Worldwide, one-third of the food we grow is lost or wasted; but in East Africa, nearly half of all fruits and vegetables are lost before ever reaching shop shelves or market stalls, due to often-informal trade processes taking place along the path from farm to fork. This causes prices to surge and traps smallholders in an endless cycle of poverty. This is a critical challenge for the region, the population of which is expected to swell by 60% by 2050—begging the question of how to feed a growing number of people while ensuring as little as possible goes to waste.
It’s clear that the food system needs an overhaul, to the benefit of both people and planet: cutting losses of fruits and vegetables through improved harvesting, storage, processing and transport, for example, could cut emissions by as much as 135 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) globally—more than three times what’s emitted in a year from all sectors and activities globally. The circular economy, an economic system in which waste is designed out, products and materials are used at their highest value for as long as possible, and natural systems are regenerated, offers an alternative to current food systems.
These kinds of initiatives are on the rise: the Dutch venture building studio, Enviu, for example, launched FoodFlow, an Kenya-based programme to cut food waste through innovative circular pilots and solutions, from providing cold storage-as-a-service to smallholders to transforming rejected produce into higher value products. Avocados not suitable for sale are dried and pressed into avocado oil for use in the food and drink industry, or in cosmetics, for example. The programme has also integrated a direct market linkage component into their work where wholesalers can connect with and buy from smallholders, enabling better communication and cutting transaction costs—making the most of digital tools to drive circularity while improving farmers’ livelihoods.
Innovative circular initiatives are scattered across the globe, but aren’t taking hold at the speed and scale needed to make a truly transformative impact. While the reasons for this are plenty, data collection and measurement has a critical role to play: we can’t manage what we don’t measure. Creating—and collecting data for—circular indicators will be a crucial step to drive decision-making and form new targets and milestones.
The landscape of circular economy metrics is evolving rapidly, yet measuring the circularity of agrifood systems remains a challenge. Through conversations with Enviu—and its work on the FoodFlow programme—we were able to sketch out the indicators currently being used as well as those that are of particular interest for the future, categorised as headline indicators, performance indicators, process indicators and impact indicators.
These give a verdict regarding a system’s (nation, city, sector, value chain or product) circularity: they tell you how far you’ve yet to go in reaching circularity. For the agrifood sector, these are broad indicators that measure overall circularity: the Agriculture Circularity Performance indicator, for example, which combines figures on productivity, energy use, inputs, ecological impact, technology and even socioeconomic factors to give one holistic picture.
Performance indicators track progress towards the headline indicator, providing more granular insights and helping shape an analytical basis for decision-making. In short: they help you find high-impact points to focus on. In practice, FoodFlow’s goal of cutting food losses along the value chain can be measured by performance indicators like food loss during distribution and retail, or edible food rejected due to cosmetic standards.
Process indicators help monitor the circular transition at the organisation level: these can be linked to culture, human behaviour, operational activities and institutional reform, for example. In contrast with performance indicators, process indicators only indirectly influence headline indicators. These could be: awareness or actions taken among value chain actors, whether or not biodiversity assessments are being conducted in cultivated areas (either by farmers or by technical experts), or the number of smallholder farmers partnering with food processing companies for turning damaged produce into valuable by-products, for example.
The circular economy is a means to an end—a more sustainable and just planet, which can be narrowed down to East Africa’s agrifood system. It’s important to look beyond circularity indicators and keep track of the impact circular initiatives have on broader environmental and social outcomes. In practice, this could mean tracking total area under cultivation (organic and non-organic), biodiversity loss, and average carbon content in topsoil or soil pH to assess soil health, for example. Social outcomes to track could include improved livelihood and food security.
All types of indicators can help circular initiatives flourish by showing what works and what doesn’t—but how can they be measured and applied in practice? The complexity of produce distribution networks, compounded by numerous causes for post-harvest food losses, make collecting accurate data extremely difficult—but there are ways around this. The Informal Food Loss Assessment Method, for example, can be used to generate and interpret data on the timing, nature, causes and impacts of post-harvest food losses through secondary data collection, stakeholder consultation and field observations. Although based on approximations and qualitative information, the method is accurate enough to identify where losses are taking place and therefore pinpoint opportunities for improvement: a strong starting point for East African contexts.
It’s clear that applying indicators and metrics for circularity in practice is complex: they’re so context-specific that not all agricultural systems can be accurately compared with the same set of indicators. Measuring some specific performance indicators—pesticide use efficiency, for example—is tricky in the context of East African smallholders, many of which boast varying practices. While it may be possible to garner insights through extrapolation—using a small sample size to represent a wider community of farmers—this in itself will require more research to harmonise and standardise approaches. What’s more: it can be tricky to access information from agrifood companies, which often use indicators in varying ways.
Enviu is taking a step in the right direction: by engaging directly with actors on-the-ground, tracking food flows and quantifying losses, it’s contributing to building up a solid database that will allow it to roll out metrics and indicators in the future.
In 2022, FoodFlow embarked on a new phase that centers around employing market-driven approaches to facilitate the widespread adoption of regenerative techniques among farmers. The objective is to grow farms that mimic natural systems of regeneration, thus eliminating waste and potentially repurposing it as feedstock for subsequent cycles.
If you're curious to delve deeper into Enviu and their endeavors to safeguard Kenya's food system for the future, you can download their 2023 landscape study on market-driven approaches for transitioning smallholder farmers to Regenerative Agriculture. The study is available at https://mailchi.mp/enviu.org/foodflowstudy
Circle Economy helps clients put measuring and tracking systems in place by providing oversight on the wide range of circular metrics and indicators, setting up the baseline of current resource use, and integrating the measurements into organisational practice. Learn more and get in touch here. We work with stakeholders across the public, private and third sectors to build circular food systems that are regenerative, fair and resilient. Learn more and get in touch with our Food Systems team here.