The Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) jointly organized a series of webinars on “Recovering Livelihoods and Jobs through Agriculture and MSMEs in the context of COVID-19” from July 20-27, 2020. Comprised of four sessions, the webinars brought together national and international experts and researchers to interact and exchange knowledge and experiences on a wide range of topics, including availability and access to food, migrant workers, gender equality and job opportunities in the context of the unfolding global pandemic. Check out the summary of the sessions:

Session 1: Building resilient food supply system”

20 July, Kathmandu. The first session was conducted on “agriculture and building resilient food supply system”. This session assessed the current situation of the food supply chain in Nepal and South Korea, provided examples of how both governments and stakeholders attempt to build more resilient food supply systems in response and offered innovative recommendations for the future.

Restrictions of movement, disruptions of production operations, closure of markets and logistical malfunctions hampered smooth supply of food. Responding to the impact of the pandemic and subsequent nation-wide lockdown and border closures, the government, development partners, and private sectors need to envision a comprehensive solution to secure and recover livelihoods of the people.

In the webinar, Dr. Hari Bahadur K.C., Joint Secretary of Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock Development (MOALD) gave an overview of the governance system for the resilient agriculture and highlighted challenges and opportunities face by Nepalese agriculture sector. As part of the COVID response, Dr. KC informed that, MoALD has formed a response team and ensured continued agriculture operation and smooth flow of information including safety and health protocols.

He also addressed major opportunities for the agriculture sector in the post-COVID era. He raised the issue of self-sufficiency  which has become a national agenda and indigenous sustainable technologies that are contextualized to Nepal’s resources are gaining popularity. In the  process of federalization, all three levels of government are learning to coordinate and work innovatively and proactively and help the supply chain of agriculture products along with the agriculture cooperatives. Moreover, fallow lands came into cultivation to reap more products and youth migrant returnees are seeking opportunities to be back in the farm. He also appreciated the youth engagement in in the agriculture sector by providing home delivery and online marketing tools. With the increased investment of private sector in the agriculture , he suggested to have  the agriculture sector can facilitate in mapping of resources, business incubation, and enhancing access to land, capital, technology, and market.

He further suggested that Nepal needs to be self-sufficient especially in staples and major commodities, promote export of high value products, and import substitution. He recommended for subsidies o agriculture inputs, enhance access to technology, insurance, soft-loan, and assured market, and cultivate fallow lands. He emphasized that municipalities are the main drivers of this change and encouraged increased investment in infrastructure development, service delivery, input productions, output marketing, and network building.

In efforts to adopt best practices abroad, Dr. Chang-gil Kim, Professor at Seoul National University shared the experience of South Korean agricultural sector and provided some contextualized recommendations for Nepalese agriculture. He shared about  how South Korea was successful in containing the virus and minimizing its health, economic, and social impact through the 3T system (Test, Trace, and Treat) and strong public-private partnership (PPP). He shared that the impact on production in the agriculture sector is relatively low in  South Korea as there was never had a nation-wide lockdown, however, on the consumption side, new trends and changes have been observed.

He also touched upon the Online agricultural exchange system which diversifies distribution channel and save time and money for producers, distributors, and consumers, have been jointly developed by MAFRA and National Agricultural Cooperative Feederation (NACF) and Korea Rural Economic Institute (KREI). This fully digitized wholesale transaction system allows the farmers and buyers to communicate and exchange directly at a lower online exchange listing fee of 3% (average wholesale market listing fee is 4-7%). Secondly, urban-rural workforce brokerage system is operated by local governments and NACF to ensure steady supply of labor in agriculture by providing transportation, accommodation, and insurance to job seekers for the short-term farming jobs.

Based on the experiences of South Korean agriculture sector, Dr. Kim suggested, while various long-term and short-term response are prepared, that the Government of Nepal should provide more immediate strategy to assist the agriculture sector. He emphasized that the migrant returnees who have gained experience and knowledge abroad can become innovators in the farm. To support the returnees, better database needs to be established and benchmarking of Korea’s urban and rural workforce brokerage system can be useful. Likewise, benchmarking of Korea’s online agriculture exchange  system can be helpful in creating digital solutions to enhance resilience of the agriculture sector. By establishing an e-commerce platform, unnecessary financial burden put my middlemen and brokers can be reduced. To do so, digital extension and advisory services based on information and communication technology (ICT) must be promoted. Lastly, the number and scale cold storage units must be expanded as Nepal has a very week road condition and transportation system. Public and private partnership is key in promoting and establishing modernized processing and storage facilities in Nepal. Stressing that the crisis breedes opportunities, he concluded his presentation, hoping that KOICA-UNDP's VCDP will play a big role in innovating Nepal's vegetable and fruit industries in the post COVID-19 era.

Lastly, to identify practical opportunities and solutions in the current context, Mr. Chiranjibi Adhikari, National Project Manager for the Value Chain Development of Fruit and Vegetables Project (VCDP) provided the immediate response measures taken by the development sector, particularly the VCDP, in protecting and promoting the livelihood of farmers. Mr. Adhikari identified few major impacts of the pandemic such as limited transaction volume and reduced demand of fresh produce and price of fresh vegetables. At the project level, many of the activities had to be downscaled and readjusted to the new policies and restrictions. As critical cases of agriculture supply chain and service system disturbances have been observed, the project initiated immediate response activities in collaboration with local governments and cooperatives.

COVID-19 relief and response fund was established to support inputs and market functioning by subsidizing agriculture inputs, transportation vehicles, and initiation of local market. The Project also provided technical backstopping support to local extension staff. In particular, agriculture ambulance was operated by Phedikhola rural municipality to collect produce at farm gate and distribute at local markets. Moreover, these agriculture ambulances made collective purchase of inputs and distributed at doorsteps, minimizing farmer movement as well as consumer movement. Nava Krishi Cooperatives in Gaidakot also received Value Chain Grant from VCDP to purchase vegetable transportation vehicle and acted as a vegetable market center. VCDP facilitated linkage with different producer cooperatives with this market center. Bhakunde agriculture market in Namobuddha likewise received support in operation of market center which expanded opportunities for farmers to sell their products.

VCDP also provided technical assistance as well as information and material on minimum safety measures to technicians and cooperatives via online platforms. The project facilitated linkages with input dealers and suppliers with local service providers to streamline the distribution. Lastly, short-term cold storage for surplus vegetables such as carrots were supported. From the experience of the project, it is found that partnership with local governments and cooperatives were very successful in providing immediate response. At the same time, the significance of capacity of local service provided and emergency response plan prior to the crisis for the agriculture are realized. In the future, capacity building of key actors of agriculture production and distribution and development of clear protocols and standardized operating procedures need to be supported by development sector.

In conclusion, the current crisis poses significant threats to the agriculture sector as movements are restricted and demands in the market are changing; however, the crisis also brings opportunities to envision creative solutions and mobilize new resources. Streamlining coordination between three levels of government and with agriculture cooperatives, developing and using the ICT infrastructure for online marketing, supporting migrant returnees and youths as innovators, investing in cold storage and processing facilities, and enhancing access to soft-loans and information for farmers will contribute towards building more resilient and self-sufficient food supply chain in Nepal.

file photo: migrants workers returning to Nepal

Session 2: Migrants and Socio-economic Reintegration

As the pandemic has put most economies on halt, large number of migrants abroad are losing jobs and are returning to home countries. Nepali migrant workers in the border areas, the Gulf region, and in Northeast Asia are experiencing severe economic downturns without sufficient access to healthcare and information, making them unprotected and vulnerable. A dramatic reduction in remittances sent home is expected, affecting house incomes across the country.

The  second session comprehensively reviewed the impact of COVID-19 on Nepali migrants by addressing the overall migration pattern, its impact on Nepal’s economy and development, needs and challenges in socio-economic reintegration of migrant returnees, and responses from development actors and the government.

The  first speaker, Mr. Prajwal Sharma, Migration and Development Officer at International Organization for Migration (IOM) Nepal shared the overview of migration trend in Nepal, impact of COVID-19 on migrants, and initiatives taken by the development agencies such as IOM. He explained that migrant workers are significant contributors of Nepal’s local and national economy as their remittances were up to Rs. 879 billion in 2018-2019 fiscal year. Internal migration is also an important source of income for Nepali households as many migrate from rural to urban cities. During the early period of this pandemic, many migrants were unable to return home due to the border closure and lockdown. Many stranded migrants were without sufficient protection and access to healthcare and information. Mr. Sharma shared that an estimated over 1.2 million Nepali migrants may return to Nepal of which 600,000 may return from Gulf countries and Malaysia. More than 32,100 were brought on chartered flights from various countries and. The returnees face serious stigmatization and discrimination, which is concerning.

Mr. Sharma also addressed the economic impact of the COVID-19 on migrants. He cited Central Bank of Nepal that over USD 1.2 billion remittance losses is estimated even under the assumption of normal functioning of economy after June. About 8 million people are in the labor market of which 85% are in the informal sector. In response to these issues and to support the governments and migrants, IOM has been working proactively on risk communication and community engagement to address the fear and concerns of communities and migrant returnees. Several assessments are conducted to address needs and gaps in socio-economic recovery and protection.

Ms. Sharu Joshi, Executive Board Member of Nepal Policy Institute, a Global Knowledge Platform and Migration Lab a research organization presented the key findings and way forward of the Rapid Assessment of Nepali Migrant Workers' Situation in Major Destination Countries (GCC, Malaysia and India) during the COVID -19 Pandemic. The unprecedented reverse migration has put social and economic reintegration in the spotlight. An overwhelmingly majority of migrants (80%) reported that they are interested in engaging in self-employment, either in agriculture or non-agriculture. The remaining 20 % prefer to engage in wage employment. However, they flagged combination of low earnings, but high living cost makes wage employment opportunities less attractive. In the survey, migrant workers were anxious about their future. Contributing factors of this anxiety were very little savings for investment or self-employment in Nepal, lack of knowledge about the local context, administrative hurdles to access loan and information. The massive return trend of Nepali workers from India has revealed that this overlooked corridor also merits equal policy attention. 90 % of India-based migrants reported lack of finances as a major hindrance to self-employment. Women's involvement in unpaid care work and domestic violence are the push factors, and the ban on domestic workers, which are predominantly women, are denying their fundamental right to return home. Ms. Joshi highlighted, 70% of migrant workers are completely unaware of the employment funds, loan facilities and programme related to economic opportunities.

On the way forward, Ms. Joshi suggested that there is specific need to intensify the role of local government, who are mandated with the responsibilities of many foreign employment tasks like standardization of migrant database including their skills and interest and facilitation of their social and economic reintegration. She was also critical on existing short-term, disintegrated efforts and suggested a broader understanding of core needs, motivations, future aspirations, and family situations.  She recommended the development partners to support the Foreign Employment Board and the local government by adopting an integrated approach placing migrant workers in the center stage for inclusive program.  A comprehensive media campaigns focusing on dignity of labor, acknowledging their significant contribution to the Nepal's economy irrespective of their gender, occupation and place of origin is much needed.  She concluded saying, Nepal is facing trade deficit, care deficit and labor deficit since long time, but a this unprecedented reverse migration can curve the scenario for economic development of Nepal.

For more comprehensive understanding of migration beyond the Gulf and Malaysia, Mr. Nir Bahadur Gurung, Assistant Professor at Lumbini Buddhist University shared the experiences, challenges, and opportunities for Nepali migrants to South Korea under the Employment Permit System (EPS). EPS is government-government migration programme which began in 2007. EPS is a preferred migration path for many Nepalis as the average salary is much higher (USD 1000) than that of the Gulf region (USD 300) while the recruitment process is cheap, transparent, and secure. 96% of the Nepalis work in the manufacturing sector and 3% work in the agriculture in South Korea. 68% of returnees from Korea are self-employed. Good entrepreneurship models – on rural and agro-tourism, livestock and agriculture firm, hydronic company, food and beverage businesses - using skills and experiences earned from South Korea were also shared. He concurred with other panelists that returnees need and expect soft loans and skill development training for better integration.

Major problems for EPS, Mr. Gurung explained, were lengthy process and inaccessibility for low income and less educated people, lack of assurance of job upon completion of the process, and inability to perform proper family role. He also pointed out that high competition, lack of information and linkages of resources and skills, and lack satisfactory jobs back in Nepal were major challenges faced by returnees from Korea. Accordingly, Mr. Gurung agreed with other panelists are resource center, database system, entrepreneurship trainings, psycho-social orientation and counselling and comprehensive reintegration policy were urgently needed.

In response to the suggestions presented by other panelists, Mr. Pushpa Raj Shahi, Joint Secretary of Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies addressed the major government policies taken to better assist migrant workers, especially returnees from Korea, and their reintegration. He first introduced the legal environment including Labour and Employment policy which provide conceptual guidance towards decent work and use of capital, skill, technology, and experience to yield enhanced production. He also told that the budget speech of 2020 addressed “employment generation through private sector partnership (returnee migrants)” as priority area. There are number of initiatives and programs for recovery and employment generation which enhances access to loans.

Mr. Shahi also noted that the need assessment and baseline survey using mobile numbers of returnees, especially from Korea, to create a database and collect interests. He suggested that primary production business such as livestock, agriculture, forestry, and cash crops, and processing center business, organic packaging businesses can be great potential business opportunities. Once needs and resources are organized, the government can set up resource centers or training institutions in seven provinces as well as link migrant returnees with local farmers and entrepreneurs.

Throughout the presentation and discussion with the panelists, it was clear that migrant workers are critical contributors of Nepal’s development. Accordingly, necessary legal, administrative, and technical support to mediate their needs and challenges abroad and back home must be provided in the near future for sustainable growth of Nepal. Better dissemination of information, closer monitoring throughout the whole migration process, proactive skill matching services, and enhanced access to soft loans and skill trainings will allow both individual Nepali migrants and Nepal as a country to prosper.

Session 3: Gendered Impact of COVID-19 on Livelihood

24 July, 2020. The third session: “Gendered Impact of COVID-19 on Livelihood” of KOICA-UNDP webinar series reviewed the disproportionate impact of the crisis and response measures on women. The session reviewed how existing legal and social structures that constrain women and sexual minorities exacerbated the inequalities and provide policy response recommendations.

Ms. Manamaya Pangeni, Joint Secretary of Ministry of Women, Children and Senior Citizen shared her presentation on the overview of gendered impact of COVID-19 in Nepal and the government efforts to respond to the crisis. Ms. Pangeni explained that prior to this pandemic, there was a significant improvement in livelihood and income generation. However, since the outbreak of the virus, livelihood and income generation windows were severely damaged as the Government imposed a nation-wide lockdown for three and a half months. People lost their jobs and overall economic activities decreased with reduced mobility and disruptions in production and transportation. In particular, agriculture sector which 66% of the population engages in were hit hard. These economic hardships led to vulnerability to human trafficking and suicide rate increased due to poverty, hunger, and gender-based violence.

In response, the Government of Nepal has initiated and deployed COVID-19 response fund and relief packages. Ministry of Women, Children, and Senior Citizens (MoWCSC) in particular activated Gender based Violence GBV reduction fund and rescued women and girls from gender-based violence and human trafficking. Heli-lifting service for rural women (pregnant women and lactating mothers) continued to be provided. Protection cluster, action plan, and MoWCSC COVID-19 response steering committee were established. Gender in Humanitarian Action forum and awareness campaigns through mass media were activated. MoWCSC also developed quarantine monitoring checklist with GESI perspective and guidelines for GBV shelter homes. As a way forward, Ms. Pangeni suggested that economic re-building is urgently required by minimizing the investment in disputes and weapons and prioritizing employment generation and addressing poverty first. She explained that focused bilateral and multilateral support for development of social infrastructure and re-engineering working pattern in agriculture sector are needed. She encouraged to address the issues of female migrant workers and develop social and human capital.

Dr. Hye Seung Cho, Associate Research Fellow at Korean Women’s Development Institute (KWDI) followed up with experience of South Korea and the government measures. She highlighted the importance of capacity building trainings for the government officials to provide inclusive and gender-sensitive policy responses. Dr. Cho explained that COVID-19 have four major impacts: health impact, economic impact, gender-based violence, and unpaid care work. She emphasized that all four of these impacts are interrelated. She focused on the economic impact of the crisis by addressing disproportionate decrease in employment rate for women (2.7% decrease for women and 1.8% decrease for men). She explained that this is because women often hold less secure jobs such as part time jobs and face-to-face service jobs such as daycare teachers, after-school teachers, and caregivers.

KWDI’s Survey on Women’s Labor situation after COVID 19 showed that the majority of female workers in high impact group mentioned above suffered from reduced incomes. In response, the South Korean government provided Subsidy Fund for workers on unpaid leave, workers on leave of absence, and the dependent self-employed whose livelihoods have been disrupted by COVID 19. Moreover, the government is promoting family care leave, emergency livelihood fund loan program for construction workers, and increased employee retention subsidy. However, there is insufficient support for women-dominant industries and women workers in informal sectors

To better prepare and respond to the crisis and its collateral damages on women, Dr. Cho recommended to include women in designing and implementing COVID-19 related policies and Establish gender-sensitive statistics of each sector for research and analysis, and finally, long-term response must be envisioned to transform the gender-norms and reduce the magnified existing gender inequalities in a patriarchal society. To do this, Dr. Cho suggested that capacity building trainings are crucial.

Mr. Santosh Acharya, Programme Officer at UN Women Nepal shed light on pre-COVID gender issues that gender biased discriminatory norms and harmful practices are deeply rooted in Nepalese society. According to Nepal Labour Force Survey 2018, 90.45% of the working women in Nepal are engaged in informal sector and required to commute to work. Moreover, for every 100 rupees a man can earn, women can earn only 70 rupees in Nepal (NLFS 2018). Only 29% women have access ownership of land and property (Nepal Population Census 2011).

Building onto the existing limitations and harmful practices against women, COVID-19 exacerbated gender inequalities. He informed that, disproportionate care and domestic work responsibilities to women are limiting their economic and education opportunities. With  the lockdown situation, women experience increased risks of GBV but mechanism for prevention and response to GBV are disrupted. Women have limited access to information compounded with gender digital gap. The lockdown also interrupted access to sexual and reproductive health services. Most importantly, there is a serious threat to women’s economic empowerment and livelihoods in the informal sector. Impact of COVID-19 is not the same for all women. Women from LGBTI communities have greater degree of difficulty as they do not have enough  platforms to share their issues. Mr. Acharya took a deep dive into the economic impact of COVID-19 on women’s livelihood. He shared that women are more likely than men to have reduction in working hours in formal and informal employment, experience loss of job, and decrease in income from paid job. Women MSMEs are likely to collapse as they have less capacity to absorb the shock of Covid-19-informal nature and lack of safety nets. Consequently, women are likely to fall in the trap of high interest loan in the lack of formal financial access.

In response, Mr. Acharya shared that, UN Women developed gender checklist, GESI key advocacy messages, and gender alert for COVID-19 outbreak. UN Women has developed comprehensive support package to cater the emerging socio-economic needs of women and vulnerable groups. In concurrence with other panelists, Mr. Acharya suggested that deliberate efforts to incorporate gender lens in Covid-19 analysis and respond are needed. This means that women’s voice, choice, and security must be integrated into public policy. He also encouraged social protection to be extended across all sectors and care work to economy to be central of government and UN work.

This crisis has exposed and exacerbated existing social and gender inequalities. Public policy must put gender equality and social inclusion at the core and incorporate women’s concerns and needs. Moreover, existing harmful practices and beliefs that unfairly discriminates women must be revisited and revised. In this pandemic, women have been playing a central role in preventing and responding to the virus. It is time that the society treats women fairly and equally both at work and at home.

Session 4: Crisis as an Opportunity to Get Back to Farms 

30 July 2020.  The last session was on “Crisis as an Opportunity to Get Back to Farms ” which reviewed r how businesses have supported micro, small, medium enterprises to overcome this crisis and use this time as an opportunity to re-envision supply of agriculture and accessible entrepreneurship.

Mrs. Bina Pradhan, Adviser to Federation of Business & Professional Women, Nepal (FBPWN) highlighted on unpaid care work which is essential to the economy, health, and survival but women, who are the majority to perform, are put at a high risk. Secondly economic inequalities both in Nepal and around the world are widening and exacerbated the impact of COVID-19 on different groups. Mrs. Pradhan suggested that this crisis can be a transformational opportunity to build on enterprising initiatives of the family farms at the household (HH) levels for development of the agricultural sector.

She addressed that the vulnerabilities of the different groups of people including the women and non-recognition of care work are embedded in the structures and models of development. Unlike the views in economics that households are consumption units that are “non-economic” and therefore are unimportant for planning growth and development of the country, households operate many spheres of activities that maximize HH income and family welfare. Every household produces goods and services to support their livelihoods, conveying that Nepalese HHs, unlike in the west, are both a unit of production and consumption.

Given this unique circumstance, Mrs. Pradhan suggested that the government must give care work a top priority as it knits society together from young to old and from household to hospital and provide economic compensation for guaranteeing social protection. Households must be viewed as basic care and survival units whose purchasing power needs to be enhanced for their efficiency and effectiveness. She also suggested to support every HHs to enhance its functioning capability as a family farm enterprise by providing well-coordinated relief and economic stimulus packages to encourage agricultural farming to cover initial investment, capacity development, innovation and technology.

Mrs. Pradhan claimed, MSMEs must be given a full economic recovery package given their contributions and potential for recovery and growth of the country. Moreover, the government must generate mass employment through public works, irrigation and water supply schemes, infrastructure development, and hydropower projects that will create mass employment putting money in the hands of the people to boost their purchasing power. Lastly, Mrs. Pradhan emphasized that the federal and provincial governments put in place a simple, effective and transparent implementation mechanism for the delivery of support services and guarantee transparency and accountability in use of money donated by international agencies.

Ms. Sonika Manandhar, Chief Technology Officer of explained that due to the lack of formal employment or credits, women are increasingly becoming invisible in the financing system. Moreover, 80% of households do not have a female member who owns fixed assets and even those with fixed assets are not empowered enough to make efficient use of their assets. Aeloi is a fintech software company that uses digital tokens to monitor the end use of microloans and ensure all loans are used for business not personal purposes. Aeloi provides inclusive digital tools to enhance access to technology for micro-entrepreneurs. Ultimately, she believes this transparent use of loans will lower loan interest rates. Although many sophisticated technologies are readily available, the target users are often unfamiliar and scared to use them. Seeing this problem, Aeloi simplified the modules and decided to only use SMS to provide their services. In this way, micro-entrepreneurs who are the main target users are already familiar with the system and can easily use their services.

Aeloi launched two pilot projects in agriculture (ReGrow) and electric transportation (GEM). However, during the lockdown, Aeloi found that mini-bus (known as safa tempos) drivers could not operate, and farmers could not supply their products to the market. Also, e-businesses were growing exponentially during the lockdown and there was a huge demand for delivery of produce. Aeloi saw an opportunity to link the two projects – ReGrow and GEM – and connect safa tempo with e-businesses to deliver goods. Moreover, they saw an opportunity to diversify income sources for micro-entrepreneurs by connecting the farmers with urban-based entrepreneurs to process and increase the value of their products. Aeloi also felt the need for a longer-term recovery plan for women entrepreneurs. Using the digital token system, Aeloi is planning to launch COVID response impact fund to stimulate economic recovery for the informal sector micro-entrepreneurs.

Mr. Rohit Tiwari, Chief Executive Officer of Foodmario shared his company’s experience in this crisis. Foodmario is a mobile app-based delivery service company that connects home cooks with the customers. However, due to the lockdown and restrictions in mobility for non-essential items including food delivery, Foodmario faced a major challenge in operating their business. Mr. Tiwari, however, saw the opportunity to utilize their subsidiary service, Foodplus, to deliver vegetables and essential food items. Foodplus by Foodmario is connected with local partners such as Agrimove and Metro Tarkari that directly work with local farmers and provide delivery services for customers at their doorstep. He shared that obtaining vehicle passes was a long and challenging process. However, Foodmario worked with other similar businesses such as Foodmandu to find a solution with the government. After COVID-19, Foodmario is also delivering vegetables and bakery. Mr. Tiwari envisions that Foodmario can be a platform that connects local farmers with local business partners and customers, empowering micro-entrepreneurs, home cooks, and women.

This session reviewed how this crisis is a wake-up call for our economy to revisit existing inequalities and challenges for micro, small, and medium enterprises. This COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent response measures have imposed obstacles for many businesses but also trained them to be innovative and resilient. Empowering MSMEs by providing soft loans, recovery packages, and accessible technology to connect with other businesses and consumers can be a solution to building a more sustainable and resilient economy and nation.

Summary compiled by: Hayoung Lee, Governance and Rule of Law Assistant



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