Combining agroecology and water resilience for sustainable food systems in Africa

Science at work 15 May 2024
How can one support the commitment of regions to an agroecological development path reconciling water resilience, food security and nutritional quality? Coordinated by CIRAD and INRAE, the MAHDIA project aims to address agricultural, food, environmental and health issues in the regions of Meknes in Morocco, Kairouan in Tunisia and Fatick in Senegal. In association with the Institut National Agronomique de Tunisie (National Institute of Agronomic Research of Tunisia, INAT), the Ecole Nationale d'Agriculture de Meknès (National School of Agriculture in Meknes, ENAM), the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research, ISRA) and the Institut Agro Montpellier, the project has just received funding of €1 million from the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs.
Photo R. Belmin, Cirad
Photo R. Belmin, Cirad

© R. Belmin, Cirad

At a time when the effects of climate change are leading to structural droughts in many African countries on both sides of the Sahel, agroecology offers solutions to the conditions of water stress in the regions and to their agricultural and food consequences. "The agroecological transition ties agricultural production, including its constraints linked to access to natural resources, to the challenges of food and nutrition for consumers, by integrating the notion of adding value to agroecological products", explains Sami Bouarfa, deputy head of the AQUA division at INRAE and co-leader of the project.

MAHDIA's objective is to design and implement a participatory approach to developing regional platforms that bring together all the players in the food systems of the areas where the project is to be implemented: farmers, processors, distributors, restaurateurs, local authorities and consumers. To this end, the project will be based on the concept of a “product of regional interest”, linking agricultural and food issues.

Three joint research units involving CIRAD and INRAE in Montpellier are being mobilized on water management, innovation and food systems (G-EAU, Innovation, MoISA). According to Sami Bouarfa, this is a first: "We are now able to link the food systems approach with production conditions.  The framework of agroecology and food science allows us to decompartmentalise science, which is essential if we are to meet the challenges of the environment, agriculture and food, the 3 pillars of the research carried out at INRAE".

The MAHDIA project has just been awarded €1 million in funding over 2.5 years, the fruit of joint development work between the partners (Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and France). The Institut National Agronomique de Tunisie (National Institute of Agronomic Research of Tunisia, INAT), the Ecole Nationale d'Agriculture de Meknès (National School of Agriculture in Meknes, ENAM) and the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles (Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research, ISRA) will be joined by other partners from the partner countries.

Products of regional interest defined with all stakeholders, from producer to consumer

"Our objective with MAHDIA is to launch activities based around a few products as part of a regional dynamic, in order to have a concrete impact on food systems, and later to extend this work to other products and other longer-term development initiatives, such as certification, logistics circuits and public procurement. These products provide a concrete basis for reflection for the various players involved, because they hold value for everyone, be they producers or consumers, and they raise questions about water resources, food and sustainable agriculture" says Olivier Lepiller, project coordinator and CIRAD researcher at the MoISA joint research unit in Montpellier.

The project involves regional players such as towns and local authorities, as well as all those involved in the food systems of the four regions concerned, centred around an urban area that consumes and a countryside that sustains. Together, they will identify key products, in terms of environmental, food and nutritional issues, as well as the socio-cultural aspects of the region, such as olive oil and beans in North Africa, or millet and cowpeas in Senegal. "It's a good compromise between the supply chain approach and the regional approach, by focusing on a basket of products in a given region, which will enable us to think in a systemic way by getting down to the essentials" explains Sami Bouarfa.

The products identified as being of regional interest will be used as the basis for socio-economic development activities, which could take a variety of forms defined by multi-stakeholder projects, civic art exhibitions, educational programmes with schoolchildren, as well as festive and cultural events.

Multi-stakeholder regional impact platforms to meet society's expectations

MAHDIA is designed as a genuine social experiment, with consultation forums identified in each region to test and nurture the idea of a product of regional interest. MAHDIA will be working with players who are already involved in food issues, as well as those behind existing initiatives in different countries, such as Tunisia’s Institut National de la Consommation (National Consumer Institute) and its food caravans, which aim to raise schoolchildren's awareness of processed food.  

In Senegal, the agroecological "grand caravan" organised by the DyTAES network, a movement for an agroecological transition in Senegal, criss-crossed the country in 2019 and 2022 to gather opinions and recommendations on political advances in agroecology and rural issues. 

The idea behind MAHDIA is to create regional platforms, living laboratories, open spaces for research and regional action that are firmly rooted in the region and have a strong link with society's expectations.

For Olivier Lepiller, "these multi-stakeholder regional platforms could then be the forerunners of a multi-stakeholder governance body for food systems at regional level, giving consumers a rightful place. The latter are still too often seen as passive, and not in terms of their citizenship and their power to influence food systems".  The aim is to build on existing mechanisms to turn consumers into political players, in line with the Milan Pact. In October 2015, over a hundred cities from all over the world signed the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (MUFPP) on the occasion of the World Expo "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life" in Milan. It is a non-binding agreement on urban food policies for cities, by cities.

The URBAL method, which aims to carry out a participatory, multi-stakeholder evaluation of the impact pathways of initiatives in the field of sustainable food, will enable stakeholders to co-evaluate the results of the actions carried out under MAHDIA and to ensure that the continuation of the project is the fruit of this collective multi-stakeholder work.

The dynamics of international partnerships at the origin of the project

CIRAD and INRAE have long been developing scientific collaborations in the Maghreb on water and agriculture, structured around the Sirma partnership scheme, a network of expertise bringing together some sixty researchers, teachers and PhD students on the dynamics of irrigated systems in the Maghreb. Based in the western Mediterranean, its aim is to create a centre of excellence for training and research on irrigated agriculture in situations of political and economic transition in the Maghreb.

An international research initiative on agroecological transitions under water constraints for sustainable food systems was initiated by INRAE in 2019 to include food issues. A researcher training event was thus held in Kairouan in Tunisia at the end of 2022 in association with IRESA, CIRAD and the IRD. It brought together scientists from Algeria, France, Morocco and Tunisia to develop interdisciplinary research questions at the interface between the three issues of agroecology, water and food. The aim was to work collectively on the concept of a regional innovation laboratory.

The launch of the TSARA initiative, the result of joint reflections with CIRAD, enabled the project to scale up by including partners from Senegal. A seminar held in Meknes, Morocco, bringing together researchers and local stakeholders from the four regions involved in MAHDIA (including from the Montpellier metropolitan area) highlighted a shared interest in linking agroecology and food issues in a context of water stress at the relevant regional scales. The seminar also gave rise to the concept of products of regional interest to connect these issues through the co-construction of regional platforms. Faced with the same challenges, colleagues from Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal expressed a strong desire to work together as part of the MAHDIA initiative. 

For Sami Bouarfa, it was the Tunisian partners who were the first to want to work on this connection between agroecology and food, because of the agricultural problems linked to climatic conditions. "For the French partners, the MAHDIA project is likewise a genuine opportunity for scientific enrichment on issues that also affect France, as well as the rest of the world".

This news item has been originally published on the website of the Institut national de recherche pour l’agriculture, l’alimentation et l’environnement (INRAe).