Amid rising food prices, coupled with one of the worst droughts the country has experienced, food security research in South Africa has received a much-needed boost from the Newton Fund, and National Research Foundation (NRF) UK-South Africa Bilateral Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) launched earlier this month.
“Food insecurity is not caused by lack of food at national level, but by a lack of access to food at the individual level, mainly due to poverty,” says SARChI in social protection for food security Dr Stephen Devereux, who is also research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, in Brighton, UK.
“One response to food insecurity is social protection, which improves access to food for the poor, either by giving them food or raising their income,” he adds.
Yet, despite South Africa’s extensive and expanded social protection system, food insecurity and malnutrition remain highly prevalent, with an estimated one in four South Africans being food insecure, according to Devereux.
The SARChI in social protection for food security will address questions on why food insecurity in South Africa remains high, despite the comprehensive social protection system, and how the impact of social protection on hunger can be improved.
The UK-SA chair initiative is a NRF joint programme implemented through the British Council, which aims to help strengthen research and innovation capacities in South Africa and the UK and to promote international exchange and cooperation.
Through the initiative, South African and UK higher education institutions will be able to increase the quality and production of master’s and PhD graduates by supporting research excellence in response to key socio- economic and development priorities.
Devereux will be based at the University of the Western Cape’s Institute for Social Development, and affiliated to the Department of Science and Technology (DST)-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security(CoE-FS). The CoE-FS’s network spans 12 local universities, seven international partners and two research councils.
The first three bilateral UK-SA chairs were locally launched at the British Council’s Going Global Conference, which took place from May 3 to 5 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.
Speaking at the launch, South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor highlighted SARChI as a significant opportunity for South Africa and the continent.
“It nurtures research talent. This is vital for our future prosperity. It encourages the best scientists to work in South Africa. It encourages the best to stay at home,” she said.
The SARChI began in 2006 with 21 joint chairs, and has grown to 198 chairs over ten years. It is currently a R404-million a year programme.
Pandor noted that the best scientists had global choices of where to work, with a longtime movement of scientists from Africa to America and Europe. Consequently, universities had started offering joint appointments as a way of mitigating these effects or to benefit from global competition.
As South Africa believed it to be one of the best ways to avoid a “brain drain” to developed countries, the country decided to expand SARChI following the same principle.
While SARChI started a country-bilateral programme with Switzerland last year in global environmental health, the initiative expanded to include a programme with the UK in food security and political science, and will expand to a programme with Germany in nanoscience and advanced materials.
The main bilateral science and innovation programme is the UK-South Africa Newton Fund, launched in September 2014. The partnership is worth up to R300-million over five years.
Activities focus on public health, environment and food security, as well as science and techno- logy capacity building, which are underpinned by cross-cutting themes of big data and regional cooperation across sub-Saharan Africa.
During the third, and most recent task force meeting, in Pretoria, the DST and South African departments of higher education and training, basic education, and health agreed to share departmental priority areas to be explored for potential future bilateral collaboration under the Newton Fund, Pandor noted.
Further, other departments are keen to participate in the Newton partnership and they would do so using their own resources, she concluded.