Rapid assessments: when fast interventions are required

Since early 2020, Wageningen University & Research has been using rapid assessments to gain insight into the impact of COVID-19 on agrifood sectors in Africa and Asia. The unique method proved that stakeholders can adequately take actions to crisis with fast interventions. Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation now shares the method, results and lessons learned.


Project results and guidance on the methodology are compiled on this webpage. A scientific article on ‘Putting food systems thinking into practice: Integrating agricultural sectors into a multi-level analytical framework’ has been published by WCDI researchers in science direct.

International cooperation was suddenly and severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020. Flo Dirks, agroeconomic advisor at Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation and primarily active in Ethiopia over the past four years, unexpectedly found herself stuck in the Netherlands. “I was unable to travel back to Ethiopia where I was busy with a project aimed at strengthening the country’s sesame seed sector.”

Dirks’ colleague, seed systems senior advisor Walter de Boef, was in a similar predicament. It was also quickly becoming apparent that the COVID-19 measures being implemented worldwide were going to have an impact on agrifood sectors, especially those in African and Asian countries where Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation has been active in international development programmes for years. “We had ongoing seed programmes in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda, and were concerned about their progress. Disruptions to the chain can have major consequences for the quality of the harvest as well as everything related to it, such as the availability of food, income and labour to households.”

At this point the rapid assessment methodology came into play. The goal was to swiftly assess agrifood sectors in crisis situations, categorise the consequences of lockdowns and come up with solutions to bottlenecks together with the various stakeholders involved. “We first identified which stakeholders were at play in certain sectors,” Dirks explains. “These ranged from governments and regulating bodies to farmers, industries and civil society. We sent key representatives of these stakeholders a questionnaire so that they could indicate the impact COVID-19 was having on various activities and processes in that sector. The most urgent topics were then discussed in focus group meetings to determine which actions were needed and who was responsible for them.”

Partners on site

The fact that Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation has been active in African and Asian regions for many years was a clear asset in this respect. De Boef: “We were able to act quickly with our partners on site. Moreover – and this is one of the positive effects of the crisis – we were able to communicate virtually in no time. I remember being in a Zoom meeting with Nigerian farmers very soon after the first lockdown started.”

The process involved developing a framework for establishing a fast assessment of effects in sectors within the food system. “Initially we determined which parts of the sector we required information from. The first rapid assessments were focused on specific sectors such as seed, sesame and horticulture. We then looked at sectors where we had no direct programmes or partners, such as fertiliser, fisheries, dairy, cotton and cut flowers. We also combined all our experiences with rapid assessments of the food system at the country level.”

Dairy sector in Kenya

The rapid assessments soon resulted in concise reports with urgent bottlenecks and possible solutions, plus the related responsibilities for stakeholders. One of the sectors to be analysed was the dairy sector in Kenya. Asaah Ndambi, dairy expert at Wageningen Livestock Research and operating from Kenya, was closely involved in the process:

“We saw the sector quickly having problems due to government measures. While milk supply was designated as an essential’ service, the same did not apply to several inputs for milk production. This meant that dairy farmers had difficulties obtaining cattle feed and fodder as well as services such as artificial insemination, veterinary and extension services. Besides transportation restrictions, there was a locust plague in parts of Kenya that affected forage availability at the same time. Moreover, the farmers were dealing with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which equally affected milk production. Production costs increased because of these challenges. Chilling and distribution problems ensued and the quality of dairy products declined. In addition, dairy products became less affordable for many Kenyans who lost their jobs or had to deal with reduced incomes. However, due to school closure, household milk consumption by milk producing families increased because their children were home.”

The rapid assessment implemented with stakeholders resulted in a long list of possible solutions, varying from support measures for farmers to a better information supply in the chain and smaller dairy packaging to ensure even the poorest still had access to milk. In hindsight, the method can easily be used outside the context of coronavirus, for instance to gain a fast insight into challenges and within existing projects and possible solutions. “This will need to be part of a broader analysis,” De Boef emphasises. “It will often then be necessary to make a more in-depth analysis than a rapid assessment can offer.”

More willingness to change

Two years have since passed. Looking back, the greatest value of the rapid assessments might well be the increased willingness to work together and the discovery of structural problems that require attention. Dirks mentions the position of seasonal workers in the Ethiopian sesame sector. “The sector strongly depends on these workers who work in very poor conditions. It was impossible for this group to comply with the hygiene regulations related to COVID-19 as they were normally packed together in small vehicles. At the start of the pandemic a maximum number of passengers applied per van and this highlighted the mobility and health issues of seasonal workers. There was much greater recognition of how their conditions needed to be improved.”

Proven unwieldiness of systems

“We have also proven the unwieldiness of certain systems,” De Boef adds. “Decisions about new crop varieties were postponed because regulations prescribed that they could only be taken during physical meetings. The rapid assessments have definitely ensured that some of these archaic methods were abandoned sooner than would have been the case.”

This was also noticed by Ndambi, who concludes: “This is also a cheaper method as in-depth research is not required. A good-quality assessment can even be made via virtual meetings, phone and email alone.”