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Cracking the Nut on changing food systems and linking urban demand and rural supply

At the end of March, I had the opportunity to attend the annual Cracking the Nut Conference  and to present the South America Manq’a model. Topic of this years’ event was “Reinforcing food systems to meet urban demand”.

Cracking the Nut on changing food systems and linking urban demand and rural supply

Cracking the Nut Conference was organized and made possible by American organizations and took place in The Land of Smiles, Thailand, to open up to Asian participants and organizations.

Astrid from ManqaDuring the conference I often thought of the smile of Astrid who I met in Colombia, thousands of kilometers away. She grew up in a small village. But the moment military groups started recruiting girls her age to pleasure the men in the guerrilla, her family decided to move to the capital, where they struggled to make a living. Astrid has a passion for cooking and was able to study in one of the Manq’a schools. She graduated last year and now runs her own business together with her mother. She told me the biggest impact of Manq’a has been to regain trust in herself. I hope her story will inspire others to start Man’qa schools as well.

The nature of the global food market is rapidly changing. Dr. Tom Reardon, the keynote speaker, stated that the share of processed food in the total rural food consumption increases. He challenged the conception that “farmers eat what they grow and grow what they eat”. Urban consumption, including the food demands of smaller cities and towns, has increased much faster than expected. Linkages between the rural supply and the urban demand need to be strengthened. Reardon sees an opportunity for small-scale farmers, rural workers and owners of SMEs to lift themselves out of poverty with the shifting dynamics in food systems.

ICCO Cooperation was invited to present the South America Manq’a model and its use of smartphones to track and monitor local diets, provide real time information on food supply and demand, and inform program design. I represented the organization as advisor to the Manq’a team.

From food program to good food movement

Manq’a is a program, executed in Bolivia and Colombia, covering the three most important groups in the food supply chain: small producers, cooks, and consumers. Its ambition is to create economic opportunities for disadvantaged youth, raise the incomes of small farmers, and create and change consumer demand. Manq’a schools and their associated restaurants form the core of the project. At these schools, young men and women are trained as cooks and culinary entrepreneurs, gaining practical experience in the school-run restaurants, catering and food delivery services, in-company canteens and other food services. During their training as cooks, students use locally-sourced ingredients, sourced from affiliated small producers, based on forgotten traditional cuisine.

The project has the commitment of a so-called circle of chef-friends, from among the gastronomic elite in Colombia and Bolivia. Together with these chefs, Manq’a advocates for the re-appreciation of the Colombian culinary heritage and innovation. The currently running successful campaign, Así sabe mi tierra! (#AsíSabeMiTierra), is transforming Manq’a into a good food movement. 

To meet the increasing urban demand, as discussed in Bangkok, Manq’a links the rural supply and urban demand. It does this by stimulating demand from urban top-chefs, the schools, and consumers living in peri-urban areas for local, healthy produce from small farmers – which requires a thorough understanding of Manq’a clients, the end-users – and making sure producers can deliver.  With technical assistance provided to and by the farmers’ cooperatives, smallholders try out new crops, innovate, organize themselves and work on improvement of the traceability of their crops.

Every two months Manq’a organizes a culinary market in the neighborhood where the school is based. This is where small agro-ecological producers present, tell about and sell their produce. Manq'a students sell fresh food at the market, prepared in the school in line with what they have learned to convince other community members and visitors to eat differently, healthier. For the students this is an excellent opportunity to put into practice the social, gastronomical and economical skills they are trained in.

The top-chefs that are involved participate in the market to source from the farmers. In their high-end restaurants, they test the products in their kitchen, observe how their clients respond to it, and inform the farmers what kind and amount of produce they need in their kitchens for their high quality recipes. In a culinary farm, made as co-creation of chefs, farmers, the students and the Botanical Garden, they test and experiment with culinary innovations.

ICT can make farming more attractive for the youth again

We had a very interesting discussion on the way technology could boost the Manq’a impact, at the level of the farmers, the schools, its students and the consumers. One of the attendees thought of an app matching demand and supply, based on a farmer established date base, to improve small producers’ access to urban markets. Also technologies providing educational information about the production of native, organic products (think of tutorial online videos) is interesting for farmers focusing on this market segment of the local cuisine.

To scale or improve production quality, strengthening farming practices with precision farming, agricultural planning based on improved weather forecasting were some other thoughts. In general, conference participants concluded that ICT can make farming more attractive for the youth again. The use of ICT increases their social status, gives youth often more responsible positions, and creates opportunities for more innovation.

Sharing recipes via Facebook

At the level of the students and the schools, interesting ideas were shared to engage more young people in this good food movement. Sharing recipes and stories by young people via Facebook will work in many countries. To support graduates in their search for job opportunities, a digital platform to find job openings in the gastronomic sector and announcing vacancies could facilitate matches at the labour market.

At the level of consumers, technology can help consumers more easily find information about healthy restaurants, especially the ones connected to the Manq’a philosophy. It would be great to introduce digital storytelling about the products, the recipes and the chefs themselves. Many inspiring ideas popped up which the Manq’a team will definitely look into!

One of the conference conclusions was that technology can help you implement better, faster and at lower costs. At the same time, it was also emphasized that the human touch cannot be replaced and remains crucial for sustainable impact.

Join the good food movement

The final publication of the conference will be ready by June. If you are interested to read more about a variety of initiatives addressing changing food systems, then please follow the Cracking The Nut communication updates. Within Manq’a we will now first reflect on how we can integrate some of the ideas that came about. Should you want to join us in cooking this healthy future together and join this good food movement, please don’t hesitate to contact the Manq’a team!

Machteld Ooijens, advisor to the Manq’a team
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