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  • Joanna Springer for the Feed the Future Ethiopia Transforming Agriculture Activity

Food System Studies Reveal Key Leverage Points for Resilience

Updated: Feb 12

MSD Hub editor's note (Michael Field, Senior Systems Specialist, Vikāra Institute):

This blog provides an excellent case for how a MSR analysis provides practical value to an MSD project. Of particular importance is how the MSR analysis was able to uncover specific, but quite varied ways communities engaged market systems in relation to managing risks. Additionally, the blog highlights how the insights were used to tailor interventions to the diverse local contexts in Ethiopia, and do so in ways that are more informed on the potential trade-off or considerations an intervention may be asking of households and market actors. An interesting finding the blog pointed out was the potential for market systems to create trusted connections between people that could reduce the likelihood of conflict, which reinforces a central element of MSD to foster shared-value relationships between various market actors.


A series of severe shocks has impacted farmers, agricultural markets and consumers throughout Ethiopia in the last few years, all of which have been compounded by the effects of climate change. Decades of government and development partner investment in systems and programs to help people recover have been put to the test as community-level sources of resilience get worn down by the crises. Recent studies to assess food system resilience across five regions shed light on areas of progress and what work remains.

The Feed the Future Ethiopia Transforming Agriculture Activity was launched in 2022 with the mandate to build the resilience of the food system and improve livelihoods and nutrition, particularly for women and children. The activity team conducted several interrelated studies to guide the activity’s nutrition-led approach, incorporating a systems lens to address the drivers of change to catalyze growth and inclusivity, including institutional factors, such as norms and incentives. Ultimately, the studies yielded evidence that can inform the types of intervention approaches needed for resilient food systems in a context of rapidly evolving and escalating risks.

A system under stress

Farmers and business owners interviewed for the studies described devastating impacts of shocks. Affected by COVID-19 border restrictions and the war in Ukraine, food prices have risen dramatically, while farmers’ ability to access the fertilizers and pesticides needed to maintain production has been hampered. Desert locusts and a historic drought in the southeastern part of the country wiped out crops and livestock, while the civil conflict in the north resulted in mass displacement, destruction of infrastructure and related health and social repercussions. Ethnic and political tensions and instability have interrupted market linkages, making it difficult for business owners to manage threats.

“I lost all of the chickpeas that I sowed last year due to the pest infestation,” said a producer in the Amhara region. “This has even brought psychological problems upon me … I had bought and sprinkled pesticide — and a weed chemical as well — but it couldn’t destroy the pests. If I hadn’t had a few animals, I would have starved with all my family. I sold the animals, bought food for my family and survived that very difficult time.” A veterinary clinic owner in the Tigray region describes losing all the physical capital of his business during the recent conflict: “I lost everything I had. The medical tools and medicines all were looted by the time I came back from the place I had fled to.”

With income sources drying up, compounded by rapid inflation, households turned to their social networks to survive. “When I faced bankruptcy and closed my business for about three months, my extended family members provided support — wheat and teff — to feed my family,” reported an egg trader in Amhara. Moreover, his friends prioritized him for a loan out of rotation through their savings association, known as an equb, to enable him to reopen his business.

Investments in resilience yield positive results

In regions with a history of USAID support for economic growth, there were signs that markets are helping households to absorb and manage shocks to some extent. For instance, among pastoral communities, study results showed increasing reliance on the sale of sheep and goats, coupled with raising crops, to generate cash and mitigate food insecurity. Pastoralists’ willingness to shift away from concentrating their resources in cattle — important for social bonds and influence, but difficult to manage during droughts — is an indication that communities are increasingly confident that markets can cushion them from shocks.

In Jimma, a central region of the country famous for its exported coffee, findings showed that a more developed market system is effective for buffering the effects of crises: respondents described working together to find market-based solutions to shocks. For instance, a farmers’ union was challenged to obtain inputs for its members due to liquidity problems in the regional banks and the steep increase in input prices. The union, which primarily traded in grains and provided inputs, began to engage in the coffee trade. Through their networks with exporters, they were able to establish linkages with buyers and mitigate their cash flow problem.

In general, despite reporting lost investments due to poor quality inputs and disruptive price controls, very few of the business owners in Jimma described food insecurity or needing to turn to social networks to survive. Respondents also indicated willingness to continue taking risks to grow their market activities, diversify and shift gears in response to market opportunities.

Translating evidence into the path forward

While these findings are encouraging, the challenges facing producers and other market actors remain daunting. An uncertain environment and recent conflict have strained relations between trading partners in different regions. A fishery owner in Bahir Dar reported breakdowns in business agreements between fishers and traders due to closed markets and roadblocks caused by instability.

Moving forward, the Feed the Future Ethiopia Transforming Agriculture Activity is sharing learnings from the studies with regional stakeholders to forge a plan to build resilient markets that will buffer vulnerable groups from hardship. The activity will encourage structured supply chains with consistent, clear rules and transparent rewards and sanctions to increase the level of stability in relationships, alliances and overall cooperation. Learning from positive examples in the Jimma region, some of the activity’s focus will be on high-value crops with adequate returns on investment to attract new market entrants. However, the activity will consider the risk management strategy of poorer communities when supporting the market system. Specifically, the team has identified approaches that can support multiple crops or income-generating activities to facilitate ongoing income diversification, and early activities will focus on input networks to attract competition and lower costs for last-mile distribution. For vulnerable market segments, such as women, raising awareness with input suppliers and traders of the importance of female customers is expected to strengthen their position and negotiating power.

Finally, markets have a key role to play in discouraging conflict by rewarding sustained relationships and free movement. The activity team will emphasize transparency of rules and ensuring goods and services are more accessible, thereby facilitating improved inter-group relations in the long term. By executing these interrelated interventions, the Feed the Future Ethiopia Transforming Agriculture Activity will sustainably improve the diets of seven million of the most shock-affected groups by facilitating the development of competitive, inclusive and resilient food and agriculture systems.

This post was written by Joanna Springer for the Feed the Future Ethiopia Transforming Agriculture Activity.


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