5 Min Inspiration: Growing Food in Crisis

5 Min Inspiration: Growing Food in Crisis

“I’m now a better person, stronger and empowered. I’m not afraid of tomorrow because I know I can do it. I have a mission now. I must stand by my community women to support them and show them that if I did it, all of them can, too.” Fadah, Woman entrepreneur in Syria. In some of the scariest situations and hardest years in the world, we’ve seen farmers find a way to produce with a little extra support. We’ve seen entrepreneurs find ways to keep food systems running. We’ve done it before—let’s do it again.

The conflict in Ukraine is likely to lead to the greatest global food crisis since World War II, threatening millions of people in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Even for people who will be able to eat next year, food prices are going to go up for everyone. It’s a scary example of how food systems can go wrong, and how we have not built resilient food systems the way we need to so that no one has to go to bed hungry.

This doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion. If we act now to support opportunities for local smallholder farmers all over the world, especially women, we have a chance to build stronger food systems for this year and the future. Listening to local organizations, investing in women leaders, and understanding how farmer and community groups can influence the system can help us through this. We have so many examples of how smart investments in equality keep food systems running—but the clock is ticking. Many farmers will be planting in the next 4-6 weeks, and investments now will pay off during harvest and for years to come. Waiting will mean hunger and famine for millions.

How do we know success is possible? We’ve seen it before.
“In this one year, the project has given me a lesson and for many years to come I can prevent hunger.”  That’s what Aliyi Muhmed in Ethiopia said about bouncing back from a drought that wiped out his crops and his savings. In a good year, Aliyi used to be able to feed his family for 8 out of 12 months.  2016 did not start out as a good year.  El Nino wiped out all of his crops, and he was left with no way to feed his family. With some seeds, the training, and a lot of hard work, Aliyi was able to grow enough to food to feed his family for 12 months. 
What is possible?

  • Farmers grow more food even in crisis. In Syria’ Food For Peace project, farmers are growing more wheat because they know people will buy it. With support to bakeries and mills, and cash for families to buy bread, farmers have an incentive to grow more wheat than they did before. In Sierra Leone, after Ebola wiped out 60% of the seed reserves in the country and 40% of the savings, 89% of people in the RESSNER project invested some of their money in agriculture production. In Mali, despite political and climate crisis, women produced 5 times more millet per hectare than they did at the beginning of the Feed the Future project. In Ethiopia’s GROW project the number of households who produced enough food to eat themselves grew from 67% to 84%. In Bangladesh, dairy farmers were producing 2 litres more of milk per day 5 years after the project ended—despite COVID-19 disrupting their markets. During the 2014 hungry season, local groups in Niger accessed finance and inputs to get 960 tons of food to 3,500 families who would otherwise have been unable to eat.
  • People eat more food. In Mali, with cash support, the number o families who had enough to eat doubled—up to 98%. That means 45% fewer people had to sell off assets and go into debt. In Syria’s Food For Peace project, families are 71% more likely to say that they don’t have hunger in their households with the project. 86% of people say they could buy more food. When Ethiopia’s SWEEP project started, ZERO families had enough food to last even 5 months of the year. By the end, 84% of families said they have enough food to last 8 months out of the year. 55% of families can eat 3 meals a day, and 96% can eat two meals a day. 
  • Incomes were more stable: While everyone in the area experienced lower incomes over the life of the project, farmers in Benin’s ACMA project had much more stable incomes. For them, the drop was only 16% of what farmers who weren’t in the project experienced.
  • People bounce back from crisis. In Bangladesh, dairy producers bounced back faster and better from political unrest. Producers in CARE’s SDVC project saw a production drop by 3.8% and were able to return to pre-crisis levels in 2 weeks. Non SDVC families took 7 weeks to recover, and had production fall by 7.1%.  
  • People are more confident to face the future. Families Ethiopia’s SWEEP project were 70 times more likely to say they could cope with economic shocks after the project. In Chad’s PARELAC project, VSLA groups used their savings to buy grain that they could eat during the lean season.  If they didn’t need it because their own production was enough, they sold it for a profit of about $50—two-thirds of what CARE gave them.
  • Results last through shocks: When Bangladesh’s SETU program ended in 2015, 95% of families had graduated out of extreme poverty. In 2020—after several major shocks and COVID-19 lockdowns—92% of those families were still above the poverty line.
  • Gender gaps in food security close: In Mozambique’s SANI project, families where men were in charge saw their food security go from 16% to 22%. Where women were in charge, the number jumped from 12% at the beginning to 27% at the end of the project. 

How does it happen?

  • Invest in gender equality. Burundi’s Win Win project showed that gender equality grows more food. Women who got more opportunities and support to address gender inequality increased their rice production 2.3 times, compared to just 2 times the production for people who only got agriculture training and information on gender equality. They were also 26% more likely to have enough food to eat. For every $1 invested in the gender equality program, there was a $5 return, compared to a $2 return in programs without gender equality.
  • Get women involved in decisions. The SANI project showed better diets through equal decision making: “The benefit of this training is that now at least we can sit together and prioritize what needs to be done and purchased. Now in my household, certain foods or quantities aren’t reserved for any specific member.” In Ethiopia’s SWEEP project Women are five times more likely to be part of major financial decisions in their families—up to 51% of women. As one woman said, “Before, men used to sell valuable items without consulting us. We have no power then except crying. But now, if they do it without consulting us, we argue and often times succeed in making them change their decision.” Check out the final evaluation here and the gender assessment here.
  • Provide cash transfers. Most of these projects provide a combination of cash for emergencies, training, and training on how to use cash transfers to increase food production. That helps people buy food so they can invest in agriculture, instead of having to take their business funds and spend them on immediate food needs. Zimbabwe’s the Cash First Humanitarian response to reach 73,718 households in rural Zimbabwe to help them cope first with the 2015 drought, and then with the 2016 drought and cash crisis. Families got a $5 or $7 cash transfer per person per month to respond to the crisis, and an additional $40-60 grant to help prepare for planting season.
  • Connect to markets. Sierra Leone’s RESSNER project gave out seed vouchers and organized fairs that promoted local seed varieties and vendors so farmers could spend their money in local markets and get high-quality products. Syria’ Food For Peace project connected farmers to bakeries who could buy subsidized wheat and offer a higher price. Some bakeries were able to improve their infrastructure or get grants. Those bakeries were then able to sell to people who got cash or vouchers, so the market was able to work for everyone.
  • Help people manage volatile markets: using savings, credit, and new storage methods, Benin’s ACMA project was able to help people store grains and palm oil until market prices went up. Instead of selling immediately for a loss, they could wait until there was higher demand.  People were nearly 4 times more likely to be able to stock palm oil.