Sovereignty, diversity and food culture on the agenda for the African Food Summit

SIAL Paris, in addition to being one of the most important business centres for the agri-food industry in the world, is a place of discussion and innovation concerning all of the major issues and challenges facing the sector today.

Sovereignty, diversity and food culture on the agenda for the African Food Summit

The African Food Summit will be an important part of SIAL Paris’ summits in October this year. The aim of the summit is to showcase Africa’s diversity and creativity, inviting visitors to explore emerging trends in both gastronomy and product design. In addition to resilience in the face of climatic challenges and geopolitical conflicts, African innovations could represent coherent solutions for the future.

Sovereignty, diversity and food culture on the agenda for the African Food Summit

The African Food Summit will be led by experts at the heart of the issues, and the SIAL newsroom had the chance to speak to two of them recently in an exclusive interview.

Nicolas Bricas
Nicolas Bricas, Researcher for Cirad and Chairholder for UNESCO Chair in World Food Systems

Nicolas Bricas is a Researcher for Cirad, partner of the SIAL Paris African Food Summit, and Chairholder for UNESCO Chair in World Food Systems.

He has worked extensively on the question of changes of eating habits in Africa, specifically linked to rapid urbanisation and the opening up of African countries to international trade. He has also studied the role of the product processing sector and the type of processing model, with highly centralised companies that achieve economies of scale but create very few jobs. On the other hand, there is the informal sector, which creates a lot of jobs and makes the most of the geographical and cultural diversity of African food. Nicolas Bricas has worked on the role of this small-scale artisanal sector in creating jobs in both rural and urban areas. Recently, he has been increasingly involved in food policies, in particular urban food policies. For example, how cities are trying to maintain agriculture, develop infrastructures, markets, wholesale markets and whether commercial town planning takes food into account or not, and questions of collective catering and waste management. He affirmed that these are all “drivers that cities have in their hands” and stated that they were working on this “in partnership, in collaboration with municipalities of African diversity.”

Damien Conaré is the Secretary General of the UNESCO Chair in World Food Systems. As such, he manages the activities of the Chair, in particular science-society dialogues. The Chair organised a series of conferences on new urban food cultures in a series of conferences called “Eating in the City”, which covered Asia, Latin America and Africa. The Chair looks at how food cultures are changing in light of urbanisation and also helped set up a UNESCO African Food System Chair, based at Western Cape University, with which it plans to collaborate.

Sovereignty, diversity and food culture on the agenda for the African Food Summit
Damien Conaré, Secretary General of the UNESCO Chair in World Food Systems

What is the role of Cirad and its partners in agriculture and development in Africa?

N.B: Cirad is a public research and cooperation establishment with around 1,500 staff working in collaboration with research centres in a large number of countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the French overseas departments and territories. We work on agricultural, livestock and forestry issues at several levels: in genetics to improve plants and animals, in the fight against disease, on the scale of farms and agri-food businesses to improve agricultural production and product processing techniques, and then on a broader scale, on the scale of policies, and we also work on the evaluation of agricultural and food policies. We always work in cooperation with national or international institutions, particularly in Africa, where we host researchers from these countries, and have staff working in research teams, often on long-term programmes, focusing on a particular issue and following on from one type of project to another.

Can you explain the connection between the Cirad and the UNESCO Chair in World Food Systems?

D.C: The UNESCO Chair in World Food Systems’ job is to be at the interface between science and society and therefore to translate research results into action by those involved in bringing about change in agricultural and food systems. We have three main types of activity: training, which means that we manage the teaching of a specialised master’s course called “Innovation and Policy for Sustainable Food”; and coordinating and promoting research programmes. We have done a lot of work on the issue of urban food systems, particularly in Africa, and we’re continuing to do so through a project called AfriFoodLinks, which is a study of food environments in five pilot cities in Africa.
We’re also doing a lot of work right now on issues of food solidarity rather than food constraint, so that’s the research aspect. The third aspect is the dissemination of knowledge through publications, symposia and conferences, in particular a major annual conference, which next year will be devoted to African foods.

What are Cirad’s main missions and activities in relation to the African continent?

N.B: There are several objectives: improving food security on the continent; facing up to the challenges of climate change, which is disrupting the way we continue to produce; encouraging the creation of as many jobs as possible in the agricultural and food sector, given the demographic growth and the very important employment issues. We are also working towards greater fairness in the distribution of added value between players, i.e. often it’s the agricultural producers, the farmers, who earn the least and it’s the downstream players, i.e. processing and distribution, who gain the most income. This means working to try to make the value chains more equitable between the different players.

What are the ambitions of the African Food Summit and how could this event contribute to agricultural development on the continent?

D.C.: We’ve thought about what angles we would like to cover and are looking at at least three. The first, which Nicolas mentioned, is the objective of employment; agricultural employment, and obviously employment in the processing industries, which is a huge issue, and employment and financing, i.e. how to access credit and financing for entrepreneurs and how to formalise sectors which in many countries are still in the informal economy. A second point would be the dynamics of African food cultures, so looking at the more cultural dimension of food, diversity, etc. Then a third, that of the food industry. There’s a generation of entrepreneurs today who, both culturally and for various reasons, including the advent of social networks, etc., are very much involved internationally and very much on the move, so to speak, and who also represent a new way of doing things, of doing business, and that’s what we’d also like to illustrate.
There are a number of factors underlying these approaches, the first being that we are on a continent with a history that is not insignificant, and so how do we take this into account. And above all, this is obviously a very sensitive sector, that of food, while there is still part of the continent, or particular regions of the continent, which are defending food security. So we’re dealing with a rather unique sector and region, and this means that we need to approach the points we want to tackle with a degree of caution.

N.B.: I’d like to add that the contribution we want to make to this African Food Summit is to counter the view we often hear that Africa can’t manage on its own, that Africa needs to be fed by countries with large-scale agricultural production, that Africa needs technology transfers because its technologies are archaic, that Africa needs money because it’s too poor, in other words to see this continent only as a continent that can’t manage on its own. We would like to show first of all that there is a very strong demand for sovereignty in these countries, and in particular for food sovereignty. It starts by stopping thinking for Africans, e.g. what would be good for them, by stopping imagining that Africa doesn’t have technology and that we have to provide it, stopping thinking that Africa can’t produce enough food and that we have to produce for it. We hear this a lot these days, particularly in Europe and in countries that are major agro-exporters. So we also want to show that Africa does indeed face major challenges, but that it is perfectly capable of meeting them. That doesn’t mean it will do so without working with others, but the cooperation must become much more balanced and much more respectful of those who have the money, power and food surpluses. I think this is important because we also know that food industry exhibitions like SIAL Paris are also meeting places for major companies who are currently experiencing major difficulties on the markets of, let’s say, industrialised countries, which are saturated with consumption, and believe that the new growth areas are developing countries and in particular Africa, with its demographic growth and the emergence of its middle class, and that this is potentially where the money will be made tomorrow. And we are going against that vision. It’s about giving a voice to Africans so that they can explain what they are doing, how they see their future, the future of their food, and so that we can first listen to them before thinking for them.

What concrete initiatives do Cirad and its partners plan to implement following its participation in the African Food Summit to support the continent’s agricultural development objectives?

N.B.: I hope that the Africa Summit will help to disseminate what Cirad stands for, which is balanced cooperation that is more respectful of its partners and their sovereignty. If this summit can help to demonstrate that, and reaffirm this message both internally and in relation to our partners and the world of agri-food companies then we will have made our contribution to trying to change the way we cooperate.

D.C.: From the point of view of the Chair, the aim is also to assert the idea of multiple dimensions of food beyond production and nutrition, highlighting the other dimensions of food, and understanding its complexity.

For information on the African Food Summit at SIAL Paris 2024, click here.

Learn more about SIAL Summits Book your spot for SIAL Summits