Professor Sheryl Hendriks: Making a difference in people’s lives through food security research

Posted on August 31, 2019

Describe your background and educational qualifications. 

My academic and professional journey through a number of disciplines has equipped me with foundational knowledge and essential skills to work in a unique transdisciplinary role at UP. My initial BSc, BSc Hons and MSc in Home Economics degrees offered a diverse background in consumer behaviour, human nutrition, food science and textile science. Research into household dynamics in rural communities helped develop an appreciation of the complexities of women’s multiple roles in homes and society and their navigation of systemic inequalities in these systems. An opportunity to collaborate on a project to understand how development programmes could stimulate local economic growth led to a chance to complete a PhD in Agricultural Economics at the former University of Natal.

What exactly do you do at UP? 

I have led the UP Institutional Research Theme and Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being and the Institute that houses it since its inception in 2012. In this role, I have facilitated the establishment of numerous transdisciplinary programmes and communities of researchers across faculties, campuses and disciplines, bringing together teams to tackle crucial food security problems in our country and Africa.

As of November 2018, I took on the role of the first female Head of Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development. Here I teach food security policy, monitoring and evaluation; not only to our UP postgraduate students but also to students from across the continent as part of the Collaborative Masters in Applied and Agricultural Economics hosted by our department. This year I also contribute to the new Masters in Development Practice programme.

Why is food security so important to you? 

Having enough food for an active and productive life is essential to the development of people and nations. The problem itself is complex and multidimensional, demanding the integration of knowledge from various spheres of knowledge. The solutions are not always obvious but always relate closely to coexisting problems of poverty and inequality. Working in this field offers an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people.

Professor Sheryl Hendriks

How are you making a difference in this area? 

Researching how households cope with inadequate food and income to purchase food helps deepen our understanding of how to support individuals and people through development programmes. Translating this knowledge into analytical tools to identify and evaluate policy options also offers opportunities to support the development efforts of countries.

I have probably made the singular most substantial contribution to developing competencies for food security policy analysis, programme design and evaluation in Africa. My network of university graduates and professional development programme alumni come from more than half of Africa’s countries. Many of these folks are in prominent positions in international, regional and national food security programmes, making a difference in the lives of the people they serve in diverse ways.

I am privileged to be part of a few international think tanks that conduct consensus studies on food security and related topics. These studies provide a synthesis of the available literature on the subject, contradicting and converging views and identify the best practices available to address the problems in comprehensive ways. While exceptionally challenging to conduct and arrive at a consensus, these panels provide an inspiring space to deepen our understanding of food security, sharpen our conceptualisation of food insecurity and shape the dialogue in international and national policy platforms. Some of this work includes developing practical tools for policymakers in the African Union’s member states and support to the government in the review of current policies and the design of new policies, strategies, programmes and monitoring and evaluation systems to track progress towards SDG2, African Union targets and National Development Plan objectives.

In these roles, I have consistently voiced the realities of those not able to gain access to the very platforms that discuss their problems. This has led to invitations to review national proposals for large international funding agencies, reviews of international agency strategies and input into policy documents. This focus has led to a strong commitment to translating empirical research into practical tools to support decision making at the national and household levels. Many of these processes have included extensive consultations to ground the design of policies and research strategies to improve food security.  

What are challenges to attaining food security in Southern Africa? 

There are many reasons people are food insecure. Many of these causes are interrelated. Many are structurally entrenched in policies as well as society. New and emerging variability in climatic conditions adds more stress to food insecurity, creating uncertainty, raising the need for greater buffers at the household, district and national levels to cope with risks, stress and potential disasters. Political uncertainty leads to market jitters, affects the livelihoods of food-insecure families and ultimately erodes their purchasing power and ability to feed and provide for themselves. Conflict disrupts lives and misplaces people.

The lack of comprehensive policy frameworks in countries means that interventions by governments and other agencies are piecemeal, short-term and uncoordinated. Those most in need are often left out, deepening their desperation and potential to recover after periods of food shortage.  The lack of in-country capacity to identify, implement and evaluate possible comprehensive solutions leads to suboptimal use of available resources and public spending with little impact.

Are there many women working in this field? If not, why? 

There are clear dichotomies of roles. Women tend to dominate the nutritional and practical fields of food security in humanitarian aid agencies and NGOs. Very few women work in food policy research. Men have typically dominated economics and agricultural economics professions, particularly in research and academia. As a highly competitive profession, there are many barriers to women’s successes. Along with other internationally recognised women in this domain, I can relate discriminating moments and events in professional circles that have excluded, overlooked and downplayed contributions to discussions and debates.

What career advice would you give to women wanting to work in this field?  

Find a niche research area, establish your reputation through generating a substantial body of evidence that is validated by the very people we seek to help. Use this as your grounding to build theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Then translate this knowledge and your observations into practical tools to support decisions at various levels of government and development partnerships. The ability to ground and apply knowledge provides a sound grounding to identify the solutions that can solve complexity at levels above the household. Combine this confidence with your own experience of structural inequalities and system exclusion, and you have an authoritative voice to speak for the very people who most need our help: those who are talked about, spoken for, but are seldom present to speak for themselves in international development discussions.

Read more profiles on other amazing #WomenofUP featured in this series celebrating Women's Month:

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