Leveraging technology to support Guatemala’s food chain during COVID-19

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Woman in Guatemala. Photo: Katie Freeman, World Bank

Woman in Guatemala. Photo: Katie Freeman, World Bank 

Restrictions to local and international mobility following the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak are causing disruptions all along the food chain in Guatemala.  This is causing widespread economic hardship and uncertainty that will especially affect the most vulnerable. A World Bank pilot is investing in digital technology that can promote food security, ensure food safety, and sa¬feguard farmers’ livelihoods.

Export-oriented agriculture generates about 45% of Guatemala’s agricultural revenue.  It’s a key driver in preserving jobs: although ports remain open, limitations on the movement of people and goods within the country are putting pressure on the agro-export system, especially for small producers. At the same time, the almost complete shutdown of the hospitality industry means cancelled contracts for farmers, leaving them with surplus produce of specialized harvests and livestock, much of which is uncommon or too costly for local consumption.

Likewise, many small-scale farmers who depend on selling their produce daily now face the closure or reduced operation of marketplaces. In addition, informality (which in rural Guatemala is a reality for 9 out of 10 jobs) makes it difficult for rural producers and workers to access the many emergency programs that the government is implementing in response to the crisis. 

In a country that has worrying hunger and nutrition issues, it’s of utmost importance that agricultural value chains remain functioning and resilient, so that food keeps flowing from production to consumers, especially to address urgent food security concerns for the poor and vulnerable.

In the new socially distanced context, digital technologies are being leveraged all over the world to support food value chains while complying with public health measures and safeguarding workers’ safety.  In China, the e-commerce platform Pinduoduo is helping farmers sell excess produce and partnering with academia and research institutions to offer agricultural e-extension services. In Uganda, JUMIA partnered with the UN Development Programme to link market vendors and vulnerable food producers with consumers online. Similarly, Ninjacart in India and AgriChain in Australia are streamlining supply chain processes to reduce inefficiency and risk and deliver fresh food from farmers to buyers. Indigo Transport in the United States allows grain growers to request transport for their crops, while in France, Connecting Food is using blockchain for full product traceability.

In Guatemala, the World Bank DIGITAGRO pilot, launched before the pandemic with support from the InfoDev Trust Fund, is developing digital tools to support the country’s farmers. Originally envisioned to improve access to the national School Feeding Program for smallholder “agri-preneurs”, these technologies now have the potential to be scaled up as part of the COVID-19 support the Agriculture and Food Global Practice of the World Bank is designing for Guatemala’s agriculture sector. 

Local e-commerce: DIGITAGRO is developing, in partnership with the World Food Programme, an e-commerce platform to match schools’ food demand with supply from smallholders. As the government has decided to keep the School Feeding Program open for the duration of the quarantine, the platform will be key to ensuring it functions effectively, bringing together supply and demand. It can also be adapted to function at a larger scale, to address the current mismatch between food supply and demand arising from the pandemic. Giving farmers the opportunity to access a broader network of customers would also protect their sales and revenue, and improving the dissemination of market information would allow for more efficient production planning as well as lower the costs of production and logistics.

Food security: In Guatemala, around 2.5 million children receive at least one meal a day through the School Feeding Program , and the government decided to keep it running so that students can continue to receive school meals during quarantine. The Ministry of Education (MINEDUC) adapted three menus so that schools provide children’s families with a quantity of nutritious non-perishable foods (such as beans, rice, cereal, sugar, corn flour, and oil) sufficient for 15 days. In the current circumstances, parent organizations are purchasing and distributing the food to children’s families. The DIGITAGRO platform, specifically designed to support sourcing produce from local farmers, will provide the parent organizations with a comprehensive database of agricultural producers that can guarantee a reliable source of secure and nutritional foods - supporting the government’s effort to safeguard the food security of children and their families.

Food and producers’ safety: Now more than ever, rules and standards for food and personal safety need to be widely disseminated and adopted. DIGITAGRO is producing a series of e-extension videos in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which spread information on basic safe food practices, including guidelines on safe handling, processing, packaging and storage, as well as efficient and healthy use of water for food preparation. Additional videos could be produced to support existing World Bank nutrition and health projects in Guatemala. These digital extension services will be vital for farmers to learn good measures and avoid food contamination, while allowing them to stay healthy by doing so from a socially distanced and safe environment.

Beyond the emergency phase, many of the effects of the pandemic are likely to be long-lasting, including growing reliance on mechanisms that can operate remotely. In Guatemala as in many other countries around the world, investing in digital development, increasing mobile penetration, and promoting digital literacy will have high payoffs – not just to face the emergency today, but also to build back better tomorrow.


Katie Kennedy Freeman

Senior Agriculture Economist

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