May/June 2020: An Indonesian farmers group destroys cabbage rotting in the field. Due to Covid19-containment measures and related travel restrictions, local markets broke down, and farmers were not able to sell their produce. As a result, vegetables were rotting in the fields in Indonesia and South Africa, while consumers suffered from price spikes. Picture source: Petani kubis indonesia

The Power of co-research to enhancing food resilience

In April 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, fault lines in the global food system became apparent. IPES-Food identified three destabilising factors causing disruptions in the global food system while the world enforced COVID-19 containment measures: industrial agriculture and monocultures causing losses of healthy agro-ecosystems, the power imbalances in global food supply chains, and the 800 million people worldwide who still suffer from hunger and malnutrition.

SLE’s co-research partners from South Africa and Indonesia joined forces to conduct a real-time co-research study with small-scale farmers on growing and eating food during the pandemic.

Nomonde Buthelezi, a political farmer, co-researcher, and head of FACT (Food Agency Cape Town) approached SLE to document how communities tried to cope with the devastating situation in Cape Town’s township during the first lockdown in April 2020. “We do not want to be mere figures in this crisis, not passive victims, but to show what we, as farmers, can do to provide solutions to increasing food insecurity,” said Nomonde Buthelezi. Tandu Ramba, Programme Manager of MPM (Motivator Pembangan Masyarakat, Motivator Community Development Foundation) in Toraja, Indonesia, didn't need to be asked twice, but jumped at the opportunity to join the FACT-SLE group immediately. Fortunately, he and his team also had the right survey tool at hand: the Kobo Toolbox, an easy-to-use survey app that allows different types of questions alongside location data and photo uploads. For a period of six months, we collaborated with farmer groups in two Indonesian regions, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa, collecting first-hand insights and photo stories and establishing a South–South exchange platform to learn about each other’s coping strategies.

Almost two years later, we invited both co-researchers, Nomonde and Tandu, to reflect on the impact of this co-research, together with SLE’s sixtieth postgraduate cohort. On 20 January 2022, the SLE team reflected on the changes to Germany’s food system brought on by the pandemic and its control measures and shared their views in a digital conference with the South African and Indonesian partners.

The co-research approach was a very new research approach for most of the postgrad scholars. It was just a few of them, and mainly the social scientists and ethnologists, who had had exposure with this approach before coming to SLE. The postgrads expressed their palpable desire to engage in more participatory and inclusive research. Certainly, this cohort will try to anchor co-research in their SLE research projects beginning in June this year. The lessons learned from Nomonde and Tandu brought precious insights into the whys and hows of doing co-research including the experiences of both participating communities and scholars learning with each other and the challenges of doing it right while addressing power relations among the team.

Tandu Ramba reported on the impact and challenges of this co-research in rural Toraja. It is a mountainous rural area with scenic landscapes and rich in traditional ceremonies. Culturally significant funeral ceremonies, helping each other on farms, and community meetings came to a complete standstill during the large-scale social restrictions. More than 300 smallholder farmers who participated in the Kobo Toolbox study reported how they coped with these restrictions. Eating more fruits and vegetables, expanding their gardening, planting multipurpose trees including trees for food, and opening new farmer markets to barter and exchange food were among the major coping strategies for resilience. This is still the case today and, according to Tandu, healthier diets with less meat and less sugar are now more popular amongst Toraja’s 600,000 inhabitants. Tandu reports a strong positive impact resulting from the co-research; for example, local government established programmes including investing in farmers markets in villages. After sharing and discussing the survey results, local government responded with a support programme to promote vegetable gardening. Luckily, as Tandu and MPM promote agroecological intensification, the new gardens are also managed without the use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

Nomonde Buthelezi has drawn a slightly different picture of the urban food system in the Cape Flats, a peri-urban, high-density area of Cape Town. While food resilience receives little government attention in this area, the co-research study has had a major impact on community members’ self-esteem, social cohesion, and community action. For example, the FACT team hosts a podcast to raise local voices and share community members' experiences within their own community. Township dwellers are now increasingly engaging in home gardening. Nomonde’s own daughter, who used to dislike vegetables, now likes to go to the vegetable garden to eat fresh carrots pulled out of the ground. Community kitchens are mushrooming, and people perceive these places to be spaces of care where they can gather to receive good nutrient-rich cooked food, kind words, and support. This is a stark contrast to the support offered by other institutions: food parcels built from supermarket scraps like expired cooking oil and white maize flour.

Of course, the digital co-research brought with it challenges. The first thing that came to Tandu's mind was the lack of signal in the mountainous regions of Toraja. Smallholder farmers were so keen to participate that they ran to places far from their fields and homes where they could find signal to contact Tandu via Whatsapp or upload their data into the Kobo Toolbox. At first, the clear and simple English survey questions sounded incomprehensible in the Indonesian language. Even some of the questions themselves where completely uncommon or culturally disgraceful. Tandu and his team remained patiently available to answer all questions to achieve good results. Nomonde had similar experiences. Her main problem during this co-research survey was that people never thought about tough survey questions such as, “Where does the food you just ate come from?” Embarrassment was also a big, unexpected issue: Respondents said it is difficult to admit their hunger, since they had been taught since early childhood not to talk about hunger and not to beg for alms as a matter of dignity. The shame of hunger is widespread and many plates remained empty as a result.

Both co-researchers, Tandu and Nomonde, affirmed the power of co-research. In Toraja, the study has had a great impact on local government and good food resilience programmes have emerged. Nomonde would like to see more co-research led by South African universities. From her point of view, the following points are of particular importance.

  1. Leave the space safe and free for the community to be open and engaged in the research process.

  2. Share data with the community and reward co-researchers as co-authors for their work.

  3. Share access to the results, not only in the form of scientific journals, but also as appropriate and tactile products for the community. This could include, for example, simple presentations of the results in language that is no overly scientific.

  4. Keep relationships kindled after the research project has ended. This recommendation is rooted in observations that many research projects mine data from participants then export it to spreadsheets and journal articles then abandon the respondents, leaving them feeling used and unvalued. In co-research, it is important to build long-lasting relationships and not just jump from project to project depending on the donor.

We are all convinced that co-research is the order of the day. Thankfully, it's simply no longer acceptable to talk about people without including them in the conversation. In a think-and-action tank on co-research, the SLE would like to deepen this approach with partners such as TMG’s Urban Food Future Programme, FACT, and MPM.

co research
Co-research is an empowering approach to create food agency. Food insecurity and hunger can be shameful for the people suffering from lack of food. Building food agency is an important step to create more self-esteem and empower people to improve their food security situation. 

© Silke Stöber, Nomonde Buthelezi, Nicole Paganini, Tandu Ramda        21.01.2022


“Eating more fruits and vegetables, expanding their gardening, planting multipurpose trees including trees for food, and opening new farmer markets to barter and exchange food were among the major coping strategies for resilience“

Nomonde Buthelezi describes the challenges they face because of industrial, non-localized food systems 


Interview with South African food activist and researcher Nomonde Buthelezi  

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