In this in-depth interview with disaster resilience expert Supreme Agbovi, it's clear hunger isn’t just about the lack of food. Hunger strips away people’s dignity, forces parents to make impossible choices and leads to human trafficking, skipping school, child marriage, family violence and even death.
02 Feb, 2023
In order for families in poverty to survive the current global food crisis, and other crises in years to come, Supreme explains why Compassion’s approach to building long-term resilience is so critical.
You can listen to the full interview below.
Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your role?
My name is Supreme Agbovi. I am a Senior Program Design Specialist in the Disaster Resilience Advisory team at Compassion International, and I’m in charge of the Africa and Asia regions. My role involves supporting national offices with advisory services in the design of disaster response and preparedness interventions as well as resilience initiatives. I currently operate from Accra, Ghana.
What does the food crisis look like in Ghana?
In Ghana, the food crisis is severe because households are struggling to feed themselves three times a day. Some even struggle to do it once a day because of issues with purchasing power. They’re unable to afford the food their households need. Some are skipping meals, some are reducing their quantity of food and others are reducing the quality of their food. Those in rural areas live on what they can find in the wild.
We've seen that families are losing their children to trafficking because they’re moving to the cities in search of menial jobs just so they can feed themselves. I can see that the food crisis is making families unstable in Ghana because the prices are very high due to inflation, and they're also unable to access food due to market challenges.
How do you think the food crisis emerged in Ghana?
The food crisis for Ghana started as a result of the lingering economic implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a lockdown, so farmers were unable to go to their farms and businesses were unable to operate. Most of Ghana's jobs are informal, so people earn their income by going to the market or other places.
Then the harvest last year was poor due to erratic rainfalls, or what we call the climatic challenges, in most of our growing areas. There were also post-harvest losses because what we harvested couldn’t be transported to the bigger cities because of market issues.
The period after COVID-19 also came with economic challenges. The local currency has depreciated by over 140 per cent, meaning people have lost their purchasing power.
A bag of rice that was once A$5 is now costing A$47. People are struggling.
Their income, if it remains stable, cannot buy the same amount of food. Jobs are non-existent. We can also link these challenges to the Russia–Ukraine war which made access to food more difficult.
Could you describe what the food crisis means for children? Why is the crisis exacerbating child trafficking?
The main issue is that families are unable to feed their children or their household. So what they do is look for ways to let go of some of these children, so that their other children can have access to food. This happens in areas where there is virtually no alternative, they don't have any job offers apart from farming.
What they do is look for opportunities to send their children away to bigger communities or cities, where you see these children on the streets and at trafficking intersections, begging for help so they can feed themselves. There are others who take these children in to earn some money. This happens because families feel shame for being unable to feed their children.
Whatever families need to do to stop the crying of their children at night or stop children sleeping with empty stomachs, they want to do it.
That is how it begins, and there are exploiters around who take advantage of these conditions and move to these communities and say, ‘we will give your children a place to go and food to eat, and you can have some income.’ That begins a conversation.
Most of those children either are moved to the cities or fishing communities because they will use them for fishing on the seas and then probably give them some food to eat. Others have been forced into child marriages, all because they're unable to feed those children. That’s the reality of some families in Ghana.
What other measures are families facing hunger taking to access food?
Some are selling off their prized assets just so they have food on the table. Those in rural areas are seen roaming in the forest, living on wild fruits and leaves. That is what they have to do so they can survive and hope for another day.
For many of us, the next meal is never in question. To help those without a lived experience of hunger understand, can you describe what fighting for survival feels like?
You can see situations of hopelessness in the faces of these families because all they are looking for in a conversation is whether you’ll help them find something to eat. So it's a situation that's very bleak and hopeless. They're just waiting for another day. In some of the cases, we've noticed youth involved in misbehaviours and vices. Some of them are going around pilfering and stealing.
If a child doesn't have enough food, what are the long-term physical and cognitive implications for their life?
If a child lacks food, they will not develop properly. Their physical and cognitive development is and there's a need for us to provide food for growing children.
Before the food crisis, there were cases of children wasting, stunting and being underweight. Now, with this food crisis, we are seeing increasing cases of malnutrition, stunting and wasting. If that continues, we’ll be faced with a future where children are not physically or mentally fit to address the issues in front of them.
These children will end up dropping out of school or won’t be able to go to school regularly. They will underperform in their education. These children will have a bleak future, because they’ll have missed out on their development and the opportunity to acquire the skills they need most. It would be too late for them.
Why is child sponsorship money not enough to help these families during the global food crisis?
In a typical [Compassion assisted] family household, there are about five to seven children and one of the children is registered in the Child Sponsorship Program. The sponsorship funds target the specific needs of the registered child and are unable to support all the other siblings. So there's a need to provide other interventions that will provide training and seed capital to help families diversify their income sources so they can take care of their other children.
Is the global food crisis a matter of life and death for children and families?
For the very severely affected families, it is a matter of life and death. For those that do not have any alternative, it is a matter of life and death. That's why they’re undertaking all manner of negative coping mechanisms. That's what will destroy them in the very near future if not tackled.
Do you see the global food crisis getting worse?
Globally, the food crisis has been projected to take about another 18 to 24 months and that’s a concern for us. The prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa is still there, the impact of the locust invasion is still there and the economic implications of COVID-19 are still there.
In Ghana, we’re also faced with high inflation, people losing their purchasing power and increasing unemployment. It’s a situation of hopelessness in Ghana. It means there's a need for us to ask supporters to pray with the continent of Africa and with Ghana, and also to show generosity to these families and take care of the poor.
It means Compassion will have to invest more in its resilience-building approaches so families can take care of themselves in times like this. Things like teaching home gardening and farming—we need to expand these initiatives to ensure that we are preparing families in a more sustainable and cheaper way.
Relief is very expensive. But resilience, if done right, is cheaper than relief. That is what Compassion wants to do, and that's what we’re appealing to supporters to do—to invest more in resilience-building initiatives so that families will be able to bounce back.
What does resiliency mean?
For us, resiliency means a family being able to afford the food that they require in a day without any stress or struggle. So a family is able to buy their food needs and eat the right quantity and quality of food without skipping any meals.
Resilience means building the capacity of these families to ensure that they're able to do that in times of crisis. When a crisis strikes, like we are currently experiencing, families can fall back on their own income sources and be able to take care of themselves and their children. For Compassion, that is resilience.
How does resiliency apply to Compassion’s work?
In Compassion assisted communities, what we've done is provide relief—both food relief and non-food relief—to families experiencing stunted growth and wasting, or where families are skipping meals and school absences are increasing.
We're also gradually implementing a resilience-building mechanism where the church partners are equipped to build the capacity of caregivers through climate-smart agricultural technologies. They're being trained and provided with short duration seeds and improved equipment so they're able to farm when the rains come and have something to harvest.
Then, in the non-farming communities, we're encouraging petty trading or business rejuvenation. This is where families are trained and supported with some income to begin trade activities. It helps them to earn some income so they can provide for their families. We've also introduced a savings group so they can build their capacity. They're provided with startup income so they can trade and save for their future.
What’s in a food pack? How often are families receiving them and how do churches choose which families receive food?
In Ghana, a food pack includes 50 kilograms of rice, 25 litres of oil, some beans and two or three crates of eggs. It’s usually calculated on the number of people in the household and how much food they need for a month. The packs aren’t cooked meals. Families receive the packs and they're able to prepare them at home and share food with the entire family—their children, siblings and others in the household.
The pack allows them to have minimum of two meals per day throughout a 30-day period. This amount ensures they can participate in our programs and go about their normal activities, rather than just waiting for food that may not come.
Has there been a story related to the food crisis that has deeply impacted you?
Yes, for sure. As part of my monitoring visits, I met a family who received a food pack that was meant to last for a month. But it only lasted them a week. I asked why and there was silence. Then the child said, “well, my friend here didn't have food, my friend here didn't have food and my friend here didn't have food, so we had to give them some food.”
Then the child’s caregiver told us that the mother of the family they helped, who was not supported through Compassion, passed away the next morning. It's probably because she hadn’t eaten for so long and whatever she received from the family she used to feed her children.
That has kept me thinking since—what can we do for non-Compassion assisted children? We've been empowering the church partners to identify some of those vulnerable people in their communities and see if we can help them. For me, it's kept me awake. I’m trying to make sure that whatever intervention I review, I'm considering ways to support any vulnerable people in those communities.
On the other positive side, I’ve seen families supported to do kitchen gardens and harvest their own vegetables using wastewater from their backyard. So, amid droughts, they’re still harvesting some greens in their backyard. For me, that gives me hope. If you're able to provide food relief for these families and not just end there but move to the next step and diversify their food and income sources, we may not see the same severity of future food crises in these families.
If you could look a supporter in the eye and tell them why they should help those facing hunger, what would you tell them?
The food crisis in Africa and in Ghana is real. Families are losing their dignity, they’re losing their children to abuse, and there's all kinds of family violence happening—all because of the food crisis.
God instructs us to take care of the poor and to speak for the oppressed. What better way or better time to do this than now?
There are families who are going through so much oppression and don't have anything to eat for a day. They've had to skip meals multiple times. They're living on wild fruits and leaves. Some are just living on water, hoping they’ll have a chance tomorrow.
Could you please help these families by taking care of God's own children, who are the poor, by donating and praying for these families? That's the message I'll leave with supporters. They've done it, and I know they can do it again. With their support, we’ll design the right interventions for these families and they’ll live and dream for tomorrow.
Words by Supreme Agbovi and interview by Rachel Lauer.
Answer Hunger With Hope
345 million people are facing acute food insecurity. You can answer hunger with hope.