19 november 2020
How can the Netherlands contribute to improving food systems in low and middle-income countries? This is the mission of the Netherland Food Partnership (NFP), which brings together civil society, knowledge institutes, government and diplomats, and the private sector to contribute to food and nutrition security. Vice Versa interviewed NFP’s brand new director Myrtille Danse and asked her about her vision and the organisation’s plans for the future.
Recently created by merging the expertise and networks of two platforms – the Food & Business Knowledge Platform and AgriProFocus – the NFP has set its sights on becoming the leading Dutch initiative on food security and healthy diets in low and middle-income countries. By connecting relevant Dutch organisations and international partners, the organisation aims to work on creating more sustainable food systems, thereby contributing to Sustainable Development Goal 2: zero hunger.
What do you bring to the table as the new director of the NFP?
‘Coming to the NFP feels like coming home. I have worked on the issue of food and nutrition security in various roles and capacities throughout my career – from being a trade representative and consultant on sustainable development for consultancy firms and the Dutch Embassy for Central America, to being unit manager on global value chains and consumer research for the Wageningen UR Agricultural Economic Research Institute, founding director of BOP Inc, and, in the last five years, Hivos director for Latin America. I have always focused on bringing key players together to work on environmental and social issues as a response to market risks and opportunities. I am a connector at heart, which is why I feel so at home in my new role as director of NFP as here it’s all about bringing the right parties to the table and coming up with solutions that contribute towards Sustainable Development Goal 2: ending hunger by 2030, by achieving food security and improved nutrition, and promoting sustainable agriculture.’
Why the focus on the Netherlands in the NFP, isn’t this a global challenge?
‘It most certainly is. However, we are a Dutch-led initiative created to bring together Dutch expertise and knowledge for global solutions. And why shouldn’t we be proud of doing so? The Netherlands has a lot to offer when it comes to food security and nutrition.
‘The Netherlands is a tiny country but nevertheless it’s a leading global player in agro-food production, distribution and food system innovation. This is partly due to the close cooperation between the private sector and universities, research institutes and civil society, supported by government, sometimes called the ‘Dutch Diamond’. The idea is that that same diamond can contribute more to food system transformations needed in low and middle-income countries. Universities and research institutes also have a lot of knowledge on food and agriculture in developing countries. Many civil society organisations focus on promoting a fair and sustainable food system in those countries. And our government maintains a large diplomatic network that facilitates the contribution of civil society, researchers and companies.
‘Dutch companies are really good at serving the top end of the market. Especially in sectors like poultry, horticulture, seed potatoes and dairy, where our knowledge and expertise are unparalleled. For decades, Dutch companies – with the help of research institutes like Wageningen University, policymakers and civil society organisations – have experimented with different techniques and approaches to optimise agricultural output in sub-optimal environments with challenging climatic conditions. Moreover, they have learned to do this in an energy and water-efficient way, making use of renewable sources wherever they can. This knowledge is extremely valuable in low and middle-income settings, where rapid urbanisation combined with a lack of access to renewable energy and water are hampering food production and distribution.
‘At the same time, however, we are not pushy or supply-driven in our approach. We connect to local needs, aspirations and opportunities. Additionally, we also need to be open to new experiences and learn from other countries.
‘When you look at East Africa for example, Dutch companies have a lot to offer in terms of cultivating and distributing fruits, vegetables and seed potatoes. In turn they can also learn from what is happening there locally. And, for instance, learn from innovative mobile banking apps such as M-Pesa. Ideally, knowledge sharing should be a two-way street, whereby Dutch companies offer expertise on issues like planting techniques and high-quality seeds while learning from local companies and organisations such as M-Pesa or Jain Irrigation Systems. These companies have thrived in emerging markets despite the institutional challenges of weak infrastructure, limited regulatory frameworks and in some cases corruption, and a resource-constrained consumer market. When we get this balance right, I believe there is a great potential for the Dutch diamond – government, research institutions, business and civil society organisations – to contribute to improved food systems in low and middle-income countries, and as such end hunger.’
But isn’t the sole purpose of a company making a profit?
‘The private sector is often seen as an actor in itself, but there are so many different types of companies and all have their own way of working and motivations. What is clear is that companies need profit to survive, but they also have long-term ambitions for growth which include social and environmental sustainability. I remember the former CEO of DSM, Feike Sijbesma, saying in 2012: “How can we call ourselves successful if there are still people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition outside the gates of our company? A business can only be truly successful if it has a positive influence on the world around it.” That is true leadership. By basing our work on these aspirations and benefiting from the capacity companies have to contribute to changes, you can make a much bigger impact.
‘The added value I have experienced working with entrepreneurs and companies is that they have a clear focus on business prospects and market potential. The non-profit sector can learn from that. I have visited so many development agencies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where production units were installed but after the funds finished they stopped functioning. Or offices were full of processed food. I once visited an office which was stacked high with jars of jam. When I asked why this was the case, they explained that they had developed a processing unit to help small-scale farmers to process part of their fruits into jam. However, what they failed to see was that there was no actual demand for jam in the village, and consequently the organisation was left with hundreds of jars of jam, which they were unable to sell. NGOs could do with a bit more of a marketing and business mentality.
‘On the other hand, companies need non-profit organisations to keep them sharp and make sure that their products and services add value and contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive food system.’
What are the main challenges when it comes to partnering?
‘Partnerships need to be functional: not working together because you can, but because you have to. A cross-sector partnership is inevitably a compromise: finding the minimum number of relevant parties to work together so the partnership is efficient and inclusive. Building trust is essential and takes time. This can be done by facilitating the development of a shared agenda that contributes to the required change or transformation. The NFP aims to support relevant Dutch organisations and local partners to develop transformational partnerships.’
How does the NFP intend to do this?
‘The NFP is what is called a backbone organisation; it supports partnerships by creating access to information and networks and helps to set the agenda in order to contribute to a bigger collective impact. When comparing computers, you used to look at the processing speed and for years Intel was the best there was. We want to be the Intel inside Dutch development: not too visible on the outside but a source of energy and power on the inside.
‘We do this by supporting organisations behind the scenes – connecting knowledge, and providing organisational capacity and financial incentives. On the one hand, we want to focus on low-hanging fruit by strengthening existing partnerships in East and West Africa, the Middle East and North Africa and some countries in South East Asia. On the other hand, together with Dutch and local partners, we will identify new opportunities and support them. We offer a qualified team in the Netherlands, a network of experts in the different countries, and we have resources that can be used as seed capital. Our budget for the next two years is €10 million.
‘In Africa, one of the initiatives we are supporting is SeedNL, a public-private partnership aimed at making high-quality seeds more easily available in order to increase the productivity and incomes of farmers and small-scale food producers in Nigeria and Ethiopia. Another exciting project we are currently working on is the Youth in Agroecology and Business Learning Track Africa (YALTA), in which we partner with the IKEA foundation to involve youth in agro-ecology in East Africa. Both these projects bring together Dutch and local partners to develop new, innovative business models that will contribute to improved food security and nutrition. In the next two years we aim to support at least ten transformative coalitions that contribute to more sustainable food systems in response to global socio-political and environmental challenges.’
Speaking of challenging contexts, what do you think we can learn from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic looking ahead?
‘Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, low and middle-income countries have become increasingly aware of their dependence on imports, exports and global food prices. The effect of the pandemic on issues of food security, employment and poverty has been devastating. The need to develop resilient local food systems has therefore become an even more urgent priority for many countries around the world. As the Netherlands, we need to support this trend by creating a strategy that goes beyond sectoral boundaries of development aid or private-sector development and focuses on what is needed to improve global food systems. A critical component of this strategy is local ownership of solutions, so collaborating with local partners to integrate Dutch knowledge and expertise into smart solutions that can contribute to solving the global food crisis.
‘In this respect, the pandemic has not only brought about incredible challenges, but also creates opportunities to do things differently. For example, due to social distancing and travel bans, major global conferences took place online this year. Instead of detracting from the ability to network, which people initially worried would be the case, this has actually increased international connectivity, as it has lowered the threshold for many people, enabling them to take part in these discussions. This shows that our long-held beliefs about how things work might need some revision and that we can also use this crisis as an opportunity for change. The Food System Summit that takes place in New York next year is one of the important spaces where we can showcase what the Netherlands has to offer to make this work and also prepare proposals for transformative changes.’
Pictures: Myrtille Danse presenting her vision during World Food Day on 16 October 2020. Credit: Netherlands Food Partnership
The NFP is one of the partners of the Global Virtual Seminar about The Afrian Food & Employment Revolution by 2030. Register for free at https://bit.ly/3ldPHXt
In the autumn of 2020, Vice Versa publishes a series of articles on transforming African food systems to provide sufficient and healthy food to the growing population, while at the same time generating income and employment for the increasing number of young people. Our aim is to generate debate on this important topic within the Dutch international cooperation sector, running up to the parliamentary elections in March 2021.
The series is an initiative of Vice Versa in cooperation with Solidaridad, IDH Sustainable trade, Wageningen University & Research and the Food & Business Knowledge Platform and AgriProFocus, merging into the Netherlands Food Partnership this year
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