Mark Brennan is a PhD student studying supply chains in relation to food security and assistance, and a researcher on MIT’s Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation, which is funded by USAID’s Global Development Lab.
Food losses due to poor quality, spoilage, and packaging breakage negatively impact the ability of food assistance projects to achieve their goals. The first post in this series described two initiatives that might improve food assistance quality. Here, I illustrate what both initiatives have in common and how they are different, with the goal of showing how experimentation with procurement is a flexible tool for the improvement of food aid outcomes.
What better food aid packaging and post-harvest storage have in common
Introducing multiple packaging and storage options in the system allows for evaluation of the supply chain of the food and that of packaging or storage itself. Evaluating the USAID initiative includes asking questions related to the food supply chain (e.g., does an airtight liner get punctured during port handling?), and those related to the packaging supply chain (such as, are there minimum order quantities for airtight liners?). Likewise, evaluating the WFP initiative requires an understanding of the impact of storage on farmers’ sales and consumption habits, as well as the operations of the Ugandan firms providing the storage.
An experimental mindset let organizations “think outside of the box,” with both USAID and WFP identifying and eventually procuring packaging and storage varieties for which there were not pre-existing suppliers. USAID is exploring the use of the insect growth regulator, which—in the American market—had not been previously applied to some packaging bag types. Similarly, WFP identified metal and plastic silos as a potentially effective means of on-farm storage, for which there were not pre-existing Ugandan suppliers. Based on initial estimates, the improved packaging and storage varieties for which there were not pre-existing suppliers also happened to be among the cheapest options (based on certain repurchase rates and product lifetimes, in the case of WFP).
What they don’t have in common
The USAID initiative is explicitly designed as an experiment, while the WFP initiative was designed as a development program. MIT researchers were involved with the experimental design and the evaluation in the USAID experiment. On the contrary, the WFP initiative was designed by WFP to provide farmers with post-harvest storage options while supporting the Ugandan firms in the sector. Applying an experimental approach, it sourced storage bags and two types of silos from Ugandan firms of various sizes, which enabled MIT researchers to evaluate different storage options and business models.
The USAID Office of Food for Peace (FFP) in Washington, D.C. is leading the food aid packaging initiative, while the WFP initiative was run out of their Uganda Country Office. In the USAID project, government processes and regulations informed many experimental factors. On the other hand, the Uganda-based WFP initiative appeared more flexible in ways.
In one sense, the two initiatives were asking different questions. USAID wanted to understand how packaging—which performed well in labs tests and some field trials—would perform specifically in its food aid supply chain. WFP wanted to understand how storage—which had been piloted previously on a small scale—would scale specifically in Uganda. These differences reflect the extent to which experimentation with procurement is a flexible tool.
Using trial procurements to improve food aid quality
Looking forward, there are other types of food aid packaging that could be piloted and evaluated. For example, how are different vegetable oil packages used after the oil is consumed, and what value do they generate for the beneficiary? Or, alternatively, there are other reasons behind defaults in P4P including delayed WFP pickups (WFP 2011); systemically randomly offering some farmers a phone number and credit to call WFP if there is a pick up delay may—or may not—reduce the number of defaults.
These are nontrivial questions. USAID’s annual food assistance budget regularly exceeds $1 billion (USAID 2016), and WFP’s many billions (WFP 2016). Food assistance is a procurement- and financially-intensive activity. As such, there is room for the systematic piloting, evaluation, and eventual implementation of other packaging and storage initiatives to improve food assistance quality and outcomes for beneficiaries.