‘What knowledge brokers do’ #3: working together for healthy diets for all

Knowledge brokering,Netherlands Food Partnership18 Nov 2021Vanessa Nigten, Ninja Lacey

The Netherlands Food Partnership (NFP) supports transformative collective impact coalitions to achieve urgent changes for sustainable food systems in low- and middle-income countries. The coalitions consist of members from civil society, the private sector, knowledge institutes and the public sector. Working within NFP, The Broker helps organizations make knowledge work for food security via the NFP platform activities and helps build effective coalitions. One of these coalitions is the Ghana Urban Food Environment Collective Impact Coalition. After months of hard work and preparation, this coalition is embarking on its first action phase to make healthy diets available to all in the city of Accra, Ghana. Improving consumers’ food environments, which include all the things in a person’s life that influence decisions on what to eat, is crucial to reaching this goal. The Broker’s knowledge broker Vanessa Nigten has been deeply involved in developing this coalition through her knowledge brokering activities in NFP.

In this series ‘What knowledge brokers do‘, we share perspectives from our knowledge brokers on various knowledge brokering trajectories in our projects. With this, we aim to give you an inside look into our work and answer the question “What is it that you do?”

As a knowledge broker, how did you get involved in developing the coalition?

It all started in 2019 when I organised a public seminar in Accra on food systems through the Food & Business Knowledge Platform (F&BKP), during a larger NWO-WOTRO Science for Global Development organised workshop week. At the time I was working as a knowledge broker for The Broker within the Food & Businesses Knowledge Platform, the precursor of what is now the NFP. We organised the seminar for professionals in the food sector in Ghana who were interested to place their respective food and nutrition security interventions within a broader food systems perspective. 

With the increasing focus on food systems thinking, the need for improved food environments that enable consumers to make healthy dietary decisions has also gained traction. Overcoming hunger and malnutrition in all its forms​ ​is about more than securing enough food to survive: what people eat should also be nutritious. Initial research into low- and middle-income countries revealed that Ghana is one of the African frontrunners in the field of food environments research and policy development.

The professionals that attended the seminar indicated that (international) intermediary interventions to connect and catalyse cooperation between them would be very helpful to improve Ghanaian urban food environments. This need forms the basis of the Ghana Urban Food Environment Collective Impact Coalition today. We kicked off in October 2020 during an inspirational meeting with a diverse group of enthusiastic Dutch and Ghanaian stakeholders.

What was the most interesting part of working on this project as a knowledge broker?

Our slogan at The Broker is Connecting worlds of knowledge. It is striking how relevant this slogan is! The first step to develop the coalition before its kick-off in 2020 was to conduct interviews with lots of different people from government, civil society, universities and companies working in the food sector. Everyone had different perspectives and ideas stemming from their own world of knowledge. They all expressed a need for a neutral international party as a linking pin, to combine local needs, policies, and scientific insights and translate them into joint practical solutions. 

It was amazing to connect all these worlds of knowledge and to see how each of their unique perspectives help the coalition reach its goal of ensuring healthy diets are available to everyone in Accra. One of the coalition’s action groups consists of public health professors, start-ups focussed on making healthy food more appealing, local chefs, health care professionals and social media experts. This is a great example of how a group of diverse actors join forces, in this case, to engage with urban consumers to improve household nutrition.

What were other typical knowledge brokering activities? Why were they of added value to the coalition?

Being the ‘linking pin’ is maybe the most enjoyable part of knowledge brokering, but we had to do a whole lot more. To develop the coalition, we needed to do literature mapping and stakeholder analyses, develop a framework based on this with input of all the coalition members, conduct strategic planning, reach out to potential coalition members, organise coalition meetings, and much more. 

I think the added value of knowledge brokering, next to fulfilling the need to be a neutral international party that can connect all the different stakeholders, is that we base our actions on knowledge that is already available. To achieve the best results, we must not reinvent the wheel, but build on what is already known. It’s like climbing a staircase: each step represents knowledge and lessons learnt from practical experiences. The more steps you climb, the closer you get to reaching your goal. Without these steps, you would have a hard time reaching the top. 

[I want to see] Ghana’s ‘traditional’ markets becoming more vibrant and popular places to work, visit, and most importantly, be the place to buy food that is healthy, nutritious, and safe.

How does the coalition line up with the mission of The Broker for a more sustainable and inclusive world?

Currently, in Accra, we see an influx of fast-food restaurants and malls that offer predominantly (unhealthy) take away food, while ‘traditional’ markets are losing popularity. Healthy food is often unaffordable to the urban poor and fresh fruit and vegetables are often contaminated with bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Obesity and diet-related diseases are on the rise, while hunger and anaemia also remain a problem. The coalition was created to tackle these issues.

We set up the coalition in a very inclusive way, concentrating on the needs of the urban consumer, with a goal to make healthy diets available to everyone in Accra. We involved people from the entire supply chain, from producers, to processors, to sellers. By including the government and private sector as key stakeholders in developing the coalition’s interventions, we are more likely to achieve a sustainable change. These stakeholders include people deeply involved in developing national strategy to tackle problems in Ghana’s food system, for example by working with academics and government officials to implement the Ghanaian president’s commitment to a national nutrient profiling model. Changing the food environment in Accra so that everyone has access to healthy diets will not be easy, but if we are successful, we are definitely contributing to creating a more sustainable and inclusive world. 

What is the impact you envision the coalition to achieve?

To see Ghana’s ‘traditional’ markets becoming more vibrant and popular places to work, visit, and most importantly, be the place to buy food that is healthy, nutritious, and safe. To see mothers rather buying fresh vegetables from the market, than the now cheaper and more convenient processed foods. For people, especially youths, to value traditional and healthy meals over a trip to KFC. There are already some great examples of this: several modern bars and restaurants showcase traditional healthy foods and drinks on their menus. Some up-and-coming young chefs have found ways to promote healthy eating through social media. There is so much potential and creativity among young people in Ghana. I hope the coalition can help them gain more popularity. 

In the long run, I would also like to tackle the more systemic obstacles to healthy eating, such as the high costs of healthy food. If we continue to work together and use the increasing global attention and resources committed to improving food environments, I really do think we can change the entire system to make healthy diets available, affordable, and accessible to all.