Fertile ground for innovation

In the quest to transition the world to more regenerative and inclusive forms of agriculture, large corporations and multilateral organizations have an important role to play. In East Africa, however, the REFOOTURE project of Wageningen University & Research (WUR) supports local communities and businesses in playing their part. Using Living Labs to experiment and explore transition pathways, the project aims to find effective ways to enable and monitor the transition toward more regeneration and inclusiveness.

More on the REFOOTURE project

REFOOTURE – a portmanteau of the words regenerative, food and future – researches how living labs can stimulate local innovations that encourage the transition towards regenerative and inclusive agriculture in Eastern Africa. The project has activities in Arua in Uganda, Teppi and South-Achefer in Ethiopia, and Nakuru county in Kenya, which is also home to project partner Egerton University. “Nakuru is a dynamic agricultural region. Fishermen, smallholders, cattle farmers and others produce food, which nearby entrepreneurs turn into food products. We are looking to improve the integration of women and youth in the food system and to improve the quality of the environment and natural resources,” says Karin Andeweg, who runs the Kenya side of the project.

“Regenerative agriculture claims to contribute to improving natural resources, biodiversity, the environment and the production of sufficient and healthy food. But it is not always clear how that can be done in a specific region. We are aiming to experiment with regenerative and inclusive agricultural practices that fit within the regional context and to unlock innovations that contribute to this.”

Karin Andeweg project manager livestock and environment at WUR

By looking at the food system as a whole, REFOOTURE considers issues like added value (food) products, soil quality, biodiversity, climate change and emissions, but also financing and policies. “Many businesses think and operate in terms of chains. Dairy chains, for example, aim to maximize the production of milk. But dairy production is part of a larger system. For instance, it can contribute to healthy diets and a green environment. By considering its contribution and impact on the system as a whole, stakeholders may come up with other ways of producing, selling and consuming.”

One way the project explores these systemic innovation opportunities is by organizing Living Labs. These are platforms that bring together different local, regional and national stakeholders in the food system, such as farmers and community-based organizations, but also policymakers, entrepreneurs and researchers. This multi-stakeholder approach has the capacity to catalyze the local innovation capacity, for example through capacity building, matchmaking between experts and entrepreneurs, and training and innovation vouchers. “In Kenya, we work with RESSECT, which produces insects for animal feed on waste streams. The insects again produce compost. We connected them with soil experts from the WUR to see how this compost can contribute to healthy soils and improved food production.

While innovation is often equated with disruptive technologies, in the Living Labs it is a practical, down-to-earth affair. “Technical or organizational innovations can be supported by local matchmaking of expertise. During learning journeys, different community-based organizations visit each other and reflect on their challenges. They learn from each other how to innovate. Magical moments happen during these learning journeys, where – as they said themselves – these seemingly ordinary people realize they're doing extraordinary things that make a difference in their world. That inspires and gives meaning to their lives.”

“Magical moments happen during these learning journeys, where, as they said themselves, these seemingly ordinary people realize they are doing extraordinary things that make a difference in their world

In Kenya, REFOOTURE is currently supporting eight innovations, but Andeweg is planning to support even more. “I believe local innovation and a bottom-up approach can change food systems. Transition occurs not because the government imposes it, but because people get inspired and find solutions. The role of the government is important though, for example by stating their support to an innovation or new business, by setting clear policy goals, or by financing risky innovations.” Andeweg speaks enthusiastically about the project, saying the passion of local innovators is inspiring and that she admires that they actually do things rather than only talk about them. But she worries inclusiveness and regeneration are becoming a hype and that some will use it for greenwashing. “Which is why the project also aims to develop a tool that monitors whether the innovations are actually regenerative and inclusion actually increases. We are now developing suitable indicators to assess regenerativity and inclusivity in food systems.”

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