Weathering the pandemic to build back better - Options for supporting agri-food SMEs in low and middle-income countries

On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. In response, governments around the world enacted public health measures to contain the outbreak. While these measures were necessary, the economic toll of the response has caused a global economic contraction.

The crisis has adversely impacted many businesses, but the agri-food SMEs that constitute food markets in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have struggled to adapt and sustain essential food access for vulnerable consumers. As part of its own pandemic response, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) partnered with Food Systems Foresight to identify a set of response options that can support agri-food SMEs as they continue to weather the effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

This paper summarises research conducted on the impacts of COVID-19 on LMICs’ food systems. It reviews interventions implemented to support agri-food SMEs, including rapid responses to keep markets working, strategic recovery interventions to build back better, and systemic shifts to facilitate continuous learning and adaptation. Our assessment of these interventions highlighted a subset that warrant further consideration, presented here as Options for Priority Actors.

For example, Priority Actors like Accelerators may consider strategic recovery options such as agri-food mentorship, or broadened access to training via social media. Similarly, Development Partners can stimulate strategic recovery by helping SMEs meet demand for shelf-stable products and enable systemic shifts by providing adaptive business development services. Donors can respond with rapid advocacy for nutritious food from SMEs and demonstrate responsiveness by pivoting other private-sector development efforts to focus on food markets. Finally, Governments can redouble responses to improve safety in food markets and support strategic recovery by incentivising low-interest loans to SMEs.

Our research revealed a bias toward rapid response and strategic recovery interventions, with fewer responses aiming to enable systemic shift. To fill this gap, future interventions can be better designed to probe, listen, and respond to food systems systemically as they continue to adapt, and invite actors to work alongside one another to support agri-food SMEs in weathering the pandemic and building back better.