In communities around the world, the COVID-19 crisis is revealing connections that often go unnoticed. “We work in Africa,” says Sarah Koch, “but in many ways what we do is universal. I don’t think there’s been a time in my life that I’ve seen so clearly the global interconnections of the food system.” Sarah, a 2008 YouthActionNet fellow, co-founded Development in Gardening (DIG), an organization rooted in the belief that food is a powerful leverage point for changing the world. Below, she talks about the how the organization is responding to the unprecedented challenges of the global pandemic.
Where does DIG operate, what populations does the organization serve, and how are those people doing during the COVID-19 crisis?
We’re in Kenya, Uganda, and Senegal. We work with populations who are uniquely vulnerable and frequently left out of development opportunities—for example, chronically malnourished people, the elderly, people with HIV, refugees, and people with physical disabilities. They have limited access to opportunities for themselves, limited opportunities presented by the governments in the countries where they live, and limited opportunities to receive assistance from the international organizations working in their countries. Unfortunately, as countries roll out plans to deliver food aid, assistance, and social packages, our farmers are more likely to be left out.
How has business-as-usual changed, if at all, during the global pandemic?
We haven’t pivoted away from our mission of creating opportunities for these uniquely vulnerable communities to increase their food security, nutrition, resilience, and income. That mission is the same, and it will be more important now than ever before. However, we’ve changed the way we’re delivering on our mission. In a normal scenario, DIG works physically in the communities we serve, bringing together cohorts of around 30 farmers to address their challenges and create pathways to improved nutrition and livelihoods. With COVID, we can’t physically meet and connect. Instead, we’re using technology in ways we haven’t before—for example, by using SMS texts, we’re able to get out reliable, expert information around the virus as it relates to each country, as well as standard best practices around issues like social distancing and sanitation, and hygiene. At the same time, we’re equipping our farmers with messages around agriculture and nutrition that goes beyond what we would normally teach in our field schools. It’s more forward thinking about a crisis that we believe is coming down the road—a food crisis.
Can you say more about the food crisis, and what you’re doing to prepare your farmers?
As the economy in these countries suffers as a result of COVID-19, the food system is also going to suffer. Food shortages aren’t seen yet, but we’re confident that they will soon be a reality in the regions where we’re working. So, we’re trying to figure out where the food system gaps will be, and to preemptively prepare our farmers to fill those critical gaps. We’ve already seen food markets closing, as well as seed prices skyrocketing to as much as five times the normal price. In response, we’ve been buying seeds to give to our farmers, to equip them to start growing—specifically, growing foods that will be missing from the markets. The hope is that they can supply that demand. Normally, we focus on growing nutrient-dense vegetable varieties, but we are also going to incorporate cash crops because the market will be desperate for them. It’s an opportunity for our farmers, and we’re preparing them to meet the demand.
What, if anything, does a moment like this teach you and your organization?
First, it’s a reaffirmation that organizations need to be innovative, adaptable, and flexible. At DIG, we work in three unique countries, with unique populations and unique challenges, so we pride ourselves on being adaptable. This crisis is a moment where we’re having to lean into that strength. It’s being tested in really immediate ways. On the other side of the crisis, maybe DIG can become a sort of case study for how to operate. Second, it highlights that communities need to be involved in planning and implementing solutions to challenges. If we don’t let communities lead, we’re really just applying a Band-Aid. But, when we let communities bring forth the solutions, they’ll become more resilient and better able to respond to future challenges. Lastly, the crisis—and the way organizations like DIG are adapting to respond—emphasizes the need for trust-based philanthropy. Of course, funders can’t just hand out money with no accountability measures in place, but on the other hand, once trust is established, they need to trust organizations to respond and adapt with agility. That’s critical in a moment of crisis.
Photo by Lisa Keisler, courtesy of DIG.