Food and agriculture policy might not sound exciting, but just spend a morning with Dr. Lindiwe Majele Sibanda and you might change your mind.
Dr. Sibanda is the CEO of the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), based in Pretoria, South Africa. From the minute you meet her, you know she has something to say. Even on a warm Friday afternoon, she is buzzing with energy – jumping from meetings to Skype calls to more meetings.
FANRPAN, which Dr. Sibanda has led for just over 10 years, works throughout Africa – currently 17 countries, and soon to be 20 – to highlight African expertise in agriculture, promote evidence-based policies, and amplify African voices in the global debate on hunger and poverty. This is important because agriculture employs over 65 percent of Africa’s labor force and accounts for over 35 percent of gross domestic product on the continent – making it critical to poverty reduction.
Though her background is in animal science, Dr. Sibanda says at her core, she is a farmer. “I keep on telling everybody that my passion is farming, but they don’t believe it. I really would like to retire to the farm,” she said with a smile. “Farming is in my blood and I take that partly from my father, who is still a farmer, and my grandmother, Mahembe.”
Her passion for farming comes through in her role with FANRPAN, where she serves as a powerful and vital bridge between those most impacted by global agriculture, food, and climate change policies - farmers - and the leaders that develop those policies. Growing up in a family of farmers, she understands the issues and can make the connection between policy and reality for technocrats and diplomats alike.
She fondly recalls the farm being an essential part of her formative years. Though she lived in town with her family, she and her 11 siblings would pile into the back of their father’s truck to visit their grandmother’s farm three times a year. Time at the farm was time to bond with extended family – complete with traditional goat roasts – and also where she first learned about agriculture.
Dr. Sibanda credits her grandmother with inspiring her lifelong love of farming, and she recognizes that it has changed a lot since those days. People are still using some of the same methods used during her grandmother’s generation; but in many ways they’re no longer effective, because the world – and the things that influence what we grow and eat – have changed.
“Productivity has gone down and farmers are relying on remittances,” she explained. “Because of the recurrent droughts they cannot produce enough to feed themselves and they are relying on relatives who are sending money to feed them. “
And then there’s foreign aid.
“Through donor help, governments have sat back to rely on food aid and that food aid has become so attractive such that it is easier to queue for food than to produce it,” Dr. Sibanda told us. “Where do you strike a balance between polices that will incentivize agriculture but at the same time clearly identify the vulnerable who should be in the food aid queue who depend on welfare or who are welfare cases?”
She has ideas on how to do just that. And she’s putting those ideas to work.
Dr. Sibanda says the first step is starting local – having local people collect and analyze data to understand what is really going on. “I believe school children under guidance from their teachers would do a better job on this” she says. “From there, you can then get technocrats to analyze the data and then engage the community in a conversation that is evidence-based. For me, if we could scale that up and make that the entry point into communities - where they tell you their story with their own data - development would be benchmarked, it would be informed and we would be able to assess impact.”
The problem is that many times the process for assessing what is needed in struggling communities has become what she terms, “extractive and prescriptive” where outsiders collect the data using tools developed for specific solutions. She gave an example: if you go into a village with a questionnaire and a truck labeled “well builders” on the side of it, when you get the community together under a tree for consultations, they will say “we need more water”, because you’ve already labeled it as the solution.
Her argument isn’t that aid needs to go away, but that it needs a new approach.
Africa does need help. But to direct the help. We can only direct the help if we are collecting our own data that we use objectively and we get those who are affected by the problem to speak about that problem.”
The second step in the process, she says, is to bring the voices of farmers themselves into the policy debate. To do this, FANRPAN has created policy dialogue platforms. The platforms aggregate, synthesize and share research produced by FANRPAN and its partners, allowing them to carry the voices of farmers and villagers from local to national governments, to the African Union and to the United Nations and everywhere in between. In many cases, partners also collaborate on research and produce joint policy recommendations to bring to international forums.
In addition to research, success stories are something Dr. Sibanda always brings to her meetings with global policymakers. She rattled off a few: the young Shambani milk producers in Tanzania who have begun exporting their milk regionally; the chicken farmer in Lesotho who provides meat to many in his country; and Happy Shongwe the seed producer who went from receiving aid from the World Food Program to employing people in her community to grow and sell high quality seeds.
Her message through examples like these is about finding and scaling up successful, locally-driven ideas, providing assistance to those who really need it, and working to resist a culture that favors “queuing for food” over innovation and self-reliance. But that’s not easy. “Behavior change is the most difficult thing to buy with money. Unless you institutionalize something and have it instilled in people, no money will bring it to them. It has to be a mindset.”
Her hope is that FANRPAN’s efforts will help more communities “to say no if it’s going to make us worse off,” while also helping those sitting in multilateral meeting rooms to learn about and support Africa’s home grown successes.
Through FANRPAN’s work, Dr. Sibanda is giving voice to this vision, and growing food, leaders, and allies in the process.
This story is part of an Oxfam series that highlights local leaders who are standing up for accountability, making demands of their government, and getting results in the fight against injustice. Though Oxfam may not fund every project or organization featured in the series, Oxfam stands in solidarity with all those around the world working to right the wrong of poverty.