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Safeguarding the Food Supply Chain
in Two (Not So) Easy Steps
Whether it be getting supplies to farmers in time for planting, or getting produce to market so it doesn’t go to waste, timing is crucial to the food system. For farmers, COVID-19 was the very definition of bad timing. Now, efforts are underway to keep shipments steady through a situation that’s anything but. 
Marketeers in India

This story is an update from our COVID-19 and Smallholders news series.

Here’s a story you would never have heard before the COVID-19 pandemic.
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A seemingly non-essential company—this one prints product labels—temporarily closes to safeguard employee health and comply with India's lockdown. It's the right decision. Except it instantly puts the harvest of hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers at risk, along with food security for the communities that depend on those growers.

 

How so?

 

This particular label printer is one of Bayer’s vendor organization and the labels were for vital crop protection solutions. After all, pesticides can’t be distributed without proper labeling. And farmers can’t protect their crops, and the food system, without these inputs. 

 

According to Satish Narang, Bayer India Supply Chain Lead, unexpected interferences like this could undermine smallholders’ entire operations and threaten food security worldwide. “The smallest of details could end up derailing the whole train,” says Narang. 

 

In typical circumstances, smallholders expect plenty of day-to-day challenges: weather, insects, disease, and market volatility are commonplace aspects of their work. But when their entire supply chain threatens to break down because a label manufacturer has to halt production? Narang says, “That’s a dimension I don’t think we’ve ever faced before.” 

Satish
That’s a dimension I don’t think we’ve ever faced before.
Satish Narang
Bayer India Supply Chain Lead

When it Comes to Supplies, Crops Can’t Wait

Protecting the continuity of the supply chain is a two-part problem. The first task is to keep farmers supplied with the inputs they need to plant on time. Spring planting was just beginning in India when the lockdown started, endangering an entire growing season’s worth of crops. 

Seeds in bags at market

 

 

Typically, smallholders obtain materials like seeds, fertilizers, and crop protection over-the-counter in small agri-input stores close to their village. The Better Life Farming Alliance is a Bayer-led multi-stakeholder partnership that operates such stores in small farming villages. The stores operate as Better Life Farming centers, and each center serves the needs of smallholder farmers from five or six nearby villages. Stringent social distancing, sanitization, and other safety measures are ensuring that the Better Life Farming centers remain up and running as a baseline support.

 

Some technologies are allowing farmers to avoid gathering in stores altogether. In a rare instance of good timing associated with the pandemic, Bayer’s e-commerce partnership with agri-tech company Agro-Star launched a home delivery functionality in India that has seen a boom in use. Since its launch in January 2020, more than 15,000 farmers have received seeds and crop protection inputs without leaving their farms.

15,000
Farmers have received seeds and other inputs without leaving their farm.

To get quality seed out to farmers for on-time planting, distribution networks have been dramatically redrawn, ensuring thousands of farmers in India and the Philippines got the supplies they needed this season. 

 

 

A New Kind of Marketplace

Once vital supplies reach farmers, the second part of the challenge of a global lockdown is getting the produce to market. For many growers, the typical market experience is a little like a farmer’s market, but for wholesale transactions. They take their produce to a central hub where it is then offtaken by bulk buyers. With those markets now closed, growers are left with limited options. 

 

The Hindi word for those local markets is mandi. 

 

“Since the local mandi is closed, I cannot supply my produce outside the village,” says Indian grower Umakant Singh. “The only option was to either sell my produce at a throwaway price or destroy it.” Singh ended up selling his vegetable produce within his village and giving away what he couldn’t sell to his neighbors and the farm workers in his fields.

 

In response to situations like Singh’s, retail farming stores have been speedily reimagined. Better Life Farming centers are now acting as agents, connecting growers with bulk buyers. 

Blue arrow icon behind a bus with canvas bags and a man standing on top

 

 

Better Life Farming centers are now acting as agents connecting growers with bulk buyers.

 

 

Grapes are a major export crop in the Indian state of Maharashtra. They’re also particularly cost- and care-intensive. If lockdown measures meant this year’s crop had to be destroyed, that would be a devastating loss for growers and lead to market shortages. Thankfully, Bayer stepped in to link grape growers directly with offtakers such as DeHaat and AgriBazaar, two of its partner organizations under the Better Life Farming initiative. Consumer-facing initiatives such as a Facebook post on the Bayer India page also helped generate demand and locate new bulk buyers for those grapes.

 

Every action-oriented solution is essential to help keep smallholder supply chains intact. Ultimately, these solutions are ad hoc and temporary. They might not be needed long term. Or they might be replaced by more lasting ideas. But what's truly permanent, and inspiring to Satish Narang among others, is the human capacity to go above and beyond and to keep finding needed solutions. 

 

“That’s what really makes me absolutely, incredibly proud of everybody out there,” he says. “I could never have imagined the degree to which our people would put Bayer’s vision, ‘health for all, hunger for none,’ into action. Nobody is telling them to go and get creative with these ideas. They’re doing it on their own.”

 

 

 COVID-19 & SMALLHOLDERS

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