A leader’s perspective on shifting the climate narrative and using social science to lead organisational change. A conversation between Essam Mohammed, WorldFish’s Interim Director General and Mads Holme, Managing Partner at ReD Associates
WorldFish and its mission
ReD: What is WorldFish fighting for?
Essam Mohammed: Our core objective at WorldFish is to enhance the production of diverse aquatic foods both sustainably and equitably, whilst delivering nutritional benefits to those who need it most. There is immense opportunity in aquatic foods, by which I mean more than just fish, but all food grown in water – crustaceans, seaweed, single cell algae, and even synthetic products. The world population is growing, and we will have to feed 9 billion or more people by 2050. If we sustainably manage our aquatic resources then there will always be more to give. So as opposed to hoovering up the sea and letting fish populations collapse, our philosophy is essentially all about producing aquatic foods to infinity but sustainably. For this we need to transform aquatic food systems in all their complexity – distribution, consumption, governance, institutions, financing – not just the commodities themselves.
ReD: What is the driving force behind this mission?
Essam Mohammed: On the one hand it’s about taking the climate fight into the oceans and water, instead of just land. The ocean is our life support. Every other breath we inhale comes from the ocean. Not only that, but the ocean and fish are key in the carbon cycle, they absorb extensive amounts of carbon dioxide. In fact, according to one study, if we were to restore the global fish population, we could sink up to 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 a year – in other words, a lot. But we don’t talk about this. We talk a lot about forestry and trees but less so about fish. We need to put aquatic foods on a low emission development pathway. Alongside this, so many people around the globe rely on the sector for their livelihoods, income, jobs, opportunities, and food – so our mission is not just ecological.
ReD: And personally, what drives you in this field?
Essam Mohammed: We’ve seen in our lifetime what institutional failure can do to humanity. If we take the famine in the 1980s in Ethiopia and part of Eritrea, which is my country, people were not dying of starvation because of a lack of food, it was the institutional failures, asymmetric power structures, and morally bankrupt global political and economic orders which meant that the food was not sufficiently accessible. As someone who comes from the epicentre of where the famine happened, that has always been my burning passion – to transform the food system to make it equitable. That’s why sometimes I come across as impatient because I feel that for every minute that we delay, somebody is going to bed hungry. It’s not just about academic glory or ego or anything else, it’s why I’m obsessed with this outcome or impact-driven focus. Because whatever I do, it will only be gratifying if I see that the work we do has an impact on the ground.
“If we sustainably manage our aquatic resources then there will always be more to give. So as opposed to hoovering up the sea and letting fish populations collapse, our philosophy is essentially all about producing aquatic foods to infinity but sustainably.”
A new narrative
ReD:How is WorldFish shifting its position around climate change and why?
Essam: The discussion around climate change has become very much about doom and gloom, which I feel inhibits our ability to see the solution. What we’re trying to do is drive forward a solution-oriented narrative around “shared prosperity”. For us “shared prosperity” means more than just adaptation in the face of a changing climate, more than simply keeping heads above the water. People have aspirations for prosperity. We celebrate when we get promoted, new jobs, new gadgets, or a new bicycle. Everywhere people have these sorts of aspirations, so how do you make resilient aquatic food systems that help people fulfil those under a changing climate? We need to change the gloomy perceptions, which bureaucrats, policy makers or governments are honestly a bit tired of hearing, and offer solutions.
ReD: How are you translating that narrative into actions or different types of partnerships?
Essam: We are trying to amplify this rich narrative internationally, through engagements such as at COP27 in Egypt just recently. We’ve also written op-eds that have been shared on multiple platforms – national newspapers, blogs, and printed materials. But it is also vital to deal with our traditional donors; to say you have to up your game, to say that shared prosperity is possible indeed but it will require investments, significant investment. This may be from donors, private actors, or small and medium enterprises. I believe it’s all about significantly shifting the mindset and making the right investment today that will bring prosperity for business, individuals, countries, and nations in the future.
ReD: Why do you have a strategic focus on the Global South?
Essam: We have a specific focus on the Global South on issues of malnutrition and hunger in communities which are often overlooked, primarily low- and middle-income countries. This is because we believe with conviction that that is where the investment gap is and where our innovations can make a difference. For instance, there are tens of billions of dollars flowing towards the aquaculture industry, but mainly towards high-end value fish – salmon, lobster, or shrimp – but very little towards lower value fish such as catfish, carp, and tilapia. In combination these three species of fish make up almost 28% of global farmed fish and present an opportunity for both sustainable and affordable nutrition. If we don’t invest in low-value fish, I don’t think many others would.
“Institutional and organisational diagnoses, enabling and disabling factors – understanding these cannot happen without a solid knowledge and practice of the social sciences.”
Leadership and the role of the social sciences
ReD: How do you see your leadership role within the organisation?
Essam: If you’re running a production line, such as a small factory, you have to define the operation from top to bottom: how many cans are produced, packed, how many are shipped. In an organisation where you have a lot of talented people, the only way they can thrive is if you give them enough latitude to innovate and to define their own pathways. But if you do that, they could go in 10 million different directions. I see my role as defining the top triangle of the pyramid: our vision and destination clearly defined by a narrative and a theory of change. When that is set in stone, I can tell all my collaborators: “Now, define your journeys by yourselves, with your teams, individually, and let’s meet there, at the destination.” This is my philosophy.
ReD: What do you see as the role of the social sciences in driving change – both organisationally, but also for understanding the communities you work within?
Essam: I’m a marine scientist, but I’m also an economist – so I value multiple perspectives. At the end of the day, it boils down to human behaviour. If we didn’t have human beings in this equation, then we would not bother. For example, some charities saw women in Congo travelling long distances to fetch water and thought: “How about we dig a well here, so they can have water on their doorstep?” But the women were still travelling long distances after a well was built and they realised it was because that was the only opportunity they had to chat and catch up with their friends. This demonstrates that it is about understanding and contextualising human behaviour – even if this is a big task. Institutional and organisational diagnoses, enabling and disabling factors – understanding these cannot happen without a solid knowledge and practice of the social sciences. For me, one cannot work without the other, the social and natural sciences complement each other.
This perspective is first published on ReD Associates on 12th January 2023.