Facing food insecurity through vouchers and how a small network made a big difference during COVID -19 lockdown
An unemployed woman receives an SMS on her monochrome-screen phone. It says, “This voucher from [Khayelitsha Christian Fellowship] offers you R400 to buy food from your local supermarket. Your voucher number is 123456789 – please enter it at the till when you pay.” She goes to her nearby store, where she usually shops, and fills a basket with food that she knows her family eats and that she can make go a long way, as she has done many times before. This does not end her struggle with food insecurity, but it means her family will not go hungry today. Her eldest son is a daily wage worker who waits on the side of the road in Wetton, hoping for a day’s work as a labourer. It is this meagre earning that keeps hunger at bay most days, but there are no hopes for work in the coming weeks as the roads are quiet and empty … and will be for weeks to come due to lockdown.
The COVID-19 lockdown hit those teetering on the edge of utter poverty hard. People already vulnerable economically, such as daily wage workers, casual labourers, domestic workers and other staff with unscrupulous employers or small business owners who could not keep their business going, and of course, the already unemployed. Shortly after the start of lockdown in April 2020, 47% of households reported running out of money to buy food, according to the NIDS CRAM Report.
As this crisis grew, a group of leaders in Christian NGOs and churches who had been working together in response to local and regional disasters, such as Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, asked what a collaborative response could look like to mitigate the damage of food insecurity during lockdown. “When COVID-19 struck in 2020 it was natural for that group, RESPOND, to activate a plan, asking the question: what are we going to do together to serve the vulnerable in this crisis, and how are we going to do it?” says Craig Stewart, director of The Warehouse. That group quickly aligned with the South African Council of Churches, The Evangelical Alliance of South Africa and other organisations to form a coalition that would respond practically. At a local level the Western Cape Ecumenical Network kicked into action and drew in the RESPOND group, asking Rev. Edwin Arrison and Craig Stewart to convene their Covid-19 working group.
“As an organisation, The Warehouse addresses issues around food security, food justice and systems on an ongoing basis, so many conversations were already happening in those arenas” explains Craig, “But as we held discussions with local and national church leaders regarding this crisis, a similar theme emerged which led us to a new solution.” And that was a food relief response that involved a digital voucher system developed specifically taking good transformational development practice and growing global learning into account. “We had to pause and think deeply before simply responding with food parcels or community kitchens, as key as those often are,” says Craig. They responded with these relevant issues in mind:
Do Not Disrupt Existing Food Systems
The response should not replace existing food systems with crisis response systems. “The problem was not that there was no food available,” says Craig, “but there was a shortage of money. We had to be careful we did not create a long-term crisis by decimating existing food systems.” Recipients of the vouchers could choose to receive a voucher that could be redeemed at their local spaza shop, so did not have to leave their normal routines of food purchasing.
Promote Dignity and Agency
The team were aware of how easy it is in these moments of disaster to create relief systems that do not promote dignity and agency. The option to choose what one wanted to buy to nourish one’s family was key, and the voucher system made this possible. Also, that people did not generally have to line up to get food was an additional positive.
Limit the Spread of Disease
People standing in long queues for food seemed in part to counter the objective to ‘flatten the curve’ and the team were determined to ensure that getting food did not put one at a higher risk than absolutely necessary.
Enhance Local Economic Development
Encouraging local spending is crucial during these times and bringing in food and relief from elsewhere sometimes works against the local economic development in a particular area. This meant providing vouchers for stores in the area to keep money flowing around in a community when it needs it the most.
Try Individual Cash Grants
“Plus, we wanted to explore a different way of doing things,” explains Craig. “Globally, there is a move, that it turns out we are part of, towards small cash grants rather than in-kind aid, which is for dignity and agency. But it also leverages multiplier effects such as increasing financial inclusion where the person starts operating within the economy rather than outside of it.”
The national team had the opportunity to share this vision of using vouchers instead of food parcels with the highest governmental leadership through the SACC, informing some of how the food relief rolled out in the country through the Solidarity Fund. “But then we had to figure out how to do it,” laughs Craig.
“Without the expertise of various tech companies, with whom we are in existing relationships through local churches, this would not have been possible,” says Craig. The ability to process vouchers and set up the technical systems so that they could be accessed and retrieved without issues, from Checkers to the local Spaza shop, was no mean feat.
Hope Voucher Initiative
And so, the Hope Voucher initiative in the Western Cape was started through local churches and individuals, with the backing of the Western Cape Ecumenical Network (WCEN). People gave generously through their churches, and that made all the difference, especially in the start-up/pilot phase where the system was piloted and tested. Twelve months later, thirty million Rands worth of vouchers had gone directly to 45 000 vulnerable people identified through their local church or local community leaders in every part of the country: from villages in the deep rural parts of the country to large urban informal settlements. In addition, a new organisation was formed, The Mthunzi Network, established to continue this work of catalysing dignity through digital aid, creating ‘shade’ (Mthunzi) for those in the scorching sun of lockdown hunger and poverty. All the initial funds came from within churches, businesses, and individuals, and as the system showed its capacity the President’s Solidarity Fund contributed additional funds to increase the breadth of impact across the country.
But how does one reach the most vulnerable of people as well as avoid the trappings of corruption in this process? “Whilst you can never eliminate all possibility of corruption,” says Craig pragmatically, “the process made it very unlikely and if it happened, it would be on a very small scale.” Local church leaders and local community leaders each helped identify vulnerable people in their community and sent their details via a mobile app developed for this purpose.
“Another concern some people express is the fear that money will be spent on things other than food, like alcohol, but this is based on myth on the whole – global research shows that on a macro scale, outcomes for a community are better when you inject small cash grants that are as unrestricted as possible,” says Craig. And for the most part, people who are poor are highly skilled at maximizing the spend of small grants of money.
Behind the Scenes
The Warehouse’s role was helping design the process conceptually, and make the connections between companies and key people, and running the initial admin and set up. However, it soon became obvious that this would need its own organisation to be sustainable and not detract from the core work of the organisation. In partnership with the African Leadership Institute, GluGlobal and other partners, the Mthunzi Network was started to take the work forward. “We continue, as we often do, to serve in the background, playing our role in making things happen, but not with our branding or name on it,” explains Craig. People received vouchers from their local church, which has consistently been the vision and hope of The Warehouse.
The organisation exists to serve the church in its response to poverty, injustice and division, longing to see the church living out the peace and justice of God for the world. “One of the greatest challenges to the church during this past year has undoubtedly been the impact of COVID-19 and if we are not responding to the pain of that, we are not playing our role, says Craig, “and one of those challenges was food security – one piece of a very large puzzle.”
Craig believes that in many ways, the church has led parts of the COVID-19 relief response nationally, institutionally and congregationally, from giving money donations, to lending support and expertise, and using their channels to identify and serve the most vulnerable in our society at this time. The Church also led in other areas such as providing shelter, care and education. [You can find more of those stories on this website.]
Hope in these times
In the midst of a very difficult season for our country and communities, Craig has found hope in surprising places. “I have been enamoured by the idea of ‘apocalyptic revelation’. The root word of apocalypse is ‘unveil’ or ‘reveal’, which I think this time has been – very revealing.”
Whilst it has revealed again in stark ways the inequalities that are no surprise to most in the city, as well as the injustices around food, unscrupulous leaders in business and government, business systems, and more, it has also revealed to us Christ, the Lamb of God. “When we hear the scriptures in the gospels that record Jesus saying that when the apocalypse is happening we must, ‘pay attention, I am near’, perhaps it refers to the Kingdom of God being near, at hand – that Jesus is near in these turbulent times.”
The collaborations across the country that brought some solutions to very real and painful ongoing problems, the relationships formed and strengthened that will take us beyond COVID, and the idea that we can work together going forward to better serve South Africa, gives Craig realistic hope for change. If we all continue to play our part.