Alternative discourses around the governance of food security: A case study from Ethiopia

A summary of our new paper in Global Food Security, available here.

By Tolera Senbeto Jiren

Many existing studies on food security focus on either global scale discourses or on local level practices, or pay little attention to other sectors that are closely linked with food security, such as biodiversity conservation. For instance, questions related to how the global discourses play out locally, how local approaches could be scaled-up to national and global level discourses, and how food security approaches influence the environment remain largely unaddressed. Beyond the normative contribution, addressing these questions helps to avoid incompatibility in problem framing and solutions to food security at different governance levels, to identify pathways towards a sustainable outcome, and to harmonize the goals of food security and environmental management.

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Fig A: Scoreboard. The statements at the top (+) represents the most important statement for the stakeholder, with a value of +4. The statement at the bottom (e.g., 9 in the above picture) represents the least important statement for the stakeholder and assumes the value of -4.

In our recently published paper, we addressed these questions, that is, we uncovered how existing global food security discourses play out at the national and sub-national level, and how different food security approaches might influence biodiversity conservation in an empirical case study in Ethiopia. Because the concept of food security is intricately interdependent with biodiversity, we first defined food security— slightly broadening the definition provided by the World Food Summit in 1996—as universal access to sufficient, safe, and culturally acceptable food, without negative effects on biodiversity.

For this study, we applied the Q-methodology by following five key steps:

1) Framing the concourse— we first identified global food security discourses from various sources, and our search produced four competing global food security discourses that relate to Green revolution, Agricultural Commercialization and efficiency optimization, Food sovereignty, and Resilience.

2) Generating Q-set—we prepared eight distinctive statements (see Table 1 in the paper) around each of the four discourses, which were later ranked by the stakeholders.

3) Selection of stakeholders, P-set— we purposively selected 50 stakeholders with diverse perspectives regarding food security, from multiple policy sectors and governance levels (see the supplementary material of the paper).

4) Q-sorting— we translated the 32 statements into Afaan Oromo, individually laminated the Q-set (statements), and stakeholders ranked all statements on a previously prepared scoreboard (see Fig. A above) according to their perceived importance (see Fig. B below). The scoreboard represented a quasi-normal distribution with ranking from +4 (most important) to -4 (least important).

5) Analysis and interpretation— multivariate analysis through principal component analysis (PCA) followed by the varimax rotation in the “qmethod” package in R software produced distinct factors, that is, distinct food security approaches. Content analysis was applied through the help of NVivo software to analyze the qualitative data resulting from stakeholder interviews.

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Fig B. Pictures that depict district level stakeholders ranking the statements on the scoreboard. The left picture was taken in one of the offices in Gera Woreda and the picture on the right side was taken in one of the offices in Setema woreda.

We found four distinctive food security approaches in southwestern Ethiopia, namely:

1) Smallholder commercialization, a technological-economic discourse that prioritizes smallholder economic growth through intensive production of commercial crops, and which was supported by food security sector stakeholders at all levels of governance.

2) Agroecology and resilience, a social-ecological discourse that argues for the application of agroecological methods for improving food production and social-ecological resilience as a pathway to food security, supported by green niche actors.

3) Local economy and equity, a social-economic discourse that places a strong emphasis on local development and equity as a means to achieve food security, supported by stakeholders at all levels.

4) Market liberalization, a neoliberal macroeconomic discourse that primarily sees smallholders’ integration into the global market as a means of achieving food security, supported by many different types of stakeholders, except at the regional level.

The main findings include:

  1. Global food security discourses unfold into multiple and partly overlapping approaches at local levels, such that local approaches involved a mixture of properties of several of the global discourses.
  2. Some of the emerging global food security discourses, for instance, the Food sovereignty discourse were not a priority for stakeholders in southwestern Ethiopia, possibly because policy influencing stakeholders widely supported a belief that ‘food precedes human rights and democracy.’
  3. Smallholder centered development pathways were the common denominator of all approaches, i.e., private investment or Foreign Direct Investment were generally viewed as not important for attaining better food security.
  4. All approaches called for the government to not overly interfere within agricultural market.
  5. Agricultural intensification, commercialization, and profit were widely considered important, while only green niche actors supported the agroecology and resilience approach.
  6. In all approaches except the agroecology and resilience approach, biodiversity was either considered a secondary priority or only important if directly linked to food security.

Key insights and recommendations

  • Given the complexity inherent to the problem of food security and given the multiplicity of stakeholders involved, the existing plurality of approaches needs to be appropriately acknowledged.
  • The focus on intensive production, commodification, and income as a pathway to food security has been widely accepted—and also will continue to dominate the institutions around food security in Africa, mainly due to support from national and international philanthropic organizations. However, to ensure equity, social-ecological resilience and sustainability, it appears important to further strengthen the institutional base of the agroecology and resilience approach.
  • Acknowledging the multi-layered interdependence between food security and biodiversity, keeping an appropriate balance between ecological and social resilience is essential for a sustainable outcome.
  • Harmonizing contradictions between alternative approaches is essential, and this could be achieved through systematically integrating aspects from all approaches that are compatible with local conditions.

Congratulations, Dr. Girma Shumi Dugo!

By Joern Fischer

About a week ago, our project on food security and biodiversity conservation culminated in yet another completed PhD! Girma Shumi Dugo successfully defended his thesis. Congratulations Girma!

Girma’s thesis had an emphasis on biodiversity conservation, but also included several social-ecological aspects. The overall focus of the thesis was on woody vegetation, including its conservation values but also its values to local people.

Following a synthesis chapter, Girma’s first data chapter investigated woody vegetation in forest sites. This work found that many forest sites were highly species rich, especially in undisturbed locations deep within the forest. Historical effects and edge effects appeared to influence species richness and composition. This first data paper was published in Biological Conservation.

The second data paper is also published already, namely in Diversity and Distributions. This paper looked at woody species composition and richness in farmland areas. It found there was a significant effect of landscape history — and possibly an immigration credit. That is, sites in long-established farmland locations had a higher number of pioneer and generalist species than sites in recently established farmland.

The third data chapter in the thesis is currently in revision; it examines the relationship between the diversity of woody vegetation in plots throughout the landscape with the diversity of ecosystem services generated by woody vegetation in those plots. The findings suggest that woody species diversity leads to landscape multi-functionality, and that all land use types in the study area (farmland, coffee forest, forest without coffee) are essentially multifunctional.

Finally, the last chapter contains a detailed inventory of which species are used by local people for which different purposes. Nearly 100 species of woody vegetation are used by local people for 11 different purposes — this chapter thus demonstrates that woody vegetation is vital to the lives of local people. The chapter is in the final round of minor revisions for publication in Ecosystems and People.

A big congratulations to Girma for a well-rounded thesis!

New paper – Capital asset substitution as a coping strategy: practices and implications for food security and resilience in southwestern Ethiopia

By Aisa Manlosa

Smallholder farmers in various parts of the world often have to cope with a range of livelihoods-related challenges. These challenges may be associated with a lack in the capital assets they need to implement their livelihoods, or to food shortage. How farmers cope with these challenges has an impact on their food security and resilience. We investigated farmer’s coping strategies using capital asset substitution as an analytical lens. We sought to address the following questions: (1) How do smallholder farming households cope with shortage in capital assets and shortage of food?; (2) What role does capital asset substitution play in coping strategies?; (3) How do different types of capital asset substitution influence a given household’s state of capital assets, and what are the implications for their resilience and food security? The paper which is newly published in Geoforum, is available here.


A common view of the landscape in southwest Ethiopia showing people’s homes, gardens, and livestock in a farm field. (Photo taken by Jan Hanspach)

The study was conducted in southwestern Ethiopia where our team has been doing research since 2015. The analysis was based on qualitative data from an open-ended section of a survey with over 300 respondents and from semi-structured interviews with a subset of 30 interviewees. Data from the survey provided information about the common livelihood challenges in the study area, while semi-structured interviews provided substantive narratives concerning how people coped with the challenges, and the outcomes of their coping strategies.

In sum, the study revealed that “most commonly identified challenges were related to the natural capital such as crop raiding, and land scarcity. Households coped in various ways and most of their strategies involved drawing on the capital assets they had access to in processes of capital asset substitution. Coping strategies that involved drawing on social and human capitals which were very common tended to maintain the capital asset base of households. For example, a collaborative scheme called didaro helped augment labour input needed to guard the fields from wild animals. On the other hand, those that involved a liquidation of physical and economic capitals without commensurate returns tended to erode capital asset base. The erosive effect of certain coping strategies was found to result in reduced resilience or reduced abilities to maintain livelihoods and be food secure.” The paper concluded that “policies which seek to leverage smallholder agriculture for food security need to expand their focus beyond increasing production, and better integrate the aspect of resilience. In actionable terms, institutional investments are needed to support non-erosive coping strategies and to develop alternatives for erosive coping strategies. Since non-erosive coping strategies are likely to differ across contexts, identifying what these strategies are at the local level and building on them will be key to increasing resilience and supporting food security in specific geographies. Given the pervasiveness of challenges associated with natural capital, policies for prioritizing non-erosive strategies over erosive ones will need to be complemented with a sustained effort to reduce challenges associated with natural capital.”

This study furthered showed that the concept of capital asset substitution can be applied in livelihoods analysis to unpack interlinkages between different types of capitals. The application of the concept highlights that some capital assets such as natural capital, are elemental to the construction of livelihoods, and as proponents of strong sustainability have argued, are not fully interchangeable. The distinctive importance of different types of capital assets and interlinkages between them should be incorporated in livelihoods analyses for better understanding of the dynamic preconditions underlying smallholder farming.


New paper: Sustainability starts within (each of us)

By Joern Fischer

Led by Chris Ives and co-written by Rebecca Freeth and me, I’d like to draw your attention to our new paper on sustainability and our “inner worlds”. In this new paper, which recently appeared in Ambio, we argue that there is a very important but largely ignored “inner dimension” to sustainability; a dimension that is all about our emotions, thoughts, identities and beliefs.

To illustrate our idea, we borrowed an observation from Ken Wilber’s integral theory (though notably, we did not borrow integral theory itself). The idea we borrowed is that human knowledge and experience about the world can be classified in a 2×2 matrix – we can engage with interior individual phenomena (“I”), exterior individual phenomena (“It”), interior collective phenomena (“We”), or exterior collective phenomena (“They”; called”Its” by Wilber).

Let’s assume for a moment that these four quadrants actually capture human experience. In a next step, we might say that sustainability science is meant to help humanity reach a sustainable future. This very broad quest, we might argue, entails challenges in all four quadrants – but, as I briefly summarise here, sustainability science has largely ignored one of these quadrants!

Let’s go through the quadrants. The “It” quadrant is all about how a thing works – for example, it might be the kind of disciplinary science needed to answer how much of a certain greenhouse gas is stored in a particular soil type, or how many bird species occur in a particular forest patch. The “They” quadrant is the plural version of “It” – it’s all about multiple phenomena in the external world and how they interact. Systems thinking fits into this quadrant, and it’s a quadrant that has been extremely useful in sustainability science. Third, the “We” quadrant is all about how we, collectively, live. This might be about culture, or about regulations or social norms – the things that influence how “we” collectively behave. This, too, has received quite a bit of attention by sustainability scientists, and has been very useful.

What’s largely missing to date… is “I”. Of course philosophers and psychologists have had an interest in what happens within individual human beings, but sustainability scientists have largely stayed away from this level of human experience.

If, however, human experiences play out in all four major dimensions; and if these dimensions all are essential to human ways of living and being – then this is a glaring omission!

Interestingly, non-scientists have engaged quite strongly with the inner worlds of individuals, including (but not only) in spiritual circles (e.g. see Chris’ previous blog post here). Sustainability science as a whole has been rather slow on the uptake … although there are also important examples within sustainability science of people who have looked at what happens within individuals. Not least of all, Donella Meadows argued that the ability to change one’s paradigm was a key way to bring about change; an idea also captured in the increasingly popular “iceberg metaphor” copied from our paper and depicted in the figure below.

Arguably, what we value, how we think about things, what we believe in, and what we think it means to be human all matter in very fundamental ways – and, we argue, we need to engage with questions such as these if we are to successfully address the grand challenges of our times.

Our paper does not provide a simple set of answers for what we now need to do, given this realization. Rather, it aims to show, first of all, that the lack of focus on the self has been a gap in mainstream sustainability research to date; and we provide a few initial pointers for where we can each start to close this gap in the future.

Congratulations, Dr. Aisa Manlosa and Dr. Tolera Senbeto Jiren!

By Joern Fischer

Today was a big day for our research group: two of four PhD students on our project on food security and biodiversity conservation defended their PhDs! Congratulations, Aisa and Tolera – you made it!

The four PhD theses in this project cover aspects of biodiversity, ecosystem services, livelihoods and governance. Two theses are social-science oriented, and two are ecologically oriented. And this time … the social scientists were faster!

Aisa’s thesis covers local livelihood strategies, including their links to food security and access to capital assets; it covers coping strategies and household resilience; gender dynamics and institutional dynamics; and finally, the role of social norms in relation to equity.

Tolera’s thesis addresses governance issues in relation to food security and biodiversity conservation. It starts with an assessment of current discourses on food security (and biodiversity), which range from food sovereignty to produtivist framings; it assess the land sparing/sharing framework from a (local) governance perspective; includes a social network analysis of governance actors; investigates various types of process-related governance mismatches; and concludes with a chapter on scenarios of the future for the study area.

The two theses are written as papers, such that everything that is not publically accessible yet will become accessible in the foreseeable future. Some papers are published already, and you can find them in standard databases and on our project website … or email Aisa or Tolera for reprints, if you need a pdf of the papers!

A big thank you from me, at this point, to both Aisa and Tolera, for their hard work, great team spirit, and for doing a wonderful job in filling with life and substance what, once upon a time, was just a project idea! And thanks also to the examiners who contributed to getting these two theses marked: Julia Leventon, Kate Brown, Victor Galaz and Jens Newig.

Not far behind are two excellent theses on the ecology of southwestern Ethiopia … stay tuned!

New paper: woody plant conservation in SW Ethiopian forests

By Girma Shumi Dugo

Tropical forest ecosystems harbor high biodiversity, but they have suffered from human-induced disturbances. The main purpose of this post is to share with you the findings of a new paper we’ve published in Biological Conservation, where we’ve looked into the effects of these disturbances, that is, the conservation value of moist evergreen Afromontane forest sites across gradients of site-level disturbance, landscape context and forest history in southwestern Ethiopia.


In order to examine the effect of forest degradation, we surveyed woody plants at 108 randomly selected sites and grouped them into forest specialist, pioneer, and generalist species. First, we investigated if coffee dominance, current distance from the forest edge, forest history, heat load and altitude structured the variation in species composition using constrained correspondence analysis. Second, we modelled species richness in response to the same explanatory variables. A total of 113 species of trees and shrubs, representing 40 families, were recorded from all sites. Our findings show that woody plant community composition was significantly structured by altitude, forest history, coffee dominance and current distance from forest edge. Specifically, (1) total species richness and forest specialist species richness were affected by coffee management intensity; (2) forest specialist species richness increased, while pioneer species decreased with increasing distance from the forest edge; and (3) forest specialist species richness was lower in secondary forest compared to in primary forest. These findings show that coffee management intensity, landscape context and forest history in combination influence local and landscape level biodiversity. We suggest conservation strategies that foster the maintenance of large undisturbed forest sites and that prioritize local species in managed and secondary forests. Creation of a biosphere reserve and shade coffee certification could be useful to benefit both effective conservation and people’s livelihoods.

New paper: Livelihood strategies, capital assets, and food security in rural southwest Ethiopia

By Aisa Manlosa

Livelihood strategies are vital to the ability of households and individuals to be food secure. But what types of livelihood strategies promote better food security, and how can these strategies be supported? We explored this question through empirical research in a semi-subsistent smallholder farming context in southwestern Ethiopia. In a new paper published in Food Security, we applied multivariate statistical analyses to determine types of livelihood strategies in a way that allowed these strategies to emerge from data, rather than through pre-determined categories. This enabled us to tease out fine differences between livelihood strategies in a predominantly smallholder farming setting. We then investigated capital assets that were associated with the different strategies. Using the Household Food Insecurity Access Scale as a measure of a household’s food (in)security, we also determined which livelihood strategies were associated with different levels of food security outcomes.


Fig 1 Ordination plots of livelihood strategies with associated capital assets and food security outcomes. Underlying all four panels are the combined principal component analysis (PCA) and the cluster analysis of livelihood variables with each data point representing a household and a corresponding livelihood strategy indicated by a symbol. The x-axis always depicts the first principal component (26% explained variation) and the y-axis the second principal component (23% explained variation). 1a) Distribution of households by livelihood strategies in the ordination space of the PCA. 1b) PCA plot of livelihood activities highlighting the variables that most strongly correlated with the first two axes. Longer arrows suggest stronger correlations with PCA axes. 1c) Asset variables that are significantly correlated with the PCA axes at p<0.01 (permutation test). Longer arrows also suggest stronger correlations with PCA axes. 1d) Gradient of food security (measured by HFIAS scores) corresponding with the livelihood strategies.

Our research findings indicate that households in the area studied mainly relied on diversified smallholder farming. The combination of food crops and cash crops was the distinguishing characteristic of the livelihood strategies. Food crops such as maize, teff, sorghum, wheat, and barley were primarily used for household consumption; while cash crops such as coffee and khat were produced for the market. Other livelihood activities were undertaken, for example production of milk and honey, diverse home gardens, and wage labor. However, most of the variation in the data on livelihoods was explained by the types of crops produced. Five livelihood strategies were identified namely ‘three food crops, coffee, and khat’, ‘three food crops and khat’, ‘two food crops, coffee, and khat’, ‘two food crops and khat’, and ‘one food crop, coffee, and khat’ (Figures 1a and 1b). The ability of households to undertake these strategies was influenced by the types of capital assets that they had access to (Figure 1c). For example, households undertaking the strategy ‘three food crops, coffee, and khat’ had larger aggregate farm field size and learned new information on farming techniques from other farmers more frequently. Households undertaking the strategy ‘three food crops and khat’ more commonly had farms that were sharecropped and had more livestock. Through a generalized linear model, we established that the type of livelihood strategy households undertook in southwest Ethiopia was significantly associated with their food security. The more diverse the food crops in the strategies were, the better the households’ food security (Figure 1d). Furthermore, educational attainment and gender of the household heads were also significantly associated with better food security outcomes.

This paper contributes evidence to the important role of diversification in promoting food security amongst smallholder farming households. It calls attention to the need to understand local livelihood strategies and to build on what works for local farmers. We highlighted how farmers complemented food crops with cash crops, and how the benefits that farmers generate from these complementarities should be protected and maintained as governments formulate policies and interventions to support farming livelihoods. In the Ethiopian context where coffee is an important cash crop that is considered to play a role in ending poverty and hunger, our findings re-situate coffee as one of a range of important crops, rather than as the single commodity whose production should be intensified for higher income. The paper is open access and can be downloaded here.

Scenarios for southwestern Ethiopia

By Jan Hanspach

In the previous posts, Joern reported about our outreach tour that we went on in southwestern Ethiopia. An important aspect of that was the presentation of the scenarios that we had developed together with stakeholders from the area. While the details can be taken from our scenario book, I’d like to share a short summary and the scenario illustrations in this post.

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The scenario development was largely based on more than 30 stakeholder workshops in 2015 and 2016, through which we collected information on major social-ecological changes in the past, the present, and the future, the main drivers and main uncertainties and their relationships. From that we collated a causal-loop diagram, which describes the main dynamics of the system.

Based on that systems understanding we developed a scenario logic and draft scenario narratives, which we validated and discussed through six more workshops in 2018. Based on these, we finalized the scenario narratives, and with the help of some ink and watercolors I have put together some illustrations that should give a glimpse of what the future could look like under the different scenario conditions in a “typical” village in the area.

Additionally, I have drawn landscape cross-sections, so that one doesn’t only see how the village and the farmland might change, but also the forest.

Landscape cross-sections for the different scenarios

Based on these visualisations we designed posters, which we handed out to the key stakeholders in the region. Also, we printed 10,000 postcards with the scenarios and distributed them widely in the villages. Posters and postcards can be seen and downloaded here.



postcard piles

Piles of postcards – later to be distributed among local people.

We hope that distributing all the outreach material will foster discussions and help people to think about how current decisions and dynamics can shape the future of southwestern Ethiopia.