RFS projects face new challenges as COVID-19 threatens rural livelihoods and food security


As African countries respond to the spread of COVID-19, RFS country projects are taking significant steps to innovate and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances in order to provide key services and support to vulnerable rural communities.

The Resilient Food Systems programme works with the some of the most vulnerable populations in sub-Saharan Africa to improve the resilience, productivity and sustainability of agricultural systems. In normal times, smallholder farming communities in the dryland regions of Africa already face a number of significant challenges, such as deforestation, land degradation, loss of biodiversity, lack of quality inputs and financing, poor extension services, droughts, flooding and pests.   

In times of crisis, it is these communities that are impacted the most—either directly through sickness or loss of life or indirectly through the ripple effects of economic recessions, at home and abroad, that continue to hit rural communities for years to come. 

As the United Nations estimates the number of people facing food insecurity could double due to the pandemic, the mission of the Resilient Food Systems programme is more important than ever. Our priority is to continue to support project communities in their work to build the sustainability and productivity of local food systems in each of the 12 RFS countries so that they become more resilient to crises now and in the future. 

The impact on Resilient Food Systems country projects  

The COVID-19 pandemic has been slow to hit Africa, leaving many unknowns as to how the virus will impact health systems that are, in many cases, already over-burdened, under-funded, and under-resourced. Even less known, is the impact that global economic downturn will have on African economies.

The spread of the virus, and the varying government responses, are impacting RFS project countries in different ways and at different rates. From our perspective it was therefore important to understand what constraints our country projects are facing, how the virus is impacting project teams and beneficiaries, Global Environmental Benefits, as well as how this is impacting ongoing and planned project activities. 


COVID-19 has been a wake-up call to the world on implications of mishandling our food systems, especially biodiversity.

Charles Sebukeera
UNEP, Regional Science Policy Coordinator, Africa

To gain a deeper understanding, the Resilient Food Systems PCU, in collaboration with IFAD and the GEF Secretariat, conducted a short survey amongst RFS project teams.  The survey received 52 responses from country projects and implementation partners, highlighting the impacts that each country project is experiencing and the different coping strategies that are emerging as country projects adapt to new working environments.

Download the Survey Results and Analysis Report  

The ability of projects to continue implementation as originally planned has been substantially impacted by the pandemic. Training, field work, workshops and knowledge sharing events are the most significantly impacted project activities, with the majority of projects reporting that these are not able to be implemented at this time. On the ground, 71 percent of those surveyed believe that their project beneficiaries are being significantly impacted, facing undue hardships, deteriorating food security, threats to their livelihoods, and health concerns. 62 percent believe that the overall impact on Global Environmental Benefits will be negative. 


The impact of COVID-19 on various RFS project activities
The impact of COVID-19 on various RFS project activities

In spite of these challenging circumstances, country projects are taking significant steps to innovate and adapt. Most country projects have amended their workplans accordingly. Many are working to develop emergency plans, roll out awareness campaigns, transition to e-learning systems and virtual training, utilise web-based tools for monitoring, and mobile phone communication systems to continue to provide valuable support to their beneficiaries. 

How implementing partners are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

RFS Implementing Agencies and executing partners are each taking steps both within their organisations and throughout their projects to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and adapt to ever-changing work environments. 

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is working to identify the immediate risks to ongoing projects and programmes and explore ways of adapting to the dynamic changes on the ground in order to safeguard the progress made by GEF projects and programmes. GEF is also developing medium- and long-term strategies to integrate the challenges and opportunities highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic into ongoing and upcoming projects in order to accelerate a “green” recovery. 

As the RFS Lead Implementing Agency, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is working with partner governments to identify immediate solutions for projects that are facing new challenges due to the pandemic. These solutions are wide-ranging and tailored to the needs of unique national and local contexts. IFAD has also launched a multi-donor COVID-10 Rural Poor Stimulus Facility to scale up responses in beneficiary countries. In the long-term, IFAD is working with governments to develop and implement recovery plans to rebuild economies, strengthen food systems, and safeguard rural communities from current and future global health crises.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Implementing Agency for RFS Uganda (with UNDP) and RFS Burundi, is working to analyse the ways in which the pandemic is impacting food security and agriculture and the extent to which countries are now more exposed to shocks and stresses on food systems. FAO is reorganising and adapting current projects and programmes to continue to serve communities and meet the new needs that have emerged from the pandemic. 

The United National Development Programme (UNDP), another key RFS Implementing Agency (for Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda) and Regional Hub partner, is supporting vulnerable countries implement rapid responses through the COVID-19 Rapid Response Facility, a USD 5 million fund to help roll out socio-economic responses and recovery strategies in more than 100 countries. UNDP is the technical lead on the UN’s socio-economic responses to the pandemic and is working with governments to provide technical and financing support for socio-economic recovery strategies. 

RFS looks to the future 

While we work to provide additional support, both short- and long-term, to all RFS projects at various levels of operation, we are thankful for the continued collaboration and support of our Implementing Agencies, partner governments, RFS country project teams, and beneficiaries on the ground. 


Let us use this situation to apply innovative approaches.

Tesfaye Haile Dargie
Project Manager, RFS Ethiopia

While this is a time of great struggle and hardship, it is also a time for opportunities. Policymakers are being reminded that food and nutritional security is one of the most important pillars of healthy and resilient societies. Global pressure to invest in productive and sustainable food systems, restore and protect degraded natural resources, and improve crisis management and response is mounting. The global mobilisation of states in response to the pandemic show us that collective action is possible. It is imperative that we harness this momentum and use it to accelerate Africa’s transition to a food system that supports and nourishes both communities and ecosystems alike.  


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