food availability.

So other than that, this failure in food, in the infrastructure of food system, will affect also the environment, will lead to a kind of environmental kind of high footprint for the food system. That's why countries should link or should think more how to incorporate narrative transformation into their own food system in a strategic direction because every dollar spent on food society pays $2 in health environment and economic cost.

And as for Beirut explosion in 2020, we know very well that according to the World Bank Lebanon is in the mid of series of crisis and the which is started by the fires, then the uprising in 2019, followed by the COVI-19 and the explosion. 

All these situations put Lebanon in unstable also political situation. And in this way, Lebanon ranks 10 in the most severe crisis episode. With regards to Beirut explosion. It affected, it drained Lebanon further from resources and capabilities and affect its main import and export, the channel as well as the country silos that used to hold 120,000 tonnes of grains. In this way, the food supply in Lebanon, they food supplying chains were disrupted and the production and the availability and also the access, which are the pillars of the food security were heavily impacted. 

For instance, to give you a kind of example, the production value after the explosion, the Beirut explosion decreased by 47% and the animal production also decreased by 26%. In this way, the Lebanese agriculture production values decreased by 38%. This put the food security of the households in Lebanon in a kind of challenge because we did a kind of study, it was a national study, national representative study and shows that 74% of the total Lebanese households are food insecure. And this is a result, a consequence, a severe consequence of the failure of infrastructure and the food system infrastructure in Lebanon. 

Shiulie Ghosh: Thank you very much indeed, Maha. I think it's quite sobering the figures that you give. And we see how food systems infrastructure are tied up with economy, with health, with agricultural production, and of course food security. Thank you very much indeed for that. 

Brian, let me come to you. I know that you are not able to stay with us for the duration of the session and you're not gonna take part in the Q&A, but talk us through now how we can finance infrastructure in a sustainable way? 

Brian Mangwiro: Yes, and a pleasure to be speaking to you. So the main point here where I really agree with Saul is you cannot have development without infrastructure. It's just impossible. And the challenge that we've had for especially, you know, at the African continent is that it's been difficult to finance or to commit finance to infrastructure. And particularly because it's very difficult to coordinate, governments either on an individual basis or on a collective basis to actually gear up to programmes where everyone is fully committed to infrastructure. 

There's always this dependence on external sources of capital almost as if on a charity perspective. So because of that, you will never, I strongly believe that you will never be able to develop at a critical mass if there is no full commitment to actually mobilising infrastructure funds in a more structured way, one that recognises that size matters and one that recognises that commitment from almost everyone, all the stakeholders matter. 

Now, the time that we're in now is quite an interesting one because there's a lot of capital that's being committed to all kinds of infrastructure of, you know, if you think from a development perspective, most people are focused on sustainable infrastructure. And I think Africa is in an opportune place, if I can describe it like that, where you can tap into a lot of these funds that are looking to develop infrastructure in an interesting way. And it's almost like you're starting from a fresh slate because there isn't much infrastructure to talk about in most of these places. But now there is capital that's actually coming in and which can be harnessed quite sustainably. 

So it's not just, you know, capital that's being committed towards green infrastructure or green projects. There's also the social impact side of things  where a lot of investors are looking to deploy capital in high impact opportunities, you know, those that are able to transform people's lives. 

So what it then needs is a structured way of presenting some of these opportunities and tapping into these funds in a structured and sophisticated way so that at least we can get somewhere. For example, I mean we know that, you know, that the COP27 was committing funds and a lot of these funds are now being disbursed to countries in different ways. There are a lot of development banks that are coming in and we know from where we sit in some of these financial centres that a lot of, you know, the ESG aware investors are looking to put money to work, but in transformative projects that look to better societies. 

So from where I sit, I believe that, you know, these are all sources of capital that we can tap into, but it just needs us to be well organised and structured and have long term goals in how we want to approach it. Yeah, one of the key challenges that we have when we are looking at development in most of these places is that there's almost a handicap to try and just work with what's there and not be willing to scrub the paper and kind of say, "How could we do this better?" 

So what do I mean by that? If you look at say the NGO development model, it's always been, we come in and we work with what's there and hopefully we can make what's there a little bit better. There is no acceptance that sometimes what's there has actually been the hindrance. And, I'll give you an example. So when you look at most of the value chain development work that's happening, especially in the agricultural space, it goes into, you know, small holder communities, you know, dealing with people who've got small plots of land and you try and give them, you know, a little bit of fertiliser, a little bit of seed, and sometimes a little bit of money just to make their lives better. But, I think someone has to be very critical of that model to say it doesn't work, especially if you're looking to develop a full country. Whereas you can mobilise resources and build, say a railroad or build, you know, even just normal roads. And that in itself can then facilitate development around those key infrastructure areas. And what it does is when you build a lot of infrastructure into some of these areas, you then allow economic activities to be done at a critical mass. And that in itself can be taken, can be a key nucleus for development. 

The one… of the advantages of taking a development model that looks at a size as a key ingredient is that you are able to de-risk a project. So I'll give you an example. If you look at a new irrigation scheme that you know that serving, let's say, 200 farmers, you know, you're going to invest and then you're going to need to mobilise each and every one of these farmers. But the effort that you need in there and a lot of the resources that go in there, a lot of the time you don't really achieve the scale that you're really looking for because it needs a lot of monitoring, a lot of maintenance, a lot of training and the rest of it. But the view that I have is if you were to just say "We want to implement a commercial model of development," And you just go, you say "Well, instead of having an irrigation scheme that's serving say a hundred farmers, we are just going to, you know, have a large scale irrigation scheme." or a large scale sort of wheat production scheme in this region."

And you say, "Let's now supply all the infrastructure that's required for this." So for example, if it's the roads that take the product to the markets, if it's the fertiliser, they're being produced and supplied to the areas. And then with that, if the people who live in the area are going to benefit, then they benefit. I think if you commit yourself to large scale commercial projects as opposed to these disparate smallholder schemes, I think there is scope to transform quite a lot. 

The other side of it is to then say, "Okay, how do you finance scale?" Because we know that a lot of these countries have got a lot of, I don't want to call them disruptive political cycles, but there's no continuity more often in terms of planning, long-term planning for development. One of the things that I, you know, that I think, and this is not tested by the way, at least in Africa, but when I look at what's happening in Eastern Europe is you know, the European Union has been building a lot of infrastructure going through, you know, sort of what was former, Soviet Union. And because these projects are being administered as European Union risk, it's no longer attached, to a particular country. 

So I'll give you an example, a road that runs from Germany through Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, North Macedonia, all the way down to Greece built by the European Union, right? This wasn't a solid effort from each one of these countries, but it was a supra-development project. So the EU would mobilise those funds and then deploy the project. And what it does is it takes away the country risk, right? And country risk, as we know is one of the key things that we consider when we're trying to do projects of scale and country risk is high in most of these African countries and is quite prohibitive in terms of trying to do the big projects. So in my opinion, working through sort of the supernational organisations, whether it's the SADC or whether it's ECOWAS, whether it's the African Union, but being able to implement projects at that supra-level, I think is a key avenue for raising finance and de-risking projects and then doing projects, which are not interfered by the political cycle. 

And what do I mean by that? I mean that if, say, if you look at Southern Africa, if the SADC was doing a project and it's a project that's running, say from Namibia all the way to Malawi or to Kenya, if it's building a road, that's a road that's being built by SADC. There's no longer a country attached to it. And that sort of desensitises the project on a political basis. And I think if we were to commit to large infrastructure projects that way at a supra-level, yeah, you know, having the critical mass and having sophistication that's required, I think there's is a lot of mileage that we can achieve. 

Now, I present these models, not on the basis that they're fool proof. Everything needs working on. Everything has got a challenge in itself, but certain things are better than others. And I think what's better here is that large scale is better than small scale, 100%. Focusing on infrastructure is much better than this piecemeal of going to where things are being done and just saying, "Oh, well, try to improve these little things that are being done here." And focusing on a regional development programme where infrastructure efforts are being done at a regional basis is much better than trying to do it on a country basis because a lot of these countries are broke anyway. 

So this would be, you know, the approach that I would take and I think now is the best time because now you have a lot of funds which are looking to do ESG projects, social impact projects, and the capital is there. It just needs mobilisation and it needs mobilisation with sophistication. And if we then do this, you know, aiming at projects with critical scale, projects that can impact, you know, significant development of countries, I think we can do it better. And my big thing is that small is not beautiful. Focusing on just trying to make smallholder farmers or smallholder producers or small scale businesses just thrive in their rustic nature not achieving much, I don't think that's what's gonna transform these communities. 

But what we need to do is to think about big projects, projects with critical mass, projects with economies of scale, projects that, you know, run across countries. And I think those are the projects that are going to change the way business is done in these places. And these projects have to start with infrastructure and because with infrastructure you create significant multiplier benefits, whether it's value chain development, whether it's financial sector deepening. Whatever you want to think about, it needs infrastructure. So I really resonate with what Saul is saying. that, you know, infrastructure development is key, we need to focus on that, but my thing is it needs to be done with critical scale and also being done at supra-national level and that way I think will be able to mobilise the capital we need in a sustainable way and in an impactful way. 

Shiulie Ghosh: Brian, thanks very much indeed for your time. I know you have to get off now, but thank you for joining us thus far. Jennifer, let me come to you. We know that there's a pressing need for food systems reform in many low-and-middle-income countries, but how do we expand and roll out infrastructure in a systemic way? 

Jennifer Blanke: Thanks a lot Shiulie, and I'm really delighted to be here to discuss such an important topic that is quite dear to my heart. So, you know, I think we've heard from our colleagues, you know, how important it is to drive investments and in a sustainable way. And this is very much a development issue as well as a nutrition issue as well as sort of a food security issue. It's really a holistic issue. And so, you know, if you wanna think about, you know, countries can sort of move up the value chain to deliver more of that healthy food that people need. And given, you know, the great need for in infrastructure of all kinds, I mean the numbers are astounding and particularly to have to do it in a sustainable way, which is becoming more and more expensive, it can be quite daunting to think about where to even start. 

And a key question I think, you know, that often does not get enough attention is how to make investments attractive in agribusiness to the private sector. You know, because the government can't do or fund everything, you know, even with the support of the multilateral development banks and bilateral donors and they wouldn't have the business know-how anyway necessarily to sort of bet on the right types of foods, understand what the market, you know, sort of situation is. So private sector investment needs to be crowded in to build food systems infrastructure and create successful agribusinesses in the right locations. 

And I think location is a very important point here. We know that in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, that many countries export mainly unprocessed food while they import a huge amount of mainly processed food, some healthy, some not. But in general, you know, about 70 billion US dollars per year, which is insane. And you know, another big challenge, again, if you look at the production systems in places like Africa is that the food that is exported, whether it's you know, continental or you know, abroad tends to be exported from ports and centres that are very far from rural areas. You know, they're basically near cities quite often. And this is inefficient and can lead to significant food loss during transport. 

Now all of this makes no sense and it's really akin to exporting good jobs and income from rural areas that already suffer from underemployment and poverty and yet have huge food production and processing, also processing potential. A lot of human capital there. So in order to meet multiple needs, it's really useful I think, to step back and think about, you know, sort of holistically what are the infrastructure investment needs and how can you sort of bring them together. 

One approach that I worked on to roll out with my former teams at the African Development Bank and that they're still working, you know, quite stridently on, is to create what are called special agro-industrial processing zones. These are special economic zones, but really focused on agriculture in specifically chosen rural locations that are close to farms and that bring the necessary infrastructure and services for value edition and scale. So what are these? They're specifically built shared facilities in rural areas of high agriculture potential that enable producers, processors, aggregators, distributors, all of them to operate in the same vicinity, to reduce transaction costs and share business development services. Now these zones need obviously adequate infrastructure, as well as logistics and services. So they need things like roads, electricity, water, waste treatment, crop drying facilities, cold chain, you know. 

As already mentioned when we think about kale and you know, warehouses, packaging units and so on. All of those things that are needed for a thriving agribusiness. And by consolidating production activities in a specific area, these zones create economies of scale and enhance the coordination between the different players. So if you think about the needed investments, and I think this is why it's particularly interesting in this discussion, it's helpful to make a distinction between those things that the government would be expected to spend money on and to invest in versus those made by business because they have very complimentary roles. You know, on one hand government has to kind of lay down the basic, you know, infrastructure that's needed in rural areas. 

In Africa, we know often those are not there and these are, you know, just to repeat myself, things like road rail, water, electricity, but also to put in place the appropriate regulation to make it, you know, easier at least, you know, straightforward how to create an agribusiness. And then, you know, agribusinesses, if they see that the infrastructure that they need and the services that they need to create a business are available, they're much more likely to confidently go in and make the agribusiness investments to the things like processing, packaging, marketing, all of those things that sort of, you know, constitute a successful agribusiness. 

From a development perspective, and I'm a development economist, so I really care about this, it's a win-win or it can be a win-win if it's done correctly because it can create good jobs and revenue in the rural areas stemming the flow of people, especially young people to overcrowded urban areas in search of employment. Now just to kind of wrap up, you know, of course there are successful and less successful examples. You know, when I was going around talking about this when I was still at the African Development Bank, you know, people say, "Oh, but look at that one and look at that one." But the point is that there's real value in taking a holistic and deliberate approach to what's needed and who is responsible for the different types of investments to produce good and healthy foods, and also to do it in a sustainable way, which is getting more and more attention. 

In the places where the zones have been most successful. And you know, it won't surprise you Brazil, you know, Thailand, also Ethiopia, but more, more recently in several African countries, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal, and many others. It's because they've been able to bring the right mix of investment into the different types of infrastructure. So I'm not proposing that they're a silver bullet, in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa, they could be a really good place to start in thinking about how to deploy what are ultimately very limited resources but have huge potential.

Shiulie Ghosh: Jennifer, thanks very much. And you make the point very strongly about the need for a holistic approach and joined up thinking. And you've all made that point.

Let's drill down into some of the particulars now. And we've talked about the need for investment. Saul, some of the figures we're talking about are quite large. Where would you say, as a matter of priority, investment needs to be directed to close some of those gaps?

Jennifer Blanke: Yes, the numbers are quite large. Of course, again, we have a bias towards wanting to see the production and sale and consumption of nutritious foods. So I feel it would be very important to start with an audit of the value chains, the kinds of foods in any particular country that are capable of meeting the nutritional deficiencies that are seen in that country. So in many countries, for example, fruit and vegetables, vegetables in particular, will be a priority. 

So we really need to look at the detail of the value chain for vegetables in a given country. And we know that there'll be certain kinds of infrastructure that are essential for that. Irrigation is generally going to be needed in order to produce vegetables year-round so that people have access to nutrients all year-round. Pack houses are a really critical element to enable vegetables to be collated, aggregated, and stored in a fresh and keep their freshness and attractiveness as a quality. If, in a particular country, there's very low consumption of animal source foods, then in all likelihood, you might see that abattoirs are the kind of infrastructure that are particularly needed in order to get over that bottleneck. That's not every country has low consumption of animal-sourced food, far from it, but many do. 

And so I think it needs to be done on a really thoughtful planned basis and to try and think about what does the population need in terms of nutrition, therefore what kind of infrastructure is missing, therefore what do we need to finance to build in? And then we can look at some of the financing solutions to try and meet those needs.

Shiulie Ghosh: Okay, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So if you do an audit of the systems for the specific needs of a particular country or even a particular region, then you know what's missing and you know where to direct investment.

Maha, let me come to you. You were talking about the example of the Beirut port explosion. Are you confident that there will now be a more robust food systems infrastructure built in Beirut? And what happens if there isn't? How critical is it to have a robust food systems infrastructure?

Maha Hoteit: Well, according to the situation in Lebanon, currently the household in Lebanon are at their local markets making tough and even unhealthy food choices. They are buying less food and determining how they can stretch their budget into more meals. So the situation in Lebanon is very difficult with regards to having a new and sustainable infrastructure for the food system. 

Also, the unstable political situation, the gap of the president in Lebanon, the economic situation, severe economic impact of the Ukraine-Russia war on the food system in Lebanon. All these factors are limiting the build, the establishment of a sustainable food system in Lebanon. So we have high levels of food insecurity, and it's associated with high levels of anemia among adolescent, under-five children, elderly population, and pregnant women. We are currently conducting a lot of studies that investigate or assess the nutrition status of our population because of the lack of a sustainable food system in Lebanon. 

Shiulie Ghosh: People are making less nutritious food choices because the food system's infrastructure isn't there.

Maha Hoteit: Yeah, exactly. So the prevalences of anemia and malnutrition in Lebanon are becoming alerting results. Our studies show alerting results with regards to anemia and malnutrition in Lebanon. And I believe that these are consequences of this unstable or unsustainable system in Lebanon.

Shiulie Ghosh: Yeah, I think that's clearly going to be one of the major obstacles to finding investment in developing food systems infrastructure in Lebanon, and indeed anywhere.

And Jennifer, this is something that you talked about, about how you make investment in food systems infrastructure attractive to not just governments, but to businesses, to investors. Is this how you make the case for investment? That it's not just about moving food from A to B. This is about food security. This is about a country's development. This is about a country's economy. 

Jennifer Blanke: I mean, certainly this is why the development banks are interested in things like this, right? And governments, because ultimately it's a lot of this is under the purview of government to sort of set the right goals in terms of demand, right? I mean, if the government buys a lot of wheat, people will keep eating wheat or you know. And so there have to be sort of rules of the game that are set. But then, you know, sort of picking up on Maha's point, you don't want people to start having to eat less healthy foods because they can't afford it. And so that's why I kind of like taking a holistic approach. And it could be, you know, special agro-industrial processing zones. It could be other things, but you know, are people gonna have jobs that will allow them to spend money, you know, healthily? If you look at farmers and much of the world, subsistence farmers, they're the most sort of low-nutrition families, right? That you'll find anywhere, which is so ironic and sad because they just can't afford, you know. So I think there's something to that, which is, you know, how do you think about making sure that demand from wherever is sort of for the right kinds of crops? 

And you know, Saul talked a bit about kale, but also processing, right? Because if it's just digging up the kale, I mean, who's earning money from that? But if you can think about kale chips or whatever. Another one of my favorites is cassava. Okay, cassava's great, you can eat attieke or whatever, but cassava flour, you know. And then governments can have some say in what's going into bread, for example. At least they can, you know, sort of mandate certain things in schools. So, you know, just to sort of take that holistic approach to: if money's being spent and sometimes these are huge amounts, you know, how are they being directed? And the only other thing I would say is if you think about sort of where we are in many of these countries, there's a second mover advantage, right? Everything needs to be built so it can be built in a much healthier and sustainable way right now.

Shiulie Ghosh: Can I ask you, Jennifer? I mean, if you have a situation like Lebanon where the government is clearly crippled by an economic crisis, what institutions or what kind of funding bodies or investment institutions could become involved in helping to fund the creation of critical food systems infrastructure?

Jennifer Blanke: So again, I think the development banks, the bilateral donors can be hugely supportive of the government. I mean, eventually it's a question of good governance and you know, that would take a whole conversation, but they can at least support the right things happening with the support of experts like Maha, right? Making sure that they are making the arguments for why this is a good thing. I mean, nobody, 'cause it's hard to convince businesses. Ultimately you want businesses to go in 'cause businesses will go in where there's a demand and it will become sustainable and that will provide the jobs. It's not the government that's going to do that. 

So I think looking at the different multilateral development banks, which kind of come in with a big, the big push, but ultimately, you know, good governance, the sorts of rules of the game that you can't let governments totally off the hook, right? I mean, because at the end of the day, government is the name we give to things we choose to do together theoretically, right? You know, so if we want something, then that's something that, you know, sort of the government has to sort of manifest.

Shiulie Ghosh: Jennifer, thank you. And Saul, just to pick up a bit more on what Jennifer was saying, and indeed you mentioned, different food products require different types of infrastructure, and there's also not just direct infrastructure, but indirect infrastructure.

So things like digital networks or road transport systems. So there's a lot of different factors, which go into making an efficient infrastructure system. 

Saul Morris: That's right. I think, you know, you see particularly in some countries in East Africa and also in South Asia, just how the penetration of the newest digital infrastructure has really transformed the kind of business models that we see in agri-food industries. There are some wonderful examples now of distribution companies that buy direct from small farmers and sell to smaller retailers, thus creating great employment opportunities at both ends of the value chain. And they can only do this because of the way that the digital infrastructure is developed. So we can never underestimate the importance of those supportive infrastructures like digital, and electricity, and water of course as well. And then there are other types, but I think the key thing is to remember is that these will probably continue to be priorities. 

Most governments are well aware that they need to develop their electric networks. And the strong consumer demand for telephony, mobile telephony in particular. So these will probably continue to be priorities anyway. It's the ones that are quite specific to food that we really need to think about how we are going to push more specifically because it's quite unlikely that spontaneously local governments are going to invest in vegetable aggregation facilities unless we really make a strong argument and push them in that direction. Let me ask a question of all of you. We've touched a little bit on this and Maha has brought it up, that often lack of choice and lack of infrastructure pushes people into making less nutritious food choices. So how do we leverage existing or indeed new infrastructure to improve access to nutritious foods and help consumers make better food choices in their communities? 

I can maybe jump in on that in terms of I think a trend that's going to be helpful here, which is the move towards more regenerative agriculture. Now this is again on the supply side, but not only, so, you know, things like crop rotation will be very important and then going back to some of the orphan crops or traditional crops that we know are much healthier and there is such a push in this direction, there's gonna be climate finance as well for this. So I feel like that's, you know, it's a win-win-win kind of thing 'cause it also create jobs. So it just seems like it would be, you know, a good area to kind of jump on right now that people might not be thinking about. 

Shiulie Ghosh: Maha, do you want to add something here about, as a professor of nutrition, what is needed for people to make better food choices and also more climate-friendly food choices? 

Maha Hoteit: Well, other than implementing the concept of food security, which is based on food availability, we should think about predicting micronutrient deficiencies in people because we are suffering in Lebanon from a high prevalence of stunting among under five children. And this is a consequence of malnutrition. So other than thinking about the agriculture concept in having a food availability, which is a pillar of food security, we should think about predicting the hidden hunger, which is characterized by micronutrient deficiencies. 

So I know very well that our job as nutritionists or dietitians or people working in the area of nutrition is to ameliorate or to increase the prevalence or the, let's say the concentration of micronutrients in food. But we should think about the concept of diet optimization and we should think together with those who are expert in the field of agriculture, how to optimize diet among the vulnerable population. And we have a new project currently conducted in Lebanon using artificial intelligence. We are in the process of collecting data with regards to food composition and its association with the dietary recommended intake for each age category that help people how to choose the right meal. And also we are adding the kind of traditional dishes recipes to this software, which help people how to choose the right… or how to consume in the right way and a healthy way.

This software will help people, mainly the vulnerable one, how to predict micronutrient deficiencies. So this was the easiest way to do this project is supported and funded by one of the NGOs in Lebanon. We hope with time to have more funds and more projects and also to increase the funding bodies cooperation to let people eat in a healthy way in our country. Thank you.

Shiulie Ghosh: I'm so glad you mentioned artificial intelligence. I'm surprised we haven't mentioned it before because AI is going to be massive in terms of gathering data and Saul I imagine that AI will be an invaluable tool when it comes to doing these audits that you talk about when we are trying to figure out what's needed and where the gaps are.

Saul Morris: Yeah, I think that would be a great additional tool to the current set of things that we can do to try and understand where the needs are. I did want to also mention that I think markets provide a wonderful place for promoting healthy diets. You know, we know that people choose to shop in a market rather than a supermarket or a store when they want to buy some of the most nutritious foods like vegetables or fresh animal source foods.

And so it's a logical place to promote healthy eating. And you see that in lots of European countries that markets are actually promotional centres where we try and encourage people
towards healthier diets and it becomes both a pleasant shopping experience and also a source of affordable food, but also place where we can promote healthy eating. 

Shiulie Ghosh: Yeah, and but this was a point you were making that in sub-Saharan Africa for example, there is only one modern wholesale market.

Saul Morris: Yeah, but there are many retail market and they could be exploited much better
to be used as locations for promotion of healthy eating, which is something that GAIN will be doing in Kenya, for example.

Shiulie Ghosh: But here's the thing, and again, it's a question for all of you. Timing is critical, isn't it? It takes years to build up this kind of infrastructure, even if you started chucking money at it today, often it could take decades before you have a fully integrated setup working infrastructure system. So we need to start now, don't we?

Saul Morris: Yes. We need to start now.

Jennifer Blanke: We had to start yesterday. No, and actually just to build on what Saul was talking about, I think, you know, and it's true, I tend to think about markets in Africa. I'm like, that's the only place you buy food in Africa, is at a market, unless you're growing it yourself. And so, I mean, for the most part, but I think that this idea of organic or healthy foods becoming more attractive in places like Europe or the US, this creates more demand for places like Lebanon or sub-Saharan Africa. 

And so that kind of is a positive feedback loop. I am more optimistic than you are Shiulie about how much time, because I think a lot can be done very quickly. Travelling around these countries, you meet young, super motivated and energetic people and they wanna make a difference. So it's kind of like an army of social entrepreneurs, you know, just waiting to be unleashed and so I feel like it, but they need the support. 

Shiulie Ghosh: I know we're coming to the end of our allotted time. I wanted to ask all of you what you think the key takeaway should be for me. I think you've all very strongly highlighted the need to prioritise food systems infrastructure investment because it means better food security, better nutrition, and more sustainability. What would your key takeaways be? Jennifer, let me start with you. 

Jennifer Blanke: I would just remind us that agriculture is a business and food systems are run as businesses in general. And so if you want to make the right thing happen, you have to make it attractive for them. 

Shiulie Ghosh: Thank you, Jennifer. Maha, what would you say? 

Maha Hoteit: I would like to add that innovation in the field of food system is very important. We need to find other solutions and to integrate the field of technology in agriculture, in food security, in nutrition. In this way I think we may find a roadmap for modifying the food system or making it more sustainable with time. 

Shiulie Ghosh: Maha, thank you. And Saul, final thought from you. 

Saul Morris: I would like to see the current processes of developing and fleshing out food systems pathways to really incorporate explicitly, the questions about infrastructure. What does a specific country need and where are they going to get the money to be able to build it? 

Shiulie Ghosh: Saul, thank you very much indeed. And a warm thank you to all of our speakers today. Saul Morris, Maha Hoteit, Jennifer Blanke and Brian Mangwiro. 

And you can find out more about this subject or indeed watch our earlier Interview Crunchers on the website. That's

But for the moment, thanks very much indeed for watching. Bye for now.