From Crisis to Collaboration: What Can We Learn From Our Partners About the COVID-19 Outbreak?

By: Nina Motovska · 3 September 2020
Category: Food security

Unlike what might have been expected, COVID-19 itself was not the main cause of worries expressed, but rather issues associated with possible lack of availability of food staples in the cities due to lockdown measures in force, and impact on the poor and vulnerable, with the latter being amplified by the crisis.

Source: https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/

Wageningen Economic Research collaborates with partners in low-and-middle-income countries (LMIs) all over the world on topics related to sustainable and inclusive value chains and food systems. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has been and still is spreading rapidly across the globe, seems to be aggravating vulnerabilities in food systems worldwide. To understand how value chains and food systems may be affected, both in the short and middle-long terms, and how this may influence our joint research questions, we conducted interviews with our partners from 10 countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Asia, and consulted several of our colleagues. These partners present experts and specialists in sustainable value chains, most of whom are active in consultancy, capacity-building or research activities with first-hand field experience on potential consequences for farmers and food systems at large.

The aim of these conversations was twofold. First, we intended to learn about their perceptions on the crisis and expectations about implications of the crisis for food system actors such as small-scale farmers, urban food retailers, and consumers. Unlike what might have been expected, COVID-19 itself was not the main cause of worries expressed, but rather issues associated with possible lack of availability of food staples in the cities due to lockdown measures in force, and impact on the poor and vulnerable, with the latter being amplified by the crisis.

Second, we intended to reconnect and re-enforce relationships, to strengthen current and future collaborations for contributing policies to mitigate those worries, since distant communication between research partners across the world remains a key element of our collaboration. This blog discusses three main messages that surfaced in the conversations with our partners, giving input for a new, collaborative research agenda.

Medium and long-term effects are the main concern

The main worries expressed by our partners—mainly in SSA—were directed towards medium-term effects of COVID-19 for the agricultural sector rather than towards immediate effects of the crisis. During the time of interviewing, our partners in areas with limited COVID-19 cases did not notice any immediate impacts of COVID-19 on smallholder farmers involved in export crop production (e.g. cocoa, tea, coffee). For instance, cocoa farmers did not report any problems to our partners yet, and tea production in Kenya—where authorities exempted this sector from transportation restrictions—has been entirely operational as well.

Our respondents were predominantly concerned about medium and potential long-term effects of the crisis due to the forecasted global economic recession. Economic recession can form a significant risk for smallholders, expecting a reduction in the global demand for export crops, such as cocoa, coffee or tea. The influence of the global economic slowdown on the Ethiopian exports of cut flowers is already visible, as global demand for cut flowers decreased rapidly since the outbreak of COVID-19. Logistic challenges and social distancing that increase transportation costs and prices of farming inputs, will most likely result in reduced access to inputs by smallholders.

Some partners are also concerned about the limitation of the movement of workers. This may lead to diminished labour supply, leading to delays and decreases in volumes harvested and produced. If the concerns partners raised will materialise, the COVID-19 crisis might reduce the production of export products as well as farming income. This will force farmers to use their working and investment capital that they reserve for next years to finance household expenses. The depletion of capital could potentially have further negative consequences on the medium-term productivity of smallholder farming globally. [1]

Food insecurity on the rise

Mutual to all countries is that the regulations mostly apply to the bigger cities (curfews, closing off schools and city borders, etc.), where the lives of its residents are under the most stringent rules. People living in urban centres are dependent on purchasing food from the markets. Transportation has been somewhat delayed, and the logistics of food transportation between rural and urban areas have been put under restrictions. Food production, as such, has not been the main point of concern, but rather its availability to the urban population.

Making sure that there is enough food has also been a main priority for various governments as our partners highlighted in the cases of Bangladesh, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Ghana, where price increase of food staples was also observed. Specifically relevant to the African countries is the decrease in imports of main food staples, on which many African economies are dependent,[2] further challenging food security and rising prices. Although panic buying of food and sanitising products was, for the most part, experienced at the onset of the pandemic (reported for instance by our partners in both Ghana and Burundi), food insecurity fears in the countries are rising,[3] affecting the lives of our partners and citizens at large on a daily basis.

Poverty and vulnerability-related issues amplified by COVID-19

More than discussing negative impacts on their lives, our partners stressed their worries for smallholder farmers and the poor in their respective countries, especially those employed in informal markets. What are going to be the long-term effects on small-scale farmers if demand for their products drops and inputs become less available? How can they comply with measures in place without access to sanitisers and masks? How can the urban population in the informal economy survive without governmental support and no income?

Explicitly stated by our partner in Indonesia, income reduction or lack thereof is a common issue for all countries, especially with the prediction of a significant drop in remittances to African countries. [4] Furthermore, those employed in the informal sector have often been left without possibilities to earn a living with lockdown measures in place. A similar situation is observed for migrant workers who were left without work and decided to return to their hometowns. This also means the spread of the infection to rural areas, with the occurrence of new cases and rising numbers in the country. [5] Although the spread of the infection in these areas is considered limited, the unavailability and lack of testing are contributing to possible insufficient detection of the virus and lack of healthcare facilities. The examples of India and Brazil, where COVID-19 reached territories as remote as the indigenous communities in the Amazon, are all worrying signs.[ 6]

Towards a new research agenda

Apart from challenges, the COVID-19 crisis also provides opportunities. Travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 crisis form a call for enhanced collaboration on a series of research topics that were already relevant before the crisis, but that deserve renewed attention in the light of the COVID-19 crisis. We have identified six interlinked categories to address the challenges identified: market policy and responses; value chain integration, distribution effects and (in)equality; zoonotic infections; risk assessment and insurance; and food system resilience.

This calls for exchanging knowledge and experience in cooperation with stakeholders on innovative and creative ways to respond to shocks, between formal and informal sectors, within regions, but certainly also between the global south and north. In the Global North, people tend to rely on institutions that provide social security in the incidence of shocks, whereas in the Global South, people may have learned to rely more on creative innovation. In this light, new projects and research are starting to take shape, addressing the issue of food security as a result of collaborative effort in the light of the COVID-19 crisis.

The Feeding cities and migration settlements initiative between Nyieri County, Egerton University and Wageningen Economic Research responds to the rising food insecurity in vulnerable communities by exploring new value chain opportunities in Kenya. A survey conducted by the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation assessed the possibilities for the development of “corona-smart” agricultural practices, while a 4-country assessment conducted in cooperation with Wageningen University & Research and national actors aims to provide a set of actions for strengthened food system resilience. This provides space for dialogue, mutual learning as well as action-oriented research in cooperation with local partners and stakeholders.

This blog post was co-authored by Gonne Beekman, Haki Pamuk, Jonne Bosselaar, Valerie Janssen, Tinka Koster, Fedes van Rijn, Yuca Waarts.


[1] It is important to note that the situation in India was and continues to be very severe and the increased surgency of the COVID-19 health crisis in the Americas and South Africa after our interviews represents a disparate picture.

[2] stressed by our partners in Kenya, Ivory Coast, Burundi, Liberia and Cameroon

[3] https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2020/03/covid-19-virus-spread-prompts-food-insecurity-fears-in-africa/

https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-06-10-food-prices-continue-to-increase-exponentially-with-no-price-clampdowns-in-sight/#gsc.tab=0 – hunger in SA increase by 3% since the onset of COVID-19

[4] https://blogs.worldbank.org/africacan/covid-19-reducing-domestic-remittances-africa-what-does-it-mean-poor-households

[5] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-india-migrants/indias-urban-covid-19-outbreak-is-morphing-into-a-rural-health-crisis-idUSKBN23B1MH

[6] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/23/world/coronavirus-indigenous-death-apib-intl/index.html

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Nina Motovska

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  1. By: Joost Guijt · 11-09-2020 at 10:32

    Very recognisable experiences. One likely significant impact for us at WUR will be a re-calibration of how we work with partners and the need to even further enable them to work at their full capacity. We find with both our rapid sector and country assessments (https://www.wur.nl/en/Research-Results/Research-Institutes/centre-for-development-innovation/Our-Value-Propositions/Guiding-Sector-Transformation/The-effects-of-COVID-19-on-food-systems-rapid-assessments.htm) that they only work when there are strong partners work in strong partnership.

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