| Opinion

How do you start off a development programme during COVID? Just as the CASA programme was set to roll out a barrage of partnerships with agribusinesses in Nepal, Uganda and Malawi, the COVID crisis struck. Our portfolio of would-be partners (operators in the beans, sesame, poultry, aquaculture, dairy and vegetables value chains) were forced into lockdown with their business, factories and warehouses closed and their supply chains severely restricted if not stopped altogether.

Many of CASA’s partners are experiencing the full brunt of this crisis, for instance:

  • In Uganda, a nationwide lockdown means beans farmers cannot buy inputs for their planting season which is currently underway and sesame farmers cannot export their valuable products to China and the UK – their biggest markets.
  • In Nepal, dairy farmers are having to throw away milk collected from their cows (the cows don’t know to stop producing milk at this time!) as collectors cannot get to milk collection centres during their lockdown and vegetable farmers see their highly perishable crops go to waste with their limited mobility and access to distribution channels.

All of a sudden, the opportunity for these agribusinesses to seek new investment, diversify product lines and generally grow their businesses seemed a lifetime ago. Businesses have been left struggling for mere survival; some with no way to pay off outstanding creditors and salaries or cover running costs. And from our selfish point of view as a programme, we are faced with a possible dearth of projects to launch, at least in the short term, as our partners have bigger fish to fry (so to speak!)

We have therefore embarked on a mission to identify novel ways of helping our partners, in some cases to limit the negative impacts and survive the crisis and in others to capitalise on new opportunities that present themselves now as well as to be prepared for the possible upsurge in demand at the end of the crisis. Some ideas we are considering include:

  • Introducing ICT solutions to vegetable traders in Nepal to help them communicate and engage with vegetable growers and sustain the supply of these perishable yet highly valuable commodities from farmgate to plate as well as encourage the uptake of preservation techniques such as drying and freezing to increase the shelf-life of some vegetables;
  • In the beans value chain in Uganda, a spike in demand for beans (as a nutritious yet long-lasting product) came too late to benefit last season’s beans farmers, but the prospect is still there for the next season…if only farmers can gain access to quality seeds during the lockdown. Supporting beans trading partners with new delivery mechanisms to get inputs to farmers so they do not miss this crop cycle could bridge this gap;
  • And in the poultry value chain in Malawi, suppliers of day-old-chicks could be encouraged to use radio channels and mobile phone based technology to advertise, pinpoint and deliver their products directly to small-scale poultry farmers who would ordinarily come to them for stock.

There is no doubt that the COVID crisis threatens to trigger a secondary and potentially far greater crisis – local (and global) food shortages. But at the same time, it provides a valuable opportunity for agribusinesses to step-up to the challenge, improve efficiencies along their value chain and even try out new delivery and payment mechanisms that they might not otherwise have felt the need to do.

It is far too early to say, but if we can encourage and support our partners to rise to this challenge and respond aggressively to the crisis, rather than simply take the hit, they could come out at the other end, stronger, more versatile and robust and ideally, we would still have agribusiness partners to work with once things return to normal!

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