Power, Policy, and Redefining Innovation: A Discussion with Ishmael Sunga

14 June 2021

Ishmael Sunga is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of The Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU).

A Zimbabwean national, Ishmael Sunga has more than 30 years’ wide-ranging experience in agriculture and rural development, including in policy research, advocacy, and development management. He became SACAU’s CEO in 2005, two years after the establishment of its permanent regional secretariat. He has since established SACAU as the voice of farmers of southern Africa, spearheading the organisation’s work in several key areas, including digital solutions, climate change management, the development of a new generation of farmers and of farmers’ organisations, systems management and multi-stakeholder approaches, and value-chain cooperation.

He serves in various capacities on structures of several continental and global institutions and initiatives, such as the United Nations Food Systems Summit, the World Economic Forum, African Union/NEPAD, AGRA, Montpellier Malabo Panel of Experts, Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), Generation Africa and the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification.

His ambition is to establish SACAU as a farmers’ organisation, development and policy think tank, and innovation centre aimed at addressing systemic agricultural development matters with the farmers’ lens, including issues to do with fundamental values and principles relating to equity, fairness, transparency, inclusion and voice.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Sunga to hear his thoughts on how a just transition can effectively address the major challenges facing food producers by putting them at the forefront of policy change.

How do you define the major challenges facing farmers?

How is it possible that those who are responsible for the food that feeds the rest of the world are themselves hungry?

It all boils down to the unequal power relations amongst the various value chain players—it’s about how equity and fairness are distributed along the agriculture value chain. Primary producers hold the greatest amount of risk, and this lessens as you go up the value chain. Value distribution goes the opposite way – primary producers have the lowest return while those on top have the most. This is why many farmers are in perpetual poverty, even though farming is one of the largest industries in the world. As it stands, this system is unsustainable.

How well do you think current agricultural policies are addressing equity?

Before we can discuss solutions, we need to make sure we have a common understanding of what the actual problem is. Many proposed ‘solutions’ for agriculture don’t actually address core problems. For example, offering free seed does not really address farmers’ core challenges. But in our region, the cultural norm is to be polite, so if someone offers you a gift, you don’t turn it away. If a farmer is offered seed, they won’t turn away that package of support, even if it is an inadequate amount of seed or it is provided after the planting season has finished. They will simply take the seeds and sell it to those who are in a position to use it. That’s a rational economic decision. In this way, many proposed solutions are too little, too late, and inappropriate. Farmers are differentiated. They have unique challenges and contexts. But they are often treated as a monolith and, as such, are offered a one-size-fits-all solution.

How can policies be repurposed to work better for farmers?

The answer has to come from farmers themselves. We need to examine the pathways of influencing policy decision-making. For example, researchers believe in evidence and logic. But they need to talk to farmers so that evidence is delivered by farmers themselves. Often, facts don’t speak for themselves – who is sharing those facts matter. I want to be able to speak to what needs to be changed within my region, and then be supported by professional organisations and researchers. It’s time that farmers are at the forefront.

What is the role of research and innovation in a just transition?

So far, research and innovation has largely focused on better technologies such as improved varieties. And yet, when we look at core challenges facing farmers, it’s much more about backbone infrastructure such as transport and communication. You often hear researchers saying that a certain innovation is a beauty and a wonder but that farmers are not adopting it. But how could it be a wonder if farmers aren’t using it- a case of perfected yet rejected? A just transition will happen through the provision of basic infrastructure. How do you expect farmers to increase productivity in an area where there are no roads, energy, school, sanitation and other essential facilities?

Subsidies should be going to such  “ABCs” of life, enabling people to live in decency and dignity.

Lets go back to basics and sort out the fundamentals of life that are so absent in the areas where the majority of farmers reside. This is a perfect area for innovation. There is need for innovation to be seen through the eyes of those for whom its intended— in this case farmers. Farmers are innovators in their own right. And successful innovation must necessarily be measured by the extent to which it changes farmers’ lives, and less on other criteria such as publication in journals.