Paving the road from farm to market

The Healthy Not Hungry campaign sees improving supply chains that connect farmers to markets as an important step in achieving Zero Hunger. Here is what we are doing to help prepare the way. By Corinne Fleischer

Syria, Yemen or Haiti: humanitarian crises, natural or man-made, protracted or short-lived, keep tugging at humanity’s conscience — and at its purse strings. This seemingly continuous stream of emergencies carries a heavy cost in lost lives and lost dollars. And even where the roots of the crisis are ostensibly political, the underlying causes will frequently include competition over scarce resources, the fallout of a changing climate, or profound economic dysfunction. If we are to quash this spin cycle of emergency interventions, ever more onerous amid shrinking budgets, then we must shift from tackling the effect to addressing the cause; from giving relief to building resilience; and from a logic of aid to one of investment.

We at the World Food Programme (WFP), whose mission is to end hunger and malnutrition, have understood this for a while. And even as we intervene again and again, with governments and other actors, to deliver life-saving assistance, we’re working hard to ensure that we won’t have to do so indefinitely. What we have seen is that weak supply chains foster food insecurity, and ultimately disaster and strife.

Millions of people are made poorer by the inability to grow, move and sell food efficiently. Most of the hungry poor, in fact, are smallholder farmers: all too often they produce barely enough to feed themselves and their families — if that. Lack of access to credit or insurance means that a harvest lost to El Niño (as is now the case across southern Africa) may push entire communities into hunger. Inadequate storage can cause up to one third of a harvest to succumb to pests, rot or inclement weather. Poor transport links impede trade. Prices are volatile and often unaffordable.

This is why, as big buyers of commodities in developing markets, we strive to help smallholder farmers increase their yields, reduce post-harvest losses and promote sustainable demand. Our global food requirements act as a catalyst; engagement in local networks eases our task. We combine our own buying power with that of the private sector — not just to purchase from local farmers ourselves, but to allow them to access markets beyond WFP. We seek to turn smallholdings into viable businesses, by connecting them with providers of loans, quality seeds, equipment and storage units. We negotiate to assure demand and spread risk across value chains, so that customers will commit to acquiring agreed quantities. This creates stable, predictable outlets for farmers. The supply of, and demand for, reliable produce dramatically strengthens the fabric of regional and national agriculture systems.

Our US$3.5 billion worth of purchasing power, along with our policy to buy food as close as possible to where it is needed, gives us scope for action. Our demand for goods and services means we can contribute to more efficient transport and commodity sectors; safer, better-quality food; lower costs; and higher purchasing power for entire communities. By providing cash assistance, we help retailers in remote areas improve their own supply chains. With our support, contracted retailers optimize their transport and bulk buying strategies; cut their costs; reduce shelf prices; and enable those in need to buy more nutritious food.

Experience suggests that even in challenging environments, our interventions can ripple out widely. We team up with local banks, shopkeepers and mobile service providers. This spurs healthy business ecosystems, stimulates demand and helps meet this demand by way of locally produced goods and services.

The Healthy not Hungry Campaign, supported by the World Food Programme, sees improving supply chains as a fundamental step in reaching zero hunger, when combined with reducing food waste, encouraging a sustainable variety of crops, prioritizing nutrition and putting the furthest behind first. We must continue to innovate and invest in improvements to supply chains to ensure that farmers can get their goods to a wider consumer base.

After decades of humanitarian practice, this much is clear: crises will no doubt recur through our lifetimes, demanding emergency responses. But we must all work to ensure that they become fewer and fewer; and that when crises do occur, structures are in place to ride them out. Markets certainly have their flaws. They do not hold the solution to all ills. But no successful society has been built on charity alone.

Corinne Fleischer is Director of Supply Chain at the World Food Programme



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World Food Programme

The United Nations World Food Programme works towards a world of Zero Hunger.