In various places and to varying degrees, September has been a month of return – to socialising, to school, to the office and maybe, if we just squint hard enough, to some version of normal.
Let’s hope we don’t also return to our old thinking around livelihoods, agriculture and business’ role in both.
From Europe to the US and beyond, coronavirus exposed huge vulnerabilities in systems worldwide. Nowhere was the damage more keenly felt than in developing countries, where incomes disappeared, savings soon followed, and food security cratered seemingly overnight. In a snap survey of more than 1,000 Hand in Hand members across East Africa – to pull just one alarming figure from one alarming study – the number of people living below the international poverty line of US $1.90 per day virtually doubled in 12 weeks, and now hovers around 80 percent. The livelihoods that Covid-19 broke so quickly will take years to rebuild, just as they did the first time. Given how readily they crumbled, can we afford the build them back the same?
If it is broke…
Five years ago, the 193 countries of the United Nations General Assembly banded together to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). On indicators ranging from political representation to maternal health, the world has seen encouraging progress. Other areas, especially those relating to climate change and food security, remain stubbornly behind. In a world where 690 million people were chronically food insecure before the coronavirus crisis, it is time to start asking whether our current food system can ever deliver sustainable, equitable outcomes.
With more than 15 years’ experience helping women, most of them smallholder farmers, beat the odds and succeed as entrepreneurs Hand in Hand might not have all the solutions – but we do, we believe, have a deep understanding of the problems. For years, smallholders like our members have worked in a system that encourages scale and efficiency over long-term economic and environmental sustainability – a system whose limits the pandemic laid so painfully bare. Locked down for months at a time and unable to sell their goods in local markets or access essential inputs to plant new harvests, many saw their agri-businesses devastated. Climate-related threats including drought and locusts only made things worse.
To achieve genuine progress on all SDGs including food security, resilient livelihoods, and protecting our planet we need to employ new, joined-up thinking. Progress isn’t just about creating jobs, increasing nutrition, or reducing land degradation in isolation – it’s about making these nominally separate activities mutually reinforce one another. To get there, Hand in Hand is looking beyond consolidated, globalised agricultural supply chains to introduce regenerative agriculture and circularity to our livelihoods programmes.
Do fix it
Centred on improving and regenerating soil health by restoring its carbon content – which in turn improves plant health, nutrition and productivity – regenerative agriculture has the potential to meet consumer demand while restoring natural environments and driving economic development. By leveraging natural farming methods, it also helps reduce upfront costs for smallholders while minimising dependence on synthetic, commercial inputs that are highly reliant on global supply chains – supply chains that seized up during lockdown.
Hand in Hand members who’ve adopted regenerative practices report lower upfront costs, diversified sources of income less likely to disappear during shocks such as flooding or droughts, and improved overall yields. But encouraging others to do the same – to seize our historic moment and build back better – is only half the story. To safeguard against future shocks, especially those on the scale of coronavirus, what we build must also be resilient. Here, circularity will be key.
In difference places and sectors, the circular economy means different things. In the context of agriculture it means building local, self-sustaining food systems that regenerate natural systems but also maximise resources by reducing waste and re-purposing materials to keep them in use for longer. This can mean using farm waste to make fertilisers or generate energy, or re-using bi-products as feed.
How business can help
As both suppliers and customers of the agricultural sector, global business are a stakeholder with a uniquely wide scope to influence the way things are done. Changing agricultural systems will not be possible without business’ input and support.
What might businesses supporting a more holistic, sustainable system look like? Growing and sourcing more products locally is one step. Innovating to generate value from agricultural waste and bi-products is another. So too is nurturing demand for and production of organic food.
Whatever methods we adopt, let’s not go back to business as usual. Let’s build something better instead.
Hand in Hand International wants to hear what the Business Fights Poverty community is doing to rebuild agricultural systems better. Leave a comment below to join the conversation, or visit the Hand in Hand International website and get in touch with us directly.
This article is featured as part of the content for Business Fights Poverty NYC Online 2020, a one-week, online conference (21 to 25 September) that builds on our recent online conference Business Fights Poverty Online 2020 (13 to 17 July) to drive forward connection, conversations and collaboration around how we rebuild better – how together we create an equitable and resilient world. The week consists of inspiring and engaging content, live events, peer networking and community-led learning. The week also builds on our Business and COVID-19 Response with Harvard Kennedy School Corporate Responsibility Initiative, and supported by DFID and a number of our corporate partners.
Each day, we will focus on a specific theme: Imagining the Future We Want (Monday); Creating an Equitable World (Tuesday); Helping People Survive and Thrive (Wednesday); Building Resilient Livelihoods (Thursday); Shaping System-Level Partnerships (Friday).
If you were unable to join these sessions you can access all of the recordings and summaries with a Digital Pass. You can watch the opening sessions and musical performances via the links on the event page.