At a meeting of the Food Governance Community of Practice, presenters have shared their experiences of electronic food vouchers as a means to curb food insecurity during South Africa’s Covid-19 lockdowns.
Old debates about ‘charity’ and welfare funding resurfaced during the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, notably around how benefactors could get their best value for their philanthropic buck.
Children at Levana Primary in Lavender Hill, Cape Town: Picture courtesy of Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp (CC BY-ND 4.0)
As part of a broader suite of interventions, electronic food vouchers offered a timely, convenient solution as communities and households ran out of food overnight. The vouchers could be targeted at formal and informal organisations (like those running soup kitchens) as well as directly at individuals. They could be issued swiftly via mobile phone, eliminating infection-risky queues. In a local innovation, vouchers could be redeemed at both spaza shops – boosting local economies in the process – and larger retailers.
The vouchers also offered benefits to both funders and recipients. Donors, for instance, could to some degree monitor the spending of the vouchers. In turn, beneficiaries had greater choice in the goods they could buy, offering them some dignity and agency.
But for all their pros, there are still lessons to be learnt about the use of these electronic food vouchers. Especially in South Africa, where they are still something of a novelty.
That said, local organisations are getting the best out of such vouchers, shared presenters at the 31 August meeting of the by the Cape Food Governance Community of Practice (FG-CoP), affiliated with the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). This network of scholars, government officials and civil-society representatives meets regularly to discuss the South African food system and the country’s food insecurity crisis.
At this meeting, Gill Cullinan of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (WCEDP), Michael Krause of Violence Prevention Through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), Vanessa Rheeder of the DG Murray Trust, and Craig Stewart of Mthunzi Network told of the trials, errors, and successes of the often-widespread voucher programmes they either ran or supported. In turn, Florian Kroll of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at UWC and one of the coordinators of the FG-CoP, also reported on a small voucher study conducted in the Langa township by the University.
Shenaaz Scott of the Mitchells Plain Community Action Network (CAN) and Khalif Abdulahi of a Khalif Langa Cash & Carry also told of their experiences of vouchers as, respectively, consumers and redeemers.
“It came at a time when it was needed – and it is still needed,” noted Scott of circumstances in her community. “The voucher programmes brought relief.”
Beyond that, it also taught the CAN – used to running on an informal, off-the-cuff footing and now for the first time having to report back to newfound funders – about “accountability” and the value of monitoring its spending, added Scott.
Among the recommendations put forward by the organisations was that digital vouchers, serving as more than just a technological solution, need dedicated and resourced teams to support the system and troubleshoot the inevitable hiccups.
Notwithstanding the challenges, digital vouchers have proven to be popular for a number of reasons. The VPUU, reported Krause, found the vouchers invaluable in targeting support to mothers and crèches. They also allowed organisations to address cumbersome logistical challenges as they were spared the time and effort of having to shop for, pack and deliver bulky food parcels. In addition, they circumvented the typical concerns of transferring funds to informal soup kitchens, for instance, many without even a bank account.
On paper at least, multi-stakeholder methods would offer a textbook approach to ‘wicked problems’ like food insecurity, pulling together as…