Women sort peas at a TechnoServe vegetable collection center in India

Ask a TechnoServe Expert: Kindra Halvorson on Food Security

In the "Ask a TechnoServe Expert" series, our staff members answer your questions about the critical global issues they work on every day. In this edition, Chief Transformation Officer Kindra Halvorson addresses questions about how the COVID-19 crisis is impacting food security in the developing world.

Women sort peas at a TechnoServe vegetable collection center in India

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and restrictions on movement have made it much more difficult to grow, transport, process, and sell food. The economic impact of the coronavirus has also been severe, particularly for daily wage laborers who often do not have savings and have lost the sources of income they rely on to purchase food. Although urban and peri-urban communities are suffering the most right now, farming households are also experiencing food security concerns. 

Kindra Halvorson is an international development professional with over 20 years of experience in the public and private sectors, including 15 years in economic and small business development. Kindra has been at TechnoServe for 13 years, previously serving as the senior vice president of program development and the regional director for East Africa.

What strategies are being deployed to meet food security amidst COVID-19? How can farmers be helped to locate markets during this period?
— Murungi Jonan, Uganda

The World Food Program estimates that the number of acutely hungry people could nearly double this year, up to 270 million. Right now, this problem is less about food shortages and more about food not being in the right place at the right time or becoming unaffordable, either because it’s more expensive or because people have lost income. Rural and urban families are coping by switching to less expensive — and often less nutritious — food, and by skipping meals or otherwise reducing how much they eat.

Chief Transformation Officer Kindra Halvorson
TechnoServe Chief Transformation Officer Kindra Halvorson

About one-third of farmers in TechnoServe programs in Uganda and Nigeria recently reported going to bed hungry in the last week. And the situation has the potential to get significantly worse. If farmers continue having problems accessing labor and inputs as they move into planting season, productivity and supply could decrease in the coming year. 

One-third of farmers in TechnoServe programs in Uganda and Nigeria recently reported going to bed hungry in the last week.”

About two-thirds of the farmers that TechnoServe surveyed had difficulty selling their crops and more than half have lost income. To address this growing threat, it is important to work across the food supply chain to support the businesses that comprise each vital link. For instance, TechnoServe works with hundreds of food processors in sub-Saharan Africa and is helping them to continue operating safely through the crisis so that they can keep buying from farmers, processing nutritious food, and distributing to retailers that reach all consumers. 

Two-thirds of the farmers that TechnoServe surveyed had difficulty selling their crops and more than half have lost income.”

In an interview with Tech for Impact Asia, Kindra explains how a coordinated response from donors, corporates, and governments can revitalize small agricultural businesses after the pandemic:

How can smallholder (African) farmers be incentivized to produce cash crops and food staples to feed their families? What can the private sector do? What government policies need to be implemented?
— David Lederer, Ghana

The vast majority of smallholder farmers grow a diverse mix of food crops for home consumption and cash crops for income that help to pay for school fees, healthcare, and farm improvements. We have found that the most important incentive for smallholder farmers to invest in improving their productivity is confidence in the market. In the absence of secure markets, they are unlikely to invest. 

The private sector plays an important role. TechnoServe encourages private sector actors to identify shared value approaches that create value for their businesses and for the smallholder farmers they source from. We have found that this is essential for sustainability. A few examples of generating shared value include entering into formal purchasing agreements with smallholder farmers so they have reliable markets and know the price they’ll be getting, providing inputs on credit, and offering premiums for meeting set quality standards. More generally, contract farming can be a highly effective way to lift smallholder farmers out of poverty while benefiting both the farmer and the business. 

At the policy level, consistency is crucial for the commercialization of agriculture. When policies change unexpectedly — as they often do on crops that have political significance — it can wipe out profits for farmers and businesses overnight, which makes future investments much more difficult and less likely. In this case, the most important thing is predictability. 

A woman sells mangoes in Haiti

In this pandemic time, a real problem is the marketing and transportation of agricultural produce. How [should we] tackle it? The matter is more serious for perishable food items. What would you suggest?
— Sharad Manoharrao Pant, Nagpur, India 

Market access is a big challenge right now. This is most often due to transportation difficulties. For example, village aggregators — small traders who generally procure in small quantities and take produce to markets — are unable to operate due to lockdowns imposed by governments. Demand has also shifted dramatically, for instance, purchases by the hospitality sector have evaporated or moved to other channels. 

TechnoServe India is helping farmers overcome these challenges by working through farmer producer organizations (FPOs) and locally-embedded staff and partners. We help farmers aggregate their produce and link them to new buyers. In many cases, our team works with FPOs to get formal permission from local authorities to aggregate and transport agri-products. One example is in Andhra Pradesh, where two FPOs aggregated pineapple in remote tribal villages and supplied it to urban markets with demand over 100 miles away. 

What are we doing to engage the youth on opportunities in the agricultural value chain during this time?
— Abdulrahman Mahmud Suleiman, Jalingo, Taraba state, Nigeria

Youth in rural areas can be quite entrepreneurial and digitally savvy. What we have found to be helpful is to expose youth to personal effectiveness training — this helps them identify entrepreneurial opportunities in their communities and gives them a greater sense of agency over their lives and decisions. For example, TechnoServe’s STRYDE program helped over 68,000 youth in rural East Africa gain the skills and knowledge necessary to capitalize on economic opportunities and increase their incomes. 

Once these youth gain some confidence and take stock of the opportunities around them, agriculture is often a starting point. One person that followed this path was Ndinagwe Mboya, who joined STRYDE in late 2015. 

She said, “I learned how to believe in myself and my ability to succeed. What woke me up in STRYDE training was personal effectiveness. This made me discover the opportunity I had that I could use to start and grow a business.” Ndinagwe decided to start with what she knew by reviving her ailing father’s egg incubation business. She borrowed some money from her friend to buy two trays of eggs and was able to repay the loan 45 days later after tripling her returns. Eventually, she bought her own chickens and expanded into raising pigs and rabbits. Ndinagwe went from having no income, to earning more than $210 a month.

We know that food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa is directly linked with low levels of agricultural production. Since the coronavirus pandemic will probably make trading more difficult, do you think that it would be more effective to focus on enhancing farmers’ abilities and means of production or to ensure good distribution and support the other parts of the value chain?
— Caluori Felix, MSc in Agricultural Sciences; Turin, Italy

TechnoServe believes that the most important place to intervene right now is with the businesses that are operating in the middle of the supply chain: agribusinesses that move produce from the farm, food processors, and micro-retailers who distribute food that last mile to consumers. If these businesses can’t continue to operate, smallholder farmers will lose their markets and consumers will struggle to access food. 

Over the last 10 years, we’ve worked with over 1,500 food processors across Africa to strengthen market systems and improve food security. In a survey of processors across sub-Saharan Africa earlier this month, nearly 70% have seen sales fall over the last few months and a large percentage are also struggling with reliable access to raw food supplies. 

We are working to ensure that those processing businesses continue to function through the pandemic and can pivot to new supply sources and new markets as needed. For example, in Kenya, TechnoServe is helping a therapeutic food producer that lost 70% of its sales when school feeding programs shut. The goal is to develop and market a new nutritious product for retail to base-of-the-pyramid consumers. While many firms are scaling back operations and product categories, some are seeking out opportunities created by the situation. We are also seeing increased use of digital solutions and direct delivery as well as new partnerships. Such changes are likely to continue and persist even after the pandemic. 

Learn more about TechnoServe’s COVID-19 response