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Food Security on the Frontlines: Using Agroecological Solutions for Household Food Production During Covid-19 and Beyond

Deeply dug and well mulched planting beds allow for denser planting and road growth in the Permagarden. Palabek Refugee Settlement, Northern Uganda. African Women RisingAs the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the globe, communities are rapidly adjusting to new uncertainties and obstacles. From the disruption of global supply chains to the closure of critical markets, millions have found themselves suddenly unable to work or to meet basic needs. In the fragile and conflict-affected places in which our humanitarian community works, these challenges have profound ramifications for food security. 

For many, the novel coronavirus is one more in a long list of food security threats. Drought, political instability, environmental degradation, pest invasions, and economic crises have long strained already-vulnerable food supplies. Over 250 million people in Africa - one in five - already did not have enough food before the virus outbreak. Now, movement restrictions/lockdowns have blocked farmers from selling at markets and limited access to the fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, and inputs they rely on for production. With informal markets closed down, prices spiking and food aid disrupted, impoverished families’ ability to access food may reach a breaking point. 

The fragility of our global food system, with its reliance on food imports and external resources for production, has rarely been brought into such stark focus. While our response to the crisis must focus foremost on meeting immediate needs, we must not miss critical opportunities to reshape and rethink food production in ways that support longer-term resilience. In this context, the contributions of agroecological approaches warrant further attention.

An Agroecological Response

What makes agroecological food systems more resilient in times of crisis? It comes down to four principles: 

  1. They promote ecological stability by supporting diverse food production and nutrition today while restoring, conserving, and enhancing the natural ecosystems necessary for sustaining production into the future. 
  2. They are built on good agronomic practices that actively improve soil fertility, water usage, and crop health. These result in quick plant development, increased production, minimal pests, and disease damage, and an enhanced nutritional profile in crops.
  3. They are accessible to the most vulnerable communities, using low-cost and locally available resources in place of expensive external inputs that depend on fragile supply chains that are difficult to access during a crisis.
  4. Originating from participatory approaches, they are owned and driven by communities through demonstrations, farmer-to-farmer sharing, and local innovations. In times of crisis, individuals, therefore, have direct knowledge of available local resources and how to use those resources productively in their own households

Daily Food Production at Home

While transforming food systems will undoubtedly take time, small steps can be taken now to produce a nutritious food source even while families shelter in place. One place to start is with resilient household gardens. The Permagarden approach, for instance, offers simple ways to apply agroecological principles at a small scale using readily available inputs. Even in the most resource-constrained places, most families have the key ingredients to start building highly productive gardens that produce nutritious food within weeks. 

Productive household Permagarden in Palabek Refugee Settlement, Northern Uganda. African Women RisingTypically located next to the kitchen, a Permagarden is intentionally designed to minimize waste and dependence on external resources. For example, while many households discard the water from hand-washing, bathing, and ritual ablutions, Permagarden captures and reuses this “waste.” These greywater systems are bolstered by multiple earthen water harvesting structures that slow, spread and sink water throughout the garden, meeting immediate and long-term plant irrigation needs even in dry periods. Unlike typical gardens, Permagarden beds are dug deep - up to 60 cm - providing plant roots more aeration and access to stored water and nutrients so they have plenty of room to grow, even when seeded very closely together. Rather than relying on store-bought fertilizers, soils can be nourished by diverted waste streams that are harvested and gathered locally, such as leaves, bone, charcoal, food waste, ash, eggshells, compost, and manure. 

A Permagarden also offers opportunities to build economic and social resilience. For instance, families might choose to grow a diversity of annual and perennial crops that create regular, ongoing harvests year-round. These can be given or exchanged with neighbors and sold in local markets (when safe to do so), and profits used to buy essentials like soap and medicines. Regular harvests also afford households the chance to develop healthy interdependence with their neighbors by giving away or exchanging foods for other goods. These connections are the building blocks of social capital, a critical component of household resilience in times of shocks and crises. 

What can we do now?

While the Permagarden approach is best spread through hands-on practice and in-person demonstration, remote technical support, videos, and tools can guide families and community leaders in establishing their permagardens now. These can serve as demonstration plots for others, helping to transfer knowledge while minimizing physical contact. In places where this is not feasible, Permagarden solutions should be an essential part of the humanitarian community’s agriculture and food system recovery plan. In time and as movement restrictions allow, these same agroecological principles can be scaled up across a farmer's field, an informal settlement, or a larger landscape or watershed.

During this challenging time, the essential role that local food systems play in household resilience could not be more apparent. In the midst of market disruptions and supply chain collapse, the humanitarian community is reminded that the foundation of resilient food security is rooted in locally-based, ecologically sound production practices, where stability is grown from household to household and community to community, as well as through market linkages. Supporting local capacity to grow quick and healthy food for nutrition and income, such as with a Permagarden, empowers individuals and households with an important coping strategy during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. 

Water harvesting and diverse crop selection within the homestead Permagarden.  Palabek Refugee Settlement, Northern Uganda.  African Women RisingPermagardens have been field-tested extensively through USAID and DFID-funded programs (including in Nepal and Northern Uganda), as well as with other humanitarian actors across a variety of contexts. Working with over two hundred women’s groups in Northern Uganda over the last seven years, African Women Rising (AWR) has collectively built close to 10,000 Permagardens. In addition to providing an important source of food security and social cohesion, sales of excess produce have enabled these women a critical means to make weekly contributions into their VSLA program- collectively amounting to more than $1 million USD over the calendar year. AWR has also pioneered the Permagarden approach in Palabek refugee settlement, working specifically with South Sudanese refugees. A recent third-party participatory impact assessment found that Permagarden ownership within one refugee setting increased the amount of food available such that 179% more households began eating three meals a day. As a result of increased food availability, dependence on food aid was reduced and the refugees reported improvements in household nutrition. They also found that Permagardens were the primary sources of dry season household income. 

The Permagarden approach is part of a broader Resilience Design framework that has been refined over the past seven years and implemented extensively in many different contexts. The Permagarden Toolkit, developed under the USAID/Food for Peace-funded TOPS Program and now supported by the FFP-funded SCALE Award, consists of 3- and 5-day training guidelines, a Permagarden Technical Manual, and adult education resources.  

This study was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of the SCALE Award and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.

This post was written by Warren Brush, Thomas Cole, and Kristin Lambert with contributions from Abby Love and Andrea Mottram, Mercy Corps, SCALE Award.

Photo 1: Deeply dug and well-mulched planting beds allow for denser planting and road growth in the permagarden. Palabek Refugee Settlement, Northern Uganda. African Women Rising
Photo 2: Productive household permagarden in Palabek Refugee Settlement, Northern Uganda. African Women Rising
Photo 3: Water harvesting and diverse crop selection within the homestead permagarden. Palabek Refugee Settlement, Northern Uganda. African Women Rising

To learn more, watch the recording of SCALE's latest webinar: Small Scale Agroecological Approaches for the COVID-19 Response and Beyond