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When Public Policy Meets the Private Sector: Lessons Learned from Feed the Future on the Ground

By Feed the Future

When Public Policy Meets the Private Sector: Lessons Learned from Feed the Future on the Ground

Feed the Future finds effective policy solutions to food security challenges that build a strong environment for business investment and growth.

What does a Minister of Agriculture, tractor service provider, and rice farmer have in common? If you said, ‘agriculture and food security policy,’ you are right! From food standards to trade, policies impact the efficiency and effectiveness of food systems — and how well they deliver nutrition and benefits for development.

Governments, with input from citizens, make policies and regulations that secure an adequate, safe food supply for everyone. Those policies, in turn, influence the behavior of everyone who relies on the food system — farmers, processors, traders, and consumers — for good food, nutrition and income. We’ve seen that together governments and the private sector can find effective solutions to agricultural and food security challenges through policy.

Photo by Jennifer Katchmark, USADF

The Feed the Future Food Security Policy Innovation Lab, led by Michigan State University, recently reflected on lessons learned from their research and capacity building project. Over the past five years, the lab’s partnerships with local researchers, government officials and others in countries such as Tanzania, Nigeria, Mali, Ghana, Bangladesh and Burma have built local policy research skills and contributed new insights on how policy enables the private sector to reduce hunger and poverty and improve nutrition. A common thread was how policy can encourage private sector growth and extend its benefits, such as increased employment and higher incomes to those in need.

Changing Policy, Transforming Economies

In Burma, for example, Feed the Future helped local researchers build the evidence that the Burmese mandatory rice production policy was actually inhibiting overall food supply and hurting smallholder farmers. The evidence convinced lawmakers to adjust their policies. As a result, a woman farmer, formerly mandated by the government to grow rice, can now grow mung beans that have higher economic and nutritional value.

Photo by Winrock International, Value Chains for Rural Development project

Another successful policy change was a switch in the way products for farming, such as fertilizers, are delivered to farmers in Zambia. When paper vouchers and government-distributed fertilizer bags were converted to more flexible electronic vouchers after Feed the Future made the case for such a change, farmers were able to purchase the types of agricultural inputs they needed more easily. Zambian private agro-dealers saw their sales expand and farmers had greater choice for their crops — a win-win outcome for all.

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab also brought African and Asian government staff and private entrepreneurs together to review successful approaches to boosting agricultural productivity with advanced technology and machinery. These policy dialogues have helped convince government officials in Nigeria and Ghana to leverage private entrepreneurs’ expertise and resources to work hand-in-hand with farmers and be more efficient providers of tractor services.

Food Systems Evolving Rapidly

The Feed the Future Innovation Lab has also documented a ‘quiet revolution’ in food processors, traders and transport companies in Africa. Notably, food in Africa, both perishable and processed, is increasingly purchased, with even rural farm households purchasing up to 70 percent of the food they consume. The number of packaged corn meal products in Tanzania has burgeoned over the past years to meet the demand, and this staple product is now rarely sold unbranded with a growing number of processing companies. Even so, the Innovation Lab noted that much faster growth in agricultural activities beyond farming is needed to provide jobs for farmers, their children, and other rural poor people who cannot or don’t want to continue working in the fields.

Rapid change in food demand and supply can have negative impacts too. Processed foods can be high in salts, sugars and fats. The Innovation Lab’s research on dietary change confirmed that the share of overweight Africans, especially women, is rapidly increasing. Government and the private sector will need to work together to get ahead of these health challenges in Africa. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab suggested some potential policy solutions, such as nutrition guidelines, increased production of nutritious foods, food safety standards, and consumer education.

But what does the private sector need from government? The Innovation Lab reiterated the need for transparent and predictable policies, as well as better infrastructure and research, including roads without potholes, electricity without interruption, and basic agricultural research. Governments should also prioritize secondary cities and towns to stimulate opportunities for private sector growth. Overall, for countries to develop more resilient and secure food systems, the private sector needs to play a more important role. Agricultural policy research plays a pivotal role in bringing government and the private sector into a dialogue for policy change.

As governments face increasingly challenging and dynamic environments for advancing development, learning and adapting policies to accelerate the good and mitigate the bad is critical. This article only captures a small set of the learning about policy and the private sector and many other topics helpful for Feed the Future’s success. Readers can find these learnings and more in the Feed the Future Innovation Lab’s synthesis paper.

About the Feed the Future Food Security Policy Innovation Lab

The Feed the Future Food Security Policy Innovation Lab, led by Michigan State University, is one of Feed the Future’s partnerships with this land-grant university, along with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the University of Pretoria, South Africa. The overall mission of the lab is to promote inclusive agrifood system productivity growth, improved nutritional outcomes, and enhanced livelihood resilience through improved policy environments. Taking a broad view of agriculture, including the farm and off-farm parts of the agrifood system, the lab strives to increase countries capacity to generate policy-relevant evidence and analysis. This knowledge, when utilized by stakeholders, improves policy formulation and implementation throughout the food system.

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