A strategic guide: Working towards food security in the drylands, through COVID-19 and beyond

ICRISAT is well positioned to significantly contribute to efforts towards restoring food security in the drylands, while combating the COVID-19 pandemic-related impacts and beyond. Here is a quick guide outlining ways in which we can collaborate with our partners and influence positive outcomes for smallholder farmers.


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused phenomenal disruptions in the food system – a major contributor to global livelihoods and health. Such major disruptions typically impact vulnerable geographies the most, such as the semi-arid tropics or drylands. Smallholder farmers are particularly at risk because of pre-existing lags in nutrition, health, and income goals.

Our strengths:

  • Extensive network of staff and partners on the ground, across sub-Saharan Africa and Asia
  • Technical and scientific knowledge to partner with development teams
  • Specialization in the drylands
  • A wide range of scientific tools – from GIS and remote sensing to genomics, modeling and social tools
  • Nutrient-dense and drought-tolerant mandate crops – millets, sorghum, groundnut, chickpea and pigeonpea
  • Scaling expertise for a range of solutions
  • Agribusiness innovation platform to support agri-entrepreneurs with product development and market analysis
  • Digital solutions across the whole value chain

Eastern and Southern Africa: Equipping smallholders with tools to combat COVID-19

A 3-point strategy for getting agriculture back on its feet

A field in Malawi with groundnut/pigeonpea intercrop before COVID-19 hit the region. Photo: L Lazarus, ICRISAT

Addressing the food systems disruption in Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA), due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will require collective action. ICRISAT reaffirms its commitment to work with our partners to help the semi-arid tropical (SAT) communities in the region in the recovery efforts and to build resilience capacities in the medium and long terms.

Over the last five years, the ESA region agriculture has faced shocks and stresses ranging from cyclic floods and droughts, fall armyworm (Spodoptera frugiperda) and the recent desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria) infestation and diseases such as maize lethal necrosis in Eastern Africa. The COVID-19 crisis further compounds this food crisis.

We propose a plan to work along with our partners to mitigate these challenges. Broadly, the plan covers three critical phases:

Phase 1: Recovery and Coping Phase

Availing baseline and decision-making data for recovery interventions: Our social scientists can work remotely to analyze food delivery and market logistics in conventional value chains. We can provide science-based evidence to policy makers and decision makers to help inform their deliberations on strategies and options including:

  • Vulnerability analyses to identify those who are most likely to suffer and ensure that they receive the most intensive assistance;
  • Preparatory, preventive and coping measures, such as early-warning systems and insurance; and
  • Safety nets such as grain, fodder, and seed banks and emergency food reserves.

Technical advice on non-perishable and nutritious food grains: The technical advice on locally/regionally sourced sorghum, millets, pigeonpea, groundnut and chickpea focuses on best management practices on post-harvest activities, food safety and nutritional quality of grain legumes (aflatoxin, beta-carotene, iron, zinc, oil), food storage and processing to reduce food loss and aflatoxin. This knowledge will be critical to stakeholders managing food banks and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) involved in food distributions.

Providing small packs of drought-tolerant, short-duration and nutrient-rich cereal and grain legume crops through our innovative informal and formal seed delivery models that involve communities and private seed companies. These models can also be used for delivery of seeds for other crops including vegetables.

Digital platforms: For example, cell phones for information and cash transfers services, online advisory services and communities of practice for knowledge sharing.

Phase 2: Adaptive Phase

Development of adaptation strategies: We have longstanding experience developing strategies for coping with stresses, and in modeling future scenarios of change. They include:

  • Genetic improvement strategies for critical traits, such as tolerance of drought and heat;
  • Natural resource management strategies to improve supplies of water and nutrient resources and to increase system resilience (ability to withstand and recover from stress);
  • Farm management strategies – such as agricultural diversification and affordable, efficient and sustainable small-scale irrigation – that hedge risks and broaden opportunities; and
  • Capacity-strengthening strategies that improve knowledge flows; to monitor and reduce aflatoxin contamination in groundnut and other grains.

Development of Geospatial maps: These are powerful aids for visualizing the driving forces associated with poverty, hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation in different geographic areas in the tropical drylands.

Sustainable systems for multiplying and disseminating high-quality seed: We have extensive knowledge and experience in approaches and toolkits for sustainable high-quality seed production: designing tailor-made seed delivery models from community seed banks, quality declared seed and private sector led systems with clear forward linkages to grain demand and backward linkages to early generation seeds (breeder, foundation).

Promotion of integrated farm and landscape management: ICRISAT is implementing an array of scalable, integrated farm and landscape management models e.g. soil health and water management practices, watershed management, crop-livestock integrated systems, etc.

Phase 3: Transformative Phase

Collaborating with partners to increase the resilience of dryland farming by developing system, policy and technology options and building capacities.

Deploy our research-for-development technical capacities to generate products and innovations: These include:

  • Our ongoing genomic and genetic research using modern molecular methods to rapidly transfer desirable traits such as resistance to new pests and diseases; drought tolerance and drought avoidance (short-duration to medium-duration varieties); nutrition-dense and other traits demanded by market or processors.
  • Development of innovative mechanization tools to reduce postharvest losses, reduce drudgery, especially oriented towards women’s needs; improve fertilizer use efficiency e.g. microdosing technology.
  • Investigation of last-mile delivery bottlenecks of improved soil management options, water harvesting technologies and sustainable smallholder irrigation.

Promotion of public-private sector partnership to facilitate technology adoption: Our Hybrid Parents Research Consortium (HPRC) is a good example. We can also develop a wide range of partnerships with NARES (National Agricultural Research and Extension Systems), community-based and private sectors, both within and beyond the realm of agricultural research-for-development.

Develop evidence-based risk-reducing policies: For example, crop insurance, early warning systems, joint landscape management, crop-tree-livestock systems, seed systems and policy research on grain legume, blending of cereal flour.

Promote agro-enterprise incubation, digital agriculture platforms using experiences from ICRISAT Asia region: These initiatives will target women and youth in SAT.

West and Central Africa: From recovery to transformation via adaptation in a COVID-19 scenario

A stepwise plan for farmers to cope with COVID-19 in West and Central Africa

Malian farmers during a field visit before COVID-19-mandated lockdown. Photo: A Diama, ICRISAT

Taking our mission statement: ‘…to reduce poverty, hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation in the dryland tropics’ as a framework, in collaboration with our partners, we aim to assist rural and urban communities in West and Central Africa (WCA) to become more self-reliant through a three-step process.

As on 15 May, the COVID-19 outbreak has hit 54 African countries, among which 27 are in WCA. It is expected that both rural populations on the brink of subsistence farming, and urban populations that form the market for agricultural products, will be most affected. This crisis, combined with climate change, recurrent droughts, and fall armyworm (FAW) and locust infestations, will be challenging for the very fragile food security and livelihoods in the WCA region.

The following three-step plan is proposed.

Step 1: Recovery and Coping Phase

  • To support production of quality certified seed, interventions in partnership with seed companies and farmers’ cooperatives will prioritize adequate warehousing and supply of targeted breeder seed.
  • Helping development/food aid programs through digital platforms that remotely monitor crop/environmental conditions, farming activity, commodity prices and supply chain transactions.
  • Making our mandate crops available for WCA countries can ease difficulty in securing food due to COVID-related lockdowns.
  • Using warrantage and other extension systems to mobilize funds and services for agricultural risk management.
  • Providing yield forecasting support to operational early warning systems.
  • Monitoring seed voucher usage to enable smallholder farmers’ access to quality seed of improved varieties.
  • Studying the impact of climate change as a compounding risk factor on farmers livelihoods, and using the lessons learned to design adaptation measures in the context of COVID-19.

Step 2: Adaptive Phase

Going beyond specific interventions, we can design solutions for the pandemic’s impacts in gender- and location-neutral ways.

  • Developing crop varieties and hybrids more resilient to climate change and responding to high-nutrition needs (to strengthen general immunity against the virus). Nutritionally rich varieties of millet such as CHAKTI and some varieties of sorghum to be promoted and made available to smallholder farmers.
  • Using blockchain approach to bring together input supply, market linkages for agricultural produce, and field-level agronomic and performance monitoring, while ensuring complete traceability.
  • Encouraging and promoting a system diversification approach to provide alternative sources of food and income to rural communities.
  • Building on adaptive scaling models to strengthen agricultural service extension through virtual tools. For instance, online meetings between farmers and extension workers, training seed companies and farmer organizations to produce certified seed through virtual meetings, radio and TV communication campaigns to inform availability of seed sources and agronomic practices, etc.

Step 3: Transformative Phase

  • A long-term response to current and post-COVID-19 periods require improved investment in domestic production of highly nutritious food crops such as millet, sorghum and groundnut through breeding modernization.
  • Modern plant breeding tools to rapidly develop high-yielding, climate-resilient, drought-tolerant, disease/pest-resistant, and farmer/market-preferred improved sorghum, pearl millet and groundnut varieties.
  • Making make national value chains more competitive by:
    1) Promoting industrial/private sector financing of agricultural research;
    2) Supporting national policies that favor rebalancing of supply chains through multi-stakeholder PPPs that cover the entire value chain;
    3) Promoting  inclusive contractual agriculture schemes that ensure safe participation of smallholders into market-driven agriculture;
    4) Developing vocational training infrastructure that catalyzes the rural job market for youth employment.
  • Conducting cost-benefit analysis to determine value of digital solutions introduced in the wake of the pandemic-necessitated lockdowns.
  • Considering gender-specific constraints regarding access to land and finance, and increasing advocacy on increased access to land, finance and productive resources for women.
  • Assessing extent of price/changes in agricultural trade and market.

As a CGIAR research institution working towards better livelihoods for smallholder farmers in the semi-arid tropics, we are aware that now, more than ever, it is important to support them with mechanisms to ensure nutrition, food security and livelihoods. With our modern breeding programs and knowhow related to nutrition and climate-smart agriculture, we are ready with immediate as well as longer-term solutions to rebuild impacted food value chains.

We thank our partners and funders for their support, as we continue to push, as OneCGIAR, towards food and nutrition security across Africa and Asia.

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