Researchers report on how an initiative to supply fresh produce to self-help groups increased resilience across the value chain.
By: Jonathan Mockshell and Thea Ritter
When the Government of India instituted the world’s most stringent lockdown, the country’s fresh fruit and vegetable (FFV) value chains were at severe risk of being fractured. In a country where just 10-20 percent of food is sold through the modern food sector and 91 percent of workers are employed in the informal sector, the lockdown had far-reaching impacts on food availability.
In informal food markets, food was less available, with knock-on impacts on income and purchasing power. Although some parts of the ban were lifted, open air markets, street vendors, and informal outlets selling food were prohibited for a month. Since fresh fruits and vegetables are not part of India’s far-reaching food aid program, these foods became particularly difficult to find.
To help placate these impacts, government officials in the state of Odisha encouraged districts to implement programs to benefit farmers and their communities. In addition to supplementing existing food aid with additional wheat, rice, and oil,  the main initiative undertaken in Odisha was a fresh fruit and vegetable procurement program, called “Veg on Wheels,” implemented by self-help groups. The program varied across districts, but in general, the groups procured fresh fruit and vegetables from farmers, hired transport, purchased supplemental vegetables from wholesalers, and sold these nutritious products to consumers in local, peri-urban, and urban markets on a truck, cart, or motorbike.
Strength in groups
“Our research has shown that these self-help groups are crucial at mitigating fractures in the fresh fruit and vegetable value chains during the lockdown,” said Jonathan Mockshell, an agricultural economist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
“The ‘Veg on Wheels’ program smoothed fresh fruit and vegetable value chains and increased the availability and accessibility of these nutrient dense and important foods during a time of crisis. Producers, traders, wholesalers, and consumers involved in the program benefited. Because self-help groups mainly sold to members or relatives, producers earned more money despite charging a lower price, which increased consumers’ purchasing power. Moreover, transporters, wholesalers, and some vendors involved in the program were able to earn income when all other opportunities were non-existent. The program provided the only legal means to transact these products in informal markets, especially in remote areas, such as in particular vulnerable tribal group villages.”
Tools to combat future shocks
Now, researchers are exploring to what extent this procurement program was able to fill the much-needed gap in supply of fresh fruits and vegetables, which the private sector was unable to fill due to the lockdown restrictions. In addition to six focus group discussions with self-help group members and other value chain actors, researchers conducted 63 semi-structured interviews with state and district-level administrators and value chain actors in the districts of Keonjhar and Malkangiri to understand how the lockdown and procurement program impacted fresh fruit and vegetable distribution among farmers, consumers, and the “missing middle” including wholesalers, transporters, traders, vendors, and retailers.
“Making value chains more resilient to shocks takes a multi-pronged approach,” said research author and agricultural economist Thea Ritter. “While the ‘Veg on Wheels’ procurement program is an example of a successful actionable government strategy that smoothed fresh fruit and vegetable value chains during a time of crisis, we encourage value chain actors to support producer groups or other organizations in responding to shocks collectively; and for this approach to be included in policy response options. We also advise groups to develop cold storage and processing facilities to reduce distress selling and expand markets. As a national strategy, these foods should be included in aid packages since the average consumption of vegetables is three-fifths of the recommended daily minimum.
Such actions would not only strengthen fresh fruit and vegetable value chains, but also increase resilience and food security throughout the value chain, the researchers said, supporting the critical role of self-help groups during times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among vulnerable groups. Social capital and collective action of self-help groups also played a major role in the program, they noted. Building on their strong networks with government officials before the pandemic, groups were able to design and implement plans rapidly. These groups also have a high degree of social capital in communities and a strong presence in remote villages where the fresh foods are produced. Members noted that when they work collectively, it is much easier to achieve a common goal, and observed increased bargaining power and business skills from the program which can be used for future opportunities.
The research was funded by the CGIAR COVID-19 Hub managed by the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH). Additional support from the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) led by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) is also acknowledged.
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