Can market systems development build resilience in fragile contexts? A Case Study of Effective Seed Storage in Timor-Leste

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Executive Summary

Mercy Corps’ Effective Seed Storage (ESS) seeks to increase food security in Timor-Leste through initiatives aimed at reducing seed and harvest storage losses and maintaining better access to quality seeds. Since August 2011, ESS has successfully developed a market system for a metal-based, customizable and locally manufactured seed storage system, branded as the “silo.” ESS silos have reached 49% of all rural households in Timor-Leste, 71,613 in total. Compared to 2013 baseline measurements, these households have increased their food self-sufficiency— the number of months per year during which the food in a household comes from its own production—by 2.1 months, an 84% increase from baseline.

Against the backdrop of the 2015/2016 El Niño elongated drought and other shocks and stresses in Timor-Leste, ESS’ experience of successfully implementing a market systems development (MSD) approach to achieving food security objectives in a weak market and fragile political environment, offers significant lessons for programs seeking to understand how market-based approaches can contribute to resilience. Based on the assessment, the following key recommendations emerged:

Assess stakeholder risks and needs holistically to inform MSD intervention design and partner selection

Because ESS was originally designed as a seed storage improvement program, it inherently focused on a sector that helped farmers address a key threat to food security, specifically seed and post-harvest losses. In addition, at the outset of the program, the ESS team conducted a more in-depth, participatory assessment of farmers’ experiences and tolerance of risk, as well as their seed storage preferences, which helped inform program decisions around product design, private sector partner selection and market penetration approach. The current study found that contextualizing interventions based on a localized understanding of farmers’ risk at the outset of implementation helped ESS contribute to resilience (see below). Specifically, ESS partnered with local blacksmiths for manufacturing a farmer-preferred silo to maximize local market outreach and penetration, and designed an appropriately-scaled transitional subsidy model that increased farmers’ willingness to pay and ultimately led 49% of rural households in Timor-Leste to purchase and adopt the technology. The team’s subsequent awareness and understanding of emerging risks allowed them to pivot during the 2015/2016 El Niño-induced drought to target farmers with additional resilience capacities—such as access to climate information—further highlighting how a holistic risk analysis can help inform supplementary interventions that strengthen farmers’ resilience.

Harness market systems change to catalyze risk reduction and build resilience at scale

Mercy Corps’ analysis found that MSD’s central focus on catalyzing market systems change to bring benefits to the poor can foster relationships, ingenuity and open up unintended, but favorable, market opportunities that enable vulnerable households to better manage shocks and stresses in complex risk environments. The new connections between blacksmith manufacturers, transporters, retailers and farmers, which ESS facilitated to further a market for the silo technology, spurred new market innovations that contributed to resilience. These included a network for purchasing and selling-off of distressed livestock during the El Niño drought—reducing farmers’ potential loses and providing them the cash critical to maintain food security—as well as the independent prototyping and sales of a new, local cooling system for fish, which helped households preserve food and increase incomes throughout lean seasons. Ultimately, by investing in the right sectors, actors and partnerships can enhance the performance of the market as a whole, catalyzing the provision of other resilience-building products and services and enhancing sustainability.