Disrupted food systems, and how they are slowly bouncing back

Disrupted food systems, and how they are slowly bouncing back

in News
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Heleen Verlinden
Heleen Verlinden
International Communications

A sustainable income for farmers and nutritious, affordable food for everyone: this is what Rikolto works for. During this year, it has become more relevant but also more difficult than ever, as Covid-19 drastically disrupted our food systems, exacerbating their vulnerabilities.

“Rikolto started its Covid response activities at the end of March”, says Charlotte Flechet, who coordinates Rikolto’s Covid response. “Firstly, we focused on the urgent, short-term needs of our partners. Secondly, we started supporting our partners in finding ways to set up innovative initiatives.”

Our Covid response has two rhythms. Firstly, we focused on the urgent, short-term needs of our partners. Secondly, we started supporting our partners in finding ways to set up innovative initiatives.

Charlotte Flechet Food Smart Cities programme coordinator

First things first: rapid responses for urgent needs

In March, our first priority was to support our partners in tackling the urgent health and economic needs in food systems.

As physical meetings came to a halt, farmer communities lost access to business development services and technical assistance. For our own programmes, this meant organising the necessary capacity building moments for our partners online. It also meant supporting our partner cooperatives to make the most use of mobile technology.

To avoid crowds, we're not doing farmer field schools. Right now, I’m doing a cocoa grafting practice. I’m sharing the grafting experience in several WhatsApp groups. This helps to overcome the lack of training and technical assistance during the quarantine in Honduras.

Santiago Oviedo Founder of the CACAOSAFER cooperative, Honduras

While technical assistance came to a halt, most agricultural activities did not know of quarantine. Local food supply became even more important, yet the availability of inputs, like seed and organic fertiliser, was under pressure. This led Rikolto to support our partner cooperatives to secure the necessary inputs to keep their work going.

For instance, in Vietnam, 118 tonnes of cucumber could be harvested by 40 farmers who initially planned not to plant this season due to risks related to market disruptions. With Rikolto’s input support, they were able to honour their commitment and keep their customers. And in Tanzania, 74 smallholders have planted 75 acres of land to multiply quality-declared seeds of assorted legumes to be distributed to other farmers and ensure access to quality seeds to hundreds more during the pandemic.

As these Food Heroes kept operating from their farms, cooperatives also had to keep their operations running, from the collection of harvests, to the processing and marketing of these harvests. To be able to do so, they had to urgently adopt biosafety protocols, and all workers at the processing and collecting units had to be able to protect themselves.

Rikolto supported our partner cooperatives to continue their work in the safest way possible: at least 8,200 collaborators in our programmes have received personal protective equipment globally and 2,432 have been trained in biosafety protocols, mostly in Peru and Ecuador. They also wanted to make sure consumers knew they were taking care of their food supply in a safe way, or inform consumers about good hygiene measures in urban markets. Through communications campaigns on Covid and food through social media, road shows and radio jingles in Tanzania, Peru, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua, an estimated 4.64 million citizens were reached between March and October.

As restaurants, institutional kitchens and markets were forced to close, and sometimes even the transportation of crops was restricted, farmers suddenly saw demand drop and incomes decline. As such, Covid highlighted the urgent need for farming families to diversify their incomes. In our coffee and cocoa programmes, we have been focusing on dynamic agroforestry systems for a while. These systems involve combining cocoa or coffee with other staple crops, like bananas, cassava, corn, tomatoes, chilies, oranges and other fruits. They are more resilient to environmental shocks, as we’ve seen with diversified cocoa farms in Nicaragua after hurricanes Iota and Eta swept through the country. And they also make farming families more resilient to the crisis we are currently facing, as they diversify their income and nutrition.

The crisis is drawing our attention to how much we are really working on the resilience of the sector. Agroforestry systems are an example of a model that we are already promoting together with the World Cocoa Foundation, CIAT and other partners, through communities of practice, which could contribute to increasing the resilience of cocoa families and strengthening the resilience of the sector.

Fausto Rodríguez Director of Rikolto in Latin America

Meanwhile, in Peru, we have supported 4,278 cocoa & coffee farmers and their household members to diversify their production through vegetable bio-gardens. But diversification is also key in other sectors: as the demand for fresh vegetables in Nicaragua dropped by 40% between March and August, vegetable farmers have instead rearranged a total of 100 ha to produce red beans, yielding 95 tonnes, and helping producers diversify their income and nutrition.

Innovative responses to transform our food systems in the long run

Relieving these short-term needs of our partner organisations, to guarantee their safety, income and food security amidst a pandemic, is incredibly important. But, it is equally important not to lose sight of the long-term interest and priorities of our partners. How can they adjust their way of working to this “new normal” we keep talking about? How can they learn from this crisis to be more resilient to other shocks and crises in the future, for example climate change? Which innovations are needed to make our food systems bounce back?

COVID-19 has effectively changed consumption habits in Ouagadougou. Some inhabitants have started to stockpile food at home, which they did not use to do. We are therefore trying to find out how to adapt our work. For example, we have started to offer a weekly vegetable basket with almost all the ingredients for local sauces. Also, we take care to disinfect our products before delivery and communicate as much as possible about the prevention measures we take.

Mireille Bakawan promoter of an e-commerce platform for prepared fruits and vegetables in Ouagadougou

To solve market access problems from the farmers’ side and poor access to food from the consumers’ side, we supported our partners to set up new e-commerce platforms connecting farmers with broader markets.

In Kampala (Uganda), a total lockdown made it difficult for urban consumers to access food markets, and for produce to reach markets. We started supporting an online food vendor and delivery platform called Bringo Fresh, which quickly became an important player to deliver food to Kampala’s citizens. By July, 400 farmers were supplying fresh produce to Bringo. And as of September, the number of consumers using Bringo Fresh has increased by 30%. But there’s a downside to the success, too: mobile payments from the food delivery orders come through only several days after Bringo Fresh has paid the farmers upfront for their produce. Rikolto is now supporting Bringo Fresh in finding working capital.

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In Nicaragua, the Covid crisis caused a drop in vegetable sales, and an increase in consumers’ concerns about the origin of their food. This dilemma gave way to a joint effort by Rikolto, eHarvestHub and UHCON, a union of 5 cooperatives located around Lake Apanás, to create Naju. On this platform, consumers can directly reach producers who follow strict food safety rules and Covid-19 prevention protocols and have their food delivered to their home. It can be used by families, restaurants, soup kitchens and SMEs. The goal: to sell 50 tonnes of fresh & safe vegetables every week to 15,200 individual consumers, good for a U$31,000 gross weekly income for the 600 producers. Besides offering strategic advice on the business plan and relations with clients and investors, Rikolto is also contributing to the establishment of a revolving fund so that producers receive a fair price and prompt payment.

Ecuador entered a severe lockdown. The food system of the capital, Quito, turned out to be highly vulnerable: transportation was paralysed, and the government closed the main producer markets to avoid contagion risks. We supported the agro-ecological consumers’ cooperative Sur-Siendo to develop an online marketplace to distribute food baskets to vulnerable families in the south of Quito, harbouring some of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods. By July, 400 citizens were accessing healthy food through the cooperative, and 25 farming families were supplying the cooperative.

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Kort’Om Leuven is a ‘spin-off’ of Rikolto’s programme in Belgium. It is an online distribution platform that brings products from local farmers to supermarkets and restaurants in the city of Leuven, Belgium. With the closure of the restaurants, Kort'Om quickly saw the opportunity to set up a food vending machine in the heart of the city. By October, Kort’om had an estimated turnover of €20,000, up from €10,000 in July.

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In many countries, restaurants and markets have been closed, on and off, since March. Their closure affects farmers and food processing companies, having to deal with large volumes of surplus vegetables as a result of the crisis. At the same time, due to the sudden economic shock, a growing group of people – worldwide – found themselves without enough means to feed themselves and their families. Looking into innovative ways to avoid food waste while supporting those who need it most, became a top priority for our partners and colleagues.

In Indonesia, 5,235 citizens of Solo and Depok benefitted from food donations and food surplus sharing via community kitchens. In Bandung, a food sharing application, BADAMI, is going live in December. The app, promoted by the Bandung City Government, connects food suppliers & consumers through a marketplace for fresh foods and a food sharing and donations hub. The idea behind the app is not only to facilitate direct purchases of fresh food directly from consumers, but also to facilitate sharing food surpluses and donations.

In April, Robin Food was born. Together with 4 partners, Rikolto launched a new soup in Belgium, made from surplus vegetables for which the farmers have difficulties finding a market due to Covid. It is prepared by long-term unemployed people. And it is sold to vulnerable people through welfare organisations and social grocery stores. 66,620 litres of soup have been produced between March and July, and 30,000 kg of vegetable surpluses have been saved. Thanks to additional support from EIT-Food, the project will expand to the Netherlands and Spain. Now, the challenge is to develop a business model that allows affordable prices for vulnerable groups but also enables food processing companies or catering facilities to cover their costs.

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In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rikolto has partnered with the Université Évangélique d’Afrique to manufacture innovative food products that contribute to more diverse, affordable and nutritious diets in times of Covid, specifically for the inhabitants of Bukavu. As of December, we start supporting women & youth led small enterprises to transform broken rice grains into flour. Mixed with fortified maize and chia, this highly nutritional flour will be used for children’s porridge, biscuits, and rice bread. One point of distribution and sale will be established in every commune of Bukavu city. If fully successful, up to 26.4 tonnes of broken rice could be valorised each month from 750 producers.

Collaboration to overcome crises

Collaboration has a huge role to play in overcoming challenges such as Covid-19. There is no innovation without discussion, and this helps the sector find a way forward together.

Mariela Wismann Coffee programme coordinator in Latin America

It’s an obvious truth, but we’re stronger together. To this end, some of our Covid-response activities focused on getting different stakeholders in a certain sector or country around the same, albeit virtual, table, to bring specific needs to everyone’s attention and formulate shared responses.

In partnership with over 20 organisations including Fairtrade, Lavazza, Root Capital, UNDP, Green Climate Fund, Jacobs Douwe Egbert, and national coffee associations & ministries, Rikolto organised the Latin American coffee dialogues. In a series of 5 virtual dialogues, attended by 1,500 professionals from Latin America, the USA and Europe, we delved into questions such as: How do coffee cups get to our tables during Covid?

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In Mali, it quickly became clear that the government’s food distribution programme in response to Covid-19 was not sufficiently taking locally produced rice into account. We successfully advocated the government to prioritise local rice in the national food security stock in response to Covid-19. This enabled IFRIZ (Interprofession de la filière riz du Mali) members to provide 2,000 tonnes of rice for about 1 million EUR as part of the state’s response to Covid. In July, a second contract of 2,000 tonnes was signed but only 1,027 tonnes were delivered due to labour shortages and heavy rains that spoiled 120 tonnes of rice stored in trucks.

Together with the SICACAO platform, the regional platform for sustainable cocoa in Central America and the Dominican Republic, we did a diagnosis of the impact of Covid-19 on cocoa farmers’ food security. Based on that, we contributed to building a collective response among Central American cocoa stakeholders to limit the impact of the pandemic on both farmers and cocoa companies. Concrete actions now focus on monitoring the impact of Covid-19 on prices, market requirements and trends, and developing biosafety protocols for the cocoa chain.

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The word of 2020: resilience

In many ways, Covid-19 has challenged food systems, disrupted them, and magnified issues that existed all along. Yet, after the initial shock of the crisis, food actors are adapting their way of working, knowing that returning to business as usual is not an option. And with it, food systems are bouncing back, perhaps on the way to become better than before.

Here at Rikolto, we’re using what we’re learning to contribute to shaping future food systems. Putting resilience to shocks and crises centre stage is definitely one of those conclusions, in all of its shapes. Resilience through diversified farms, meaning increasing income, food security and overall environmental sustainability. Resilience through market diversification, reducing farmers’ and cooperatives’ dependency on one or just a few buyers. And resilience of local food systems, if local markets are central in policies, especially for fresh, safe products.