Using a Systems Approach to Adapt to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Uganda

August 4, 2021


Uganda Agricultural Market System Map with COVID-19 Shocks

In March 2020, the Government of Uganda introduced a series of preventative measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the country. These measures, including the closure of businesses and restriction of movement, were anticipated to have an impact on the economy and on agricultural production. USAID/Uganda was interested in understanding the impact of COVID-19 and these government measures on the agricultural market system, to anticipate how resilient the system would be and to identify opportunities to adapt existing programming or introduce new emergency measures. The USAID/Uganda Feed the Future Market System Monitoring Activity (MSM Activity) was well positioned to support USAID, having developed a system mapping and measurement approach that could be applied to the evolving crisis. In the spring of 2020, USAID/Uganda requested a rapid assessment of the surging pandemic's impact on agricultural markets and food security in Uganda, using the MSM Activity’s innovative systems mapping approach. The objective was to inform USAIDs response to the situation and provide guidance on which parts of the system should be monitored going forward.

Conducting a Rapid System Assessment

Through a five-year engagement with USAID/Uganda, the Market System Monitoring Activity team developed the System Pathways Toolkit, a framework for mapping and measuring complex systems. The approach was adapted from systems engineering frameworks, including causal loop diagrams, and modified to be accessible to development practitioners. At its core, the approach involves building system maps and adding data layers to the maps, allowing practitioners to understand how systems are organized and monitor change in a system. Over time, the approach also supports practitioners in assessing the resilience of a system.

In order to quickly assess the impact of COVID-19, the Activity developed a Rapid System Assessment approach, which builds on the System Pathways Toolkit to quickly deliver insights under conditions of limited information. This approach introduces shocks to a system map, and assesses the impact of the shocks based on available information (including consultations with key stakeholders). The information is processed quickly and iteratively, and is used to assess the status of the system, as well as anticipate how shocks might propagate through the system.

The Activity had already developed a detailed map of the Ugandan agricultural market system, which was an essential foundation to the analysis - as was the team’s existing understanding of the system, both how it is organized and how its constituent parts are interconnected. This is incredibly valuable when a shock or crisis occurs, as an existing system map allows practitioners to quickly contextualize each new development and understand its broader implications.

The Activity team conceptualized COVID-19 and the government’s preventative measures as shocks to the market system, and the existing system map of the agricultural market system was modified to add COVID-19 shocks to the system elements. The map is available to view online on the Kumu platform, and a guide to interpreting this map is available here.

Through consultations with key stakeholders, an initial assessment was produced that anticipated the likely impact of these shocks based on expert intuition. The team then began collecting information, a process that was updated and repeated throughout the course of the assessment. In total, the Activity catalogued emerging data from more than 250 sources, including public data, articles, reports, and targeted key informant interviews. The sources were processed and key facts were extracted and added to the relevant map elements. The information was catalogued in the metadata for each element. The map also contains layers that show how much information of each type was available for each element. The information was then used to determine the status of particular system elements, with a view towards understanding the impact on the overall status of the system. Each element was color-coded to represent its status, depending on how severe the impact was.

Analyzing the System

Having added shocks and information to the map, and assessed the status of the system elements, the Market System Monitoring team then analyzed the map to understand the impact of the COVID-19 shocks. The analysis focused on a few key subsystems, which represent the parts of the system that were most closely linked to USAID’s current market system development programming.

The team produced four update reports in 2020:

  • Update Report #1: The first report focused on initial hypotheses, based on the team’s existing knowledge of the system and consultations with a few key stakeholders, which allowed the team to rapidly create an initial mental framework.
  • Update Report #2: The second report focused on the impact on the agricultural inputs supply chain. The analysis, though based on a small sample, suggested that the impact on the inputs sector had been less severe and more heterogeneous than expected. Based on the information the team was able to gather, the inputs sector appeared relatively resilient, though this depended on purchasing patterns during the upcoming planting season.
  • Update Report #3: The third report analyzed commodity wholesaling, transportation, processing, and distribution. The team analyzed wholesale and retail price data and formal and informal trade volume figures. The report anticipated continued challenges for the commodity distribution sector until prices recovered, as the combination of low prices and low demand would likely mean continued low profitability for businesses, particularly those trading in maize and especially for smaller and informal traders.
  • Update Report #4: Finally, the fourth report discussed the impact of COVID-19 on smallholder farmers, along with updates to the previous analysis and a discussion of which components of the market system should be monitored to evaluate the impact on the system moving forward. The team found that smallholder farm households had generally experienced a drop in income, both from agriculture and off-farm sources, and many households had experienced greater food insecurity as well. The report also provided a set of recommended sentinel indicators, which could be used to monitor changes to the system.
  • An executive summary is also available that summarizes the conclusions of the four reports.

This analysis provided USAID with greater situational awareness about the impacts of COVID-19 on the market system, and was used as justification for new programming to address these impacts. It was also referenced in a presentation to GOU officials about the state of the agricultural sector.

The Value of a Systems Approach

In a rapidly evolving crisis with wide-ranging effects, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the crisis will be the product of multiple intersecting complex systems. This uncertainty and complexity can be overwhelming in a crisis, when information is imperfect but quick decisions need to be made. Each system absorbs shocks in different ways, and the impact can be difficult to anticipate with the standard set of development tools. Systems thinking, and system maps in particular, are invaluable tools for anticipating and understanding the impact of shocks to complex systems, and making sense of how this impact propagates through the systems. 

The MSM team developed and field-tested a new Rapid System Assessment methodology that can be used to analyze the impact of future shocks. This mixed-method assessment approach allowed the team to interpret shocks to the system and anticipate the impact of these shocks on different system elements. The team was also able to anticipate how the shock would propagate through the system, and the second- and third-order effects. Perhaps most importantly, the approach enables practitioners to aggregate information and produce insights even when data is limited. The system map could be used to effectively organize and catalog information that was constantly being updated. Decision-makers were able to use the insights from this analysis to frame the situation, act dynamically, and anticipate how the system would change over time.

As a sense-making strategy, using a system map helps to organize information that is constantly being updated in a systematic way, and enables practitioners to visualize the status of a system. Structuring the analysis in this way also enables decision-makers to frame the situation in a way that allows them to act dynamically and anticipate how the system will change over time. The approach allows practitioners to respond quickly, anticipate the impact of a shock, process incoming information, and monitor the impact over time.