Before Covid-19 food systems were already struggling from global challenges such as climate change and violent conflicts. Now, the pandemic is ravaging food production and disrupting supply chains across the globe. According to World Food Programme (WFP) estimates, millions more people will be threatened with acute food insecurity by the end of 2020.

The food systems interconnected nature will likely see Covid-19 response efforts generate a cascade of disruptive changes in the way we produce, process, deliver and cook food. Existing data signals an emerging crisis of supply and demand; this indicates profound change, especially in terms of global consumption habits as well as food system digitalization.

Since August 2019, UNDP has been working in collaboration with ALC, the Basque Social Innovation Laboratory in Southern Thailand to promote the local food industry and the region’s culinary heritage. In this post we share the story of how we have been developing a Social Innovation Platform that reimagines the current local food system. We have been intentionally utilizing a co-creation process that involves local stakeholders such as restaurant owners, food suppliers, young entrepreneurs and artists to design a wide range of locally relevant and applicable solutions. 

This process has resulted in an extensive “portfolio” that interconnects multiple development issues in the area. Although we are focused on Thailand, the portfolio has also been influenced by analogous contexts and experiences; for example, Basque Michelin awarded chefs, including Dani Lasa, former head of innovation at Mugaritz restaurant and currently leading Imago, a Basque food innovation lab. The chefs involved identified up to 50 potential initiatives that would support Southern Thailand’s local communities and food industry. Examples of initiatives include new products and services (i.e. job opportunities), alternative distribution channels and new regulations.

The recent emergence of Covid-19 has underscored the need for social innovation to help those who are most vulnerable. In the context of Southern Thailand, the platform has helped to assess the impact of the pandemic on the local food industry and communities. This has been instrumental in discovering ways for the local food industry to re-invent itself and adapt to a post-Covid-19 ‘new normal’ situation, for instance by adopting new digital technologies.

The platform has replaced separate response processes with an integrated stream, one that connects the Covid-19 crisis to local food systems and communities. This fits well with UNDP’s socio-economic recovery approach to Covid-19, which is focused on avoiding “single-point solutions”. Despite the complex and interconnected nature of Covid-19, most of the current recovery initiatives are still designed as projects to address specific issues linearly; health authorities are developing and implementing new hospital infrastructures and better home care, social welfare agencies are providing basic incomes, and business development units are trying to mitigate the impact of the current commercialization restrictions. Yet only very few of these interventions are looking at the intersection of these actions which is a prerequisite for response interventions that induce true systemic change.

UNDP is committed to change this way of working by powering Social Innovation Platforms as integration engines that will bring together a variety of actors, methods and interconnected actions to allow a more experimental and systemic approach to addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This represents a departure from traditional, project-based, “business-as-usual” efforts.

In the context of Southern Thailand’s food industry, this propelled a process of co-creation that synergizes local initiatives and other public and private sector interventions with green growth, environmental and social concerns, and next-gen governance. Tangible results of this process are a list of initiatives in the realm of digitalization, training and skills-enhancement, access to credit for women and young entrepreneurs, promotion of local talents, transformation and branding of regional agriculture and seafood products and the development of public infrastructure.

Listening and analyzing what has changed with COVID-19

To complement and contrast this work, UNDP and ALC designed a light touch ethnographic process of dialogue and observation in which more than 50 people and organizations have participated to assess the impact of Covid-19 on the local food industry and communities. Participants were asked questions, for instance: How is Covid-19 affecting your life? What are the main challenges and opportunities you face? What happens if things change? While this listening was taking place, UNDP carried out a Systems Mapping of UNDP and private sector initiatives in relation to better understand the interconnection between UNDP initiatives in the area, initiatives being developed by other development partners and those promoted by the Government of Thailand.

Results from this confirmed the central role that food production plays for the local communities of Southern Thailand: When you are a fisherman, you’re not only a fisherman, you reconnected with the painter, the carpenter… On the upstream. And you are connected with restaurants on the downstream. It’s just an example of how someone, who works in the food industry, can be related to the whole society”.

The fact that local Malay-Muslim communities in Southern Thailand put special value in gastronomy has also been a shared element across the region. From fishermen to food producers, restaurant owners, or even designers, food is a way of life for Malay Muslim communities. “We don’t go to clubs or bars for parties, we don’t drink alcohol. We just eat”, says local anthropologist Najib Arwaebuesa. “When something good happens, we eat. When we are born, our fathers celebrate by eating. When we complete our koranic lesson, we eat. Before people go to Mecca for pilgrimage, we eat. Even though you don’t want to eat, if you’re meeting someone, you have to. And when we’re at home and we are kind of bored, we cook.”

The convening role that food markets represent for all identities has also been one of the key elements of the listening process: “Supporting markets brings higher incomes for the families in the local communities because many Malay tourists come to visit the area”, says Patimoh Sadiyamu, the Vice Governor of the province.

Consequently, the redesigning of the local food system has proven to be a major challenge but also an opportunity to: improve employment opportunities for vulnerable groups (including migrants returning from Malaysia), support economic diversification, address environmental issues and the branding of local products and traditions. It also provides new technological opportunities (e.g. sensoring, communication) to improve businesses, health (e.g. intelligent waste management systems), to produce and commercialize new products (e.g. super foods, Halal), forge large scale public-private collaborations (e.g. new culinary education programs) and test new regulations (e.g. Halal food certification, local taxes).

Sensemaking to understand how local communities are affected by Covid-19

The recent sensemaking exercise helped assess the impact of Covid-19 on the local food industry and communities and found some detrimental impacts on local businesses. For instance, restaurant supplies are increasingly hard to find and as a result, have become more expensive. Many restaurants are only open for take-away orders, while they still need to pay for their rent and ingredients. The fishing industry has also seen some serious impacts due to international restrictions on export and commerce. On the basis of this sensemaking exercise, UNDP and ALC created the following personas which describe how Covid-19 is impacting the food system in relation to age, sex, or occupation.

The importance of a Portfolio to maximize investments and impact

It is important to remark that Covid-19 response initiatives and investments can lose their transformative potential if they are not interconnected as a portfolio of strategic investment options. That’s why UNDP designed a protocol to ensure that such initiatives are conceptualized and prototyped in line with this thinking. Innovating at the systemic level also requires tapping into new sources of financing as well as aligning resources in a different way. Social Innovation Platforms can help convene various sources of investment (public, private, philanthropy) and different investment tools (government programs, equity, social impact bonds, crowdfunding) that will provide capital into the entire innovation cycle iteratively (listening, co-creation, prototyping, scale).

Applying a platform approach, instead of a single point linear solution, has provided UNDP with more powerful and resilient tools to respond to a wicked emergency like Covid-19. In this context, the Southern Thai food system and its reinvention represent both a challenge and a fundamental asset in relation to Covid-19. If the current interconnected management, investment and regulatory efforts are successful, Southern Thailand could operate as a global living lab for the reinvention of the current food systems after the pandemic.

This blog, publish in Medium, was co-written by Gorka Espiau, a Senior Fellow at Agirre Lehendakaria Center (ALC), Itziar Moreno, Programs Lead at ALC and Patrick Duong, UNDP Regional Governance Advisor in Asia and the Pacific. Together they are leading a regional initiative that supports UNDP country offices to develop Social Innovation Platforms to tackle complex challenges, realize socio-economic transformation and help to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

T