Myanmar’s collapse from a hopeful democracy and growing economy has been heartbreaking. While all of us in the humanitarian and international development fields are used to working in complex and conflict-affected contexts, there are few roadmaps available for navigating the current context in Myanmar. Rapid response, resourcefulness, and out-of-the-box solutions to program and operational challenges have become paramount. There is no better example of this than the staff working on the USAID Agriculture and Food Systems Development Activity (AFDA). Their commitment to improving incomes and food security in Myanmar during a time of unprecedented crises is why ACDI/VOCA has nominated the AFDA team for a 2022 Humentum Operational Excellence Award.
Myanmar’s Current Crises
Over the last two years, Myanmar has endured a series of devastating setbacks — from the crippling COVID-19 pandemic to the military takeover and increasing civil unrest resulting in over 12,000 deaths and thousands caught up in arbitrary detention. Violent conflict between the People’s Defense Forces and the military has left the country on the brink of civil war and economic collapse, creating an atmosphere of fear and despair.
These events are placing unprecedented challenges on development partners working in the middle of the crisis. AFDA team members and their families have been targeted by the military-controlled government, forcing some to flee their homes. Due to security concerns, AFDA staff have not traveled or met in person with partners and stakeholders.
Adapting to an Unprecedented Crises
Myanmar’s agri-food sector is on the brink of disconnection from global supply chains…. Local food systems in Myanmar are still struggling within old food systems… And security issues have hugely affected the personal safety of employees and properties, along with limited financial services caused by bank closures. – AFDA Agribusiness Partner
Despite the challenging circumstances, the AFDA team is continuing program support and operations at a critical time when Myanmar’s agriculture and food systems face immense pressure. The AFDA team is responding to the crises in the following ways.
- First, AFDA continues to work closely with its portfolio of 18 agribusiness partners to renegotiate all existing partnership agreements in response to worsening market conditions. Together, they have shifted from export to domestic consumption, increased business development and supply chain strengthening support, reduced planned targets, and leveraged partnership contributions.
- AFDA also piloted a new partnership program by soliciting a request for expression of interest to pre-identified local partners. This helped target AFDA support and did so discreetly, avoiding unwanted attention from the military-controlled government and the groups fighting government forces and advocating for businesses to boycott.
- Second, the AFDA team made dramatic changes to its operational, finance, and human resources systems to respond to various challenges.
Procurement systems – Due to the collapse of the banking system, AFDA moved all grant procurement payments to ACDI/VOCA’s Home Office Accounts Payable Unit. This allowed timely payments to vendors and consultants outside of Myanmar. AFDA also prioritized vendors with equipment in stock at the time of order and stopped paying advance payments to mitigate losses and reduce delays in purchases and implementation.
Finance systems – With COVID-19-related travel restrictions in place, bank wires requiring the cashier to physically go to the bank became risky. In response, AFDA set up online banking and requested suppliers open accounts with the same bank. After the military coup, banks struggled; they were shut down for months, and even when they reopened, there was no cash at branches and ATMs. AFDA identified one bank still providing services and quickly opened bank accounts, which allowed them to resume inward transfers and wires to vendors and staff. When banks ran out of cash and staff could not receive their salaries from their banks, ACDI/VOCA introduced an emergency cash policy allowing staff to receive their salaries partially in cash.
Information technology systems – AFDA trained all external partners in Microsoft Teams and Zoom to address communication challenges. This replaced in-person meetings and enabled AFDA to launch co-creation and grant implementation processes virtually.
Safety and security – In the face of growing staff safety concerns, AFDA closed its offices, allowed only essential travel, and established a Viber group for staff to check in twice a day. Since the crises, AFDA has had a 93% retention rate among its 71 staff members.
Making a Difference
The AFDA partnership has helped keep confidence in the business. If we were having to manage the whole business by ourselves, it would be very difficult. Because AFDA is with us, they are able to continue on with their business. — An AFDA private sector partner
AFDA’s support has contributed to the following results (as of Sep 2021):
- 14,229 participants (54% female) comprising 24 ethnicities
- $5,866,918 in annual sales to farms and firms receiving AFDA support
- $2,906,843 in agriculture-related finance facilitated
- $8,979,019 leveraged to support food security
- 7,360 hectares of land under improved management
- 551 jobs created or improved
Most importantly, AFDA has facilitated a range of private sector partnerships that are helping alleviate constraints of the ongoing crises through the following mechanisms:
- Supported contract growing schemes that provide farmers with a market for selling and much-needed access to agricultural inputs and post-harvest services
- Adapted business models to meet changing market demands that can sustain and grow agri-business while supporting rural economies and employment
- Cost-shared and procured modern equipment to boost production and access to higher-value markets, resulting in better prices for farmers and laborers in conflict-sensitive areas
You all have been so resilient . . . It doesn’t matter what happens. This door closes . . . we have that great opportunity. That door closes . . . you guys are always looking for the next opportunity and are problem solving. — Matt Curtis, Feed the Future Coordinator for USAID/Burma
The road to recovery for Myanmar will be long, complex, and resource intensive. That’s why a resilient, adaptable private sector is key to helping the country back on its path toward strong and inclusive agriculture and food systems. The AFDA team’s support to the agricultural market systems in Myanmar is helping to build resilience through its network of committed and courageous partners amid ongoing unrest.