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Video Diaries in the Days of Corona: Voices from the Ground

Young farmers’ insights on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food systems in Sub-Saharan Africa @CovidFoodFuture and video diaries from Nairobi’s informal settlements

by Alexander Müller and Sarah d'haen | 2020-05-25

Video Diaries in the Days of Corona: Voices from the Ground

Under its SEWOH Lab project, TMG Research has, together with local partners, launched a series of activities to gain closer insights into how poorer segments of Sub-Saharan African societies experience the effects of the pandemic and navigate the resulting uncertain job, income and food production and supply spaces.

What coping mechanisms emerge? What pragmatic food production, distribution and procurement mechanisms do citizens explore and apply? Are new or innovative structures and patterns arising in rural, or local urban and peri-urban agricultural production? What strategies are being applied in the (informal) distribution chains of (locally) produced food?; and finally: how do informal workers with a now dwindling income access food?

The overarching goal of the activities is to provide a unique and direct insight into the challenges, responses and solutions from the local perspective. Central to our approach are the key actors of the local food system: young, urban and peri-urban farmers, street vendors and informal retailers, and low-income consumers. Together theypresent a plurality of perspectives on the issue and contribute to the emerging discussions in different national contexts.

Under the twitter handle @CovidFoodFuture, young farmers in South-Africa, Madagascar, Malawi, DRC, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Senegal tweet several times per day on the dynamics and developments in their national and local food systems. In addition to the tweets, each participant also publishes a series of longer observations on local food system developments in their country and city. The stories are posted in the sectionCOVID-19 FOOD/FUTURE on TMG Research Medium page “Enabling Sustainability”. This continuous flow of information enables tracking the evolution of the crisis in a dynamic way, identifying how citizens and governments alike are responding and adapting to its impacts in real-time.

Street food in a residential area of ​​Lome, the capital of Togo. Photo: Christoph Püschner/Brot für die Welt

Information posted during the first 10 days of April clearly showedhow the details of lockdowns and social distancing measures wereplaying out across the participating SSA countries, and how peoplewerecoping with them. Participants’ observations identified emerging challenges for all food system actors, with farmers and vendors facing noticeable disadvantages due to disruptions of logistics. On the producers’ side, experiencing harvest losses was one of the most tweeted challenges.

We saw that several pathways led to post harvest losses, be it because farm workers could notmake it to the fields, crop transport options between fields and markets hadbeen reduced to physically carrying goods for hours, or because markets weresimply closed. Losses also occurred after major clients cancelled weekly orders, and due to the reduced buying power of a considerable part of consumers. Finally, lack of adequate storage and refrigeration facilities led to spoilage. Particularly affected were poultry farmers, fishermen/women and fruit and vegetables growers.  Several tweets advocated easing/adapting restrictions for these producers. Faced with increasing sales barriers, many producer groups adjusted their prices.

Customer panic buying caused temporary scarcity of available goods, a scarcity which was later stabilised but replaced by a rise in prices due to border closures and international trade restrictions, and, more locally, due to added transportation costs;Some retailers had startedhiringprivate vehicles to transport crops from field to market.Across the countries, the tweeted information suggested that COVID-19 and the related measures wouldexacerbate existing inequalities across all aspects of food and nutritional security. Households dependent on the informal economy were found to be particularly struggling.  Several tweets pointed outthe huge number of children from these households now missing out on daily school meals.

 A plethora of responses and ad-hoc solutions were quicklyobserved across the continent. Apart from food aid and food bank responses, several governments, NGOs and religious associations started planning and implementing more targeted distributions of food packages to vulnerable households, next to establishing solidarity funds for, for example, those working in the informal sector. Major markets in capital cities have been moved out to stadiums or other big event spaces so that food trading can continue whilst observing social distancingrequirements. Information campaigns targeting (rural) farmers wereobserved and several countries sawfarmer unions bulk buying farming inputs or staple food, stabilizing both the supply and demand side of the market.

In mid-April, digital solutions to physical barriers were among the most prominent type of responses tweeted about. Digital platforms and communication were being used to train people or facilitate local food trading. ICT and mobile phones were identified as helpful in allowing extension workers to carry out their services remotely, e.g. advising on storage techniques and farmgate pricing. However, most tweeted solutions indicated a need for remote data collection and strengthening of monitoring systems. On the consumption side, online platforms were emerging to inform consumers about food access and to overcome physical accessibility issues. Apart from digital solutions, practical interventions were increasingly reported.

Towards the end of April, initiatives targeting the rural poor and aiming to mitigate the impact on food production, market access and employment in rural areas continued to be rolled out. Censuses to identify the most vulnerable segments of the population were carried out, direct cash transfers operationalised, and in some regions, the collection of taxes on agricultural products was suspended. In some countries, markets had reopened in order to relieve those involved in the informal sector and to revive the economy, while other countries were already experiencing a progressive deconfinement.

 In a number of countries, both national and locally backed initiatives around urban gardening, livestock keeping, fish breeding, and even beekeeping were emerging or being strengthened, with the aim to keep nutritional diversity up as much as possible. In some capitals and bigger cities, informal workers had now engaged in door to door fruit and vegetable trading as an alternative income source.

This activity documents how different actors within Nairobi’s food system navigate and cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Focus is on low-income consumers and those sectors within the urban food system that are key to the food security of the urban poor, more specifically urban and peri-urban agriculture, and the informal food retail and vending system.

We use a collaborative visual research method, under which we equip eight (8) individuals with smartphones, and enable them, to ‘showcase‘ their personal experience and navigation of the new reality under the COVID-19 pandemic in self recorded video diaries. The short video sequences, accompanied by and supplemented with insights gained from more in-depth direct exchanges with the participants, are published on a continuous basis on TMG Research's Medium page.

Central to our approach is the question what food people in informal settlements in Nairobi have access to, and how they obtain this access in times of crises. We are interested in finding out what role urban and peri-urban agriculture and the informal food system (could) play here, in overcoming some of the food security and social unrest challenges posed by a global pandemic like COVID-19. We ultimately hope to identify entry points for strategies to make the wider Nairobi food system more resilient to future crises. 

From the material collected in the first three weeks of this activity two key insights are emerging. A first one is that, under the current circumstances, urban farming can be a sustainable livelihood in Nairobi, sustaining food security and nutrition of urban farmers and their families.Urban farmers in Nairobi maintain an income, lower than usual since demand for fresh and thus costlier products is lower, but still better than the majority of people working in the informal economy who lost their job opportunities. Urban farmers maintain their food security and nutrition, since a) fresh and nutritious food is available and accessible on their own farm and b) they maintain enough income to buy other food items to complement their diet.

 Alex Sikina, urban farmer in the Kangemi informal settlement of Nairobi: “I specialise in growing indigenous vegetables, because they are more nutritious and can prevent many diseases. They also fetch better prices at the market. During this corona period, many consumers are preferring to buy the cheaper but less nutritious vegetables like Sukuma wiki. But my family and I have continued to consume the indigenous vegetables because that is what I grow on my own. Even though the market is down, I still make some income.”

A second insight emerging is that, amongst non-farming residents of Nairobi’s informal settlements, income, and thus access, constitutes the most important constraint to food and nutrition security. Many families skip meals and drop fresh nutrient-rich foods. The majority of the people living in the informal settlements in Nairobi are working in the informal economy. Due to the economic downturn many have lost their income opportunities. Before the pandemic, the middle and low-income population in Nairobi would already spend up to three-quarters of their salary on food. Without income the majority of the low-income population is not able to meet their food needs anymore. With less food available in the markets and food prices higher, the main constraint is money to buy food, and thus access.

An important additional factor here is that families now have to provide (extra) food for their school aged children, who normally benefited from school meals. Most families reduce the amount of meals they eat per day, and minimize their diet to staples, like maize and beans. They cut out especially fresh and nutritious, but costlier vegetables. Mildred Bwasio, a resident of Kangemi informal settlement: “Corona has adversely affected me and my family. All my family members are now home - eight children, my husband and two relatives. We sometimes have to skip lunch. For breakfast, we buy one loaf of bread and take a slice each with black tea because we can no longer afford milk. My husband, who works as a security guard, can no longer contribute to the daily meals. Before coronavirus, he would get tips from people working in the office block where he guards. Now they are working from home. There are no more tips”. 

with contributions from Louisa Nelle, Bruno St-Jacques, Sarah Kiragu-Wissler & Matteo Lattanzi

Watch the videos and follow the full stories under ‘Stories’ on TMG Research Medium page.

This article is part of Covid-19 Food/Future, an initiative aiming to provide a unique and direct insight into the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on national and local food systems. Central to our approach are the experiences of young, urban and peri-urban farmers, street vendors and informal retailers, and low-income consumers. Follow @CovidFoodFuture on Twitter. Covid-19 Food/Future is an initiative by TMG. ThinkTank for Sustainability (, or on Twitter @TMG_think. Funding for this initiative is provided by BMZ, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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