Food For Us: Developing a mobile phone application to reduce food losses and waste

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The Sustainability Institute (SI) contributed specialist food systems research expertise to a consortium of researchers, funded through the 10YFP Trust Fund established by UNEP. The aim of the project was to develop and trial a mobile phone application in South Africa that contributes towards the alleviation of food insecurity and aids access to nutritious food in a country where significant food loss occurs on-farm.

Working together with research partners Pinpoint Sustainability and Creating Sustainable Value, the research will add to the limited but growing body of knowledge on social learning, sustainable food systems and food loss and waste in South Africa.

The mobile application developed by Food for Us brings together social learning and a mobile phone app enabled interactions between food producers and food consumers to enhance sustainability, efficiency and inclusivity within food systems.

In South Africa, more than 80% of the adult population own a mobile phone and 70% of the population are accessing the internet using them, making this an ideal platform for farmers to access untapped markets and enhance the value of their crops.  The practice of centralised buying requiring high volumes, prescriptive aesthetic standards and security of supply marginalises small-scale producers operating at the local level.

While the initial focus of the project was on diverting food surplus that would otherwise have been lost or wasted on-farm, the pilot phase revealed a need to support value creation with diverse groups with often very specific requirements.

Food for Us has a strong research focus based on the recognition that socio-technical transformations in the food system within a framework of just transitions require a significant deepening of understanding to develop new approaches and changed practices. The focus of the research was to track the interactions that were facilitated and enabled by the app and what it offered in a landscape of practice, and to establish what kind of value could be created by such a process. The results indicated three types of value created by the app:

  1. Applied value was found when farmers could use the app to advertise their produce.
  2. Potential value was found when the local development agency in Raymond Mhlaba Municipality identified the app as a possible market transformation tool for farmers to find local buyers for their produce, which would otherwise have gone to waste.
  3. Transformation value was found when participants in the project were able to develop new networks and strengthen their farming practices through new connections in the local food system.

To ensure continued value creation, a process of #MatchMaking was adopted to bring together stakeholders that could work together and connect via the app.

One of the main contributions of the Food for Us project was a deepening of understanding of the social learning processes that emerge around a mediating tool such as a mobile app in a wider transitioning system. Here valuable lessons have been learned about the scope, depth and ‘chains of learning’ that emerged around the development and use of the app.

The location of Food for Us within the Environmental Learning Research Centre at Rhodes University helped to establish the project as a research and learning programme that sought to contribute to just socio-technical transitioning in South Africa’s food system. The project team included experts who could calculate carbon, water and nutritional savings from food surplus (Carbon Calculated), inform the project on food surplus concerns (Pinpoint Sustainability), help to create sustainable value (CSV), inform food systems research (Sustainability Institute), design the mobile app (LEAD Associates), and locate the initiative within an international sustainable food system innovation story (Feedback). This multidisciplinary team was essential to enable a contribution to the different dimensions of the project, providing evidence of the need for multi- and interdisciplinary engagement in creating sustainable food systems.

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