One of the things that humanity is currently trying to grapple with is the need to balance between development and conserving the natural world. For decades, our largely capitalist world has focused on utilizing nature’s resources with sustainability largely an afterthought – a critically myopic worldview. For us to create a better future and #buildbackbetter post COVID-19, it is essential that we have a collective reflection and realize that how we continue to interact with nature does not bode well for humanity, the environment and the economy in both the short and long term horizons.
Natasha Straker is a food enthusiast with a passion for ensuring we transform global food systems to become sustainable; a passion which stemmed from her childhood growing up in rural Scotland. Living in the countryside meant she was lucky to live off the land – growing their vegetables, learning to fish, keeping chickens, and foraging in hedgerows. Her parents also emphasized the need to connect with nature at a deeper level, not just at surface value.
“My parents taught us that if we are to eat meat we should know where it comes from and how it is killed; we should understand the raw form of a chicken nugget or mashed potato and what goes into making it thus. An interest in nature, the environment, and the important interaction between humans and the environment consequently came quite naturally to me,” says Natasha.
This proximity to nature led to a lifelong affinity for the environment and a curiosity to understand its intricacies, ultimately piquing Natasha’s interest in sustainable food systems. Natasha realized that there were a lot of negative effects on the environment as a result of how we grow, process, distribute and consume food as well as many ethical concerns that are present in global supply chains and having seen the systemic challenges in the food industry, she saw an opportunity to improve the situation and consequently create significant positive effects on people, our planet, and the economy. She figured that the best way to effect positive change would be through springboarding a career in the sector, initiating change and alternative thought from the inside.
“My real interest is around how we shift all the cogs in the food system towards sustainability and particularly the catalytic role that businesses can, and should, play through the way they source and manufacture, the actions they take to ensure human rights are respected, the policies they adhere to, how they treat their direct employees and how they work to create demand for smallholder crop markets. Ultimately, a purpose-driven, ethical approach to business has been proven to help future-proof operations and boost long-term profitability; if all major players in the food system proactively did so we would have a much more promising environmental, social and economic outlook” expressed Natasha.
Her career in sustainability has led to a variety of roles in Scotland, England, and Myanmar as well as a pro-bono position on the board of the Sustainable Rice Platform. During her 4 years with Associated British Foods she spent 18 months in a supply chain training scheme before going on to establish a sustainability function for one of ABF’s companies, Westmill, and successfully implementing the entirety of its strategy. Given her hunger for growth and personal development, Natasha decided that working within the African context, where achieving sustainable food systems remains a significant challenge, would help her see the world through a different lens whilst also allow her to develop her skills in innovation by carrying out the Amani Institute’s Social Innovation Management program in Nairobi, Kenya. For the apprenticeship part of the fellowship she joined the Farm to Market Alliance (FtMA) – a consortium of organizations working to improve the commercial viability of the smallholder food sector by adopting a market-driven strategy that holistically tackles multiple problems in tandem with its wider pool of innovative partners. Thanks to her effectiveness as an apprentice at the Farm to Market Alliance she secured a contract with the World Food Programme (WFP) in Nairobi earlier this year to support with FtMA’s operations in Kenya. Her role at FtMA is primarily centered around building the capacities of agricultural small and medium enterprises to ensure they best meet the needs of smallholder farmers whilst boosting their own profitability and efficiency, ensuring the programme and its beneficiaries are resilient in the face of climate change as well as optimizing the FtMA Kenya business model and strategy to ensure that the SMEs are attractive entities for private sector players to interact with/invest in.
Natasha, in collaboration with the Kenyan chef Denis Ang’ani also pioneered an innovative idea during the Social innovation Management fellowship -“scrap”. The initiative aims to create a movement of people in Nairobi who #giveascrap about issues associated with food production and consumption, such as food waste or the provenance of ingredients. Through interactive community meals (think one long rustic shared table, seating movements after each course so interact with new faces and Makadem’s wonderful Luo music floating through the air) those who attend are encouraged to think about these issues whilst eating a meal made from the ‘scraps’, leftovers and unconventional parts of produce. On the menu at the last event held at Geco Cafe in Lavington were crackers made from avocado seeds, banana skin soup and chicken hearts amongst other courses that force you to question your plate! Sadly, given that the nature of the #giveascrap movement is (to date) centered around these meals, COVID-19 has brought the initiative to a temporary halt though it will be active once restrictions on movement and gathering sizes in Kenya are lifted. Natasha and Denis are using this forced intermission to come up with ideas for new recipes, thinking through concepts like a ’scrap’ stamp of approval for restaurants who demonstrate sustainable practices and how we can make sure that the movement doesn’t just educate but also inspires behavioral change…in a fun, non-preachy way! Follow this amazing initiative by signing up to @giveascrap on Instagram.
Natasha attributes her career evolution to the values that have been inculcated in her from her parents and grandparents;to never waste food, to act with integrity and openness, to be authentic to who she is, and to consume (in a wider sense than just food) only what she needs.
“My Scottish Grandpa kept bees, and Dad did (and still does) later too – when learning about the art of honey making, I was taught the importance of leaving honey for the bees to enjoy, never taking too much even if it meant that our toast would have to be without the sticky, sweet substance. Not only is this a lesson in sustainable consumption but also in the beauty of sharing and in living as part of nature not separate,” says Natasha.
Natasha also credits the SIM program for helping crystallize her purpose and how to create a support system that enables her to achieve her goals. “The Amani SIM program reminded me that road to creating impact is rarely easy; it’s full of mistakes, disappointments, and self-questioning, yet it taught me that so long as I find my current sense of purpose, choose to surround myself by people who bring out the best in me and find some sort of a mentor to question with, it’s a pretty peachy start.”
Natasha’s story is illustrative of the importance of having a very clear WHY (purpose) and channeling one’s skills to make a difference in that area. We may not all work in the food sustainability sector, but we have our niches. Ultimately, change is the cumulative effect of many different but complementary smaller actions. Will you play your part?
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