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The main aim of the UN’s Decade of Action on Nutrition 2015-2025 is to work with international and national organisations to promote technologies and practices that support sustainable food production and protect the livelihoods of rural households.
The UN advocates a food systems approach which includes taking into account the way the processing, storage, transportation, marketing and retail sectors determine access to healthy food.
Currently an important part of Dr Melle Leenstra’s work involves coordinating the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s food and nutrition security knowledge agenda. By supporting a Food and Business Knowledge Platform the Ministry wants to ensure that its international development policies are informed by the knowledge being generated by applied research and field experience.
In this connection Melle Leenstra is closely involved in developing a partnership programme between the Netherlands and the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). This includes stimulating cooperation between the CGIAR and Wageningen University and Research Centre (WUR) in managing the “Food Systems for Healthier Diets” component of the CGIAR’s Agriculture for Health and Nutrition (A4NH) programme. He is convinced that promoting partnership between knowledge providers, governments, civil society and the private sector including farmers’ organisations is essential for impactful development-orientated agricultural research.
Personally he is particularly interested in the institutional issues that influence the identification of policy objectives and interventions. He studied rural development economics at WUR and carried out agricultural policy related projects for his BSc and MSc degrees in Togo and later in Kenya where ILRI facilitated his research into community-based tsetse control.
In 2004, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and – after following a three month post-graduate programme for starting diplomats at Leiden University – he worked as desk officer for Zambia and Zimbabwe. This led to a PhD thesis “Beyond the façade: instrumentalisation of the Zambian health sector” in which he emphasised the role of the state in developing health-related policies and the importance of a sector-wide approach by donor agencies involved in health and nutrition related projects.
In 2012, after three years at the Dutch Embassy in Kampala he became First Secretary for Economic Development and Food Security in Nairobi. There he was involved in supporting programmes that encouraged local entrepreneurship, in identifying how Dutch agricultural experience could be used to strengthen Kenyan dairy, horticulture and aquaculture value chains and in providing advice to Dutch companies working in the area.
His Embassy work made him acutely aware of the contrast between the different sectors of the Kenyan agricultural economy. Initially he was surprised to see how many city-based banking, government and health sector employees were investing in farmland and managing its development at a distance via telephone contact.
These city-based farm owners had ready access to up-to-date technical and market information and could follow value chain developments that affected market demand and product price. These “telephone farmers” also had business skills whereas those working in the small-scale sector not only lacked access to technical and market information but – and Melle Leenstra saw this as a particularly serious problem – they were often unable to manage their smallholdings in a business-like way.
He realised that many rural development initiatives failed to recognise this problem or how important it was that smallholders had the skills needed to take into account production costs and the constraints that might affect potential returns.
In Kenya, Melle Leenstra was inspired by SNV’s Kenya Market-led Dairy Programme (KMDP) which worked with farmers who were ready to invest any profit they made in keeping up with new skills and technologies. It was with these farmers in mind and the growing demand for milk that the KMDP established three practical dairy training centres where farmers could be trained in animal management and acquire the business enterprise skills needed to help them keep records and identify the factors that influenced profitability.
Many Dutch companies were involved in KMDP projects. Knowledge exchange and business skill development continues to be facilitated through a network that links Kenyan and Dutch dairy professionals including young dairy farmers.
Melle Leenstra argues that if nutrition rich diets are to be made widely available rural development policies and initiatives must not only focus on the problems facing impoverished smallholders. The potential of medium-sized, mixed family farms needs to be explored. In doing so women’s capacity to organise family enterprises should be fully recognised as well as the need for farm succession planning so that the coming generation knows how to ensure food security.
To achieve these objectives extension services, NGO’s, local farmers’ organisations as well as donor supported initiatives need basic and practical information to enable them to deal with the specific problems facing small-scale farming communities.