Foundational and complementary approaches nutrition sensitive agriculture: UPAVAN’s legacy

Introduction to UPAVAN

Maternal and child undernutrition in tribal areas of rural India has been one of the most pressing issues in the Indian development landscape. Odisha, in particular, has 13 particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs). Members of these PVTGs have low literacy rates and are mostly cut off from technology, with agriculture being the primary source of livelihoods. 

Across the country, there are 75 PVTGs and numerous rural tribal communities, smallholder farmers and agricultural laborers that work in the most remote and hard-to-reach areas. This is challenging for agricultural producers to gather information, not just for the purpose of maximizing their production and profits, but also for their health and nutrition. 

Upscaling Participatory Action and Videos for Agriculture and Nutrition (UPAVAN) was a randomized controlled trial that sought to address the systemic problem of maternal and child undernutrition in a tribal area of rural Odisha, in India, by testing a novel and potentially scalable intervention. The UPAVAN team aimed to assess the nutrition and agricultural impact and cost-effectiveness of technology-enabled, participatory agriculture extension intervention, compared with a control group, in Keonjhar district, Odisha. 


Learnings from UPAVAN

Learnings gathered from UPAVAN were both foundational and complementary to Digital Green’s work and approaches across other initiatives. 

Formative research that was a critical component of UPAVAN for one had helped in understanding and analyzing community behavioral patterns. Digital Green has adopted this formative research approach as a basic component of project implementation. Under the ATLAS Project for instance, which aims to empower tribal farming communities by strengthening the capacities of women farmer producer organizations (FPOs), formative research was conducted to understand the current status of FPOs, women’s knowledge, their ability to support their farmer members, and gender roles. Similarly, in Project Samvad, formative research was used to hyper-localize messages disseminated to communities through hybrid digital approaches.

Given that making Agriculture Work for Nutrition has been a top policy priority in India, at the beginning of UPAVAN, nutrition sensitive agriculture (NSA) was identified as a key concept to disseminate and engage with the community. Field level agents, training staff, and mediators were trained on video production, dissemination and home visits which resulted in a higher uptake. Now Digital Green works to ensure that nutrition-related videos are included in training modules across different programs.

UPAVAN’s approach involving local family and community members as actors in videos to impact faster comprehension and uptake has been integrated into Digital Green’s approach to social behavioral change communications (SBCC). Over the years, we have found that featuring local community members within videos has increased familiarity and has gone a long way in sensitizing and driving influence within communities. 

The emphasis on reaching women during the 1000 day period (from the time of conception to when a child is two years old) in UPAVAN was also applied to other programs implemented by Digital Green such as Project . This was also a project that engaged with women in the 1000 day period to share information on maternal and child health nutrition. By engaging frontline workers, both male and female to share these messages, discussions around these topics openly broke gender stereotypes.

One key takeaway across all our work at Digital Green has been the hybrid approach which builds on the success of the proven community video approach, and complements it with other digital channels such as WhatsApp and IVR to rapidly scale impact across rural communities. This can be applied to any context, sector, and geography, and we have found that using technology builds an intrinsic strength at horizontal as well as vertical levels – not only do they facilitate dialogues and joint learning within the community, they also serve as an interface between health system structures and the women beneficiaries.


Further Reading

We have gathered extensive insights, and disseminated information about UPAVAN: 

Digital Green’s website has an evidence page containing reports and journal articles including the following UPAVAN documents: 

Effect of nutrition-sensitive agriculture interventions with participatory videos and women’s group meetings on maternal and child nutritional outcomes in rural Odisha, India (UPAVAN trial): a four-arm, observer-blind, cluster-randomised controlled trial, published in Lancet Planetary Health

How to design a complex behaviour change intervention: experiences from a nutrition-sensitive agriculture trial in rural India, published in BMJ Global Health;

Agricultural and empowerment pathways from land ownership to women’s nutrition in India, published in Maternal and Child Nutrition; and 

Upscaling Participatory Action and Videos for Agriculture and Nutrition (UPAVAN) trial comparing three variants of a nutrition-sensitive agricultural extension intervention to improve maternal and child nutritional outcomes in rural Odisha, India: study protocol for a cluster randomised controlled trial, published in Trials.

Digital Green produced a short video to showcase how women are playing a role in nutrition in Odisha. This video highlights the importance of collective action of women and their journey in enhancing livelihood by producing nutritious crops. The video has over 700 views. 

Digital Green’s video library ( contains hundreds of videos, including video produced as part of the UPAVAN project on nutrition, agriculture-nutrition nexus, and videos about maintaining crops showcasing practices such as seed treatment, fertilizer preparation, and growing of nutritions crops like spinach.

Digital Green’s YouTube channel, with over 300,000 subscribers, contains more than 100 videos on nutrition sensitive agriculture, kitchen gardens, crop planning for nutrition, the importance of dietary diversity, and other nutrition related topics, produced by various projects, including UPAVAN.

COVID-19 and Agriculture: Resources and Recommendations

Updated 16th June 2020.

Digital Green has been closely following the effects of COVID-19 on farmer livelihoods and resilience, food security, agricultural market systems in order to adapt digital extension approaches to best support beneficiaries under these unprecedented circumstances. While this pandemic presents many challenges, it also creates an opportunity for digital extension to continue to serve farmers and be adapted to support public health responses and new agricultural needs that arise. Digital Green staff have been in close communication with stakeholders on the ground to understand their concerns and adapt digital technologies to their current needs under COVID-19. Furthermore, Digital Green’s Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) project organized a webinar on extension and advisory services’ role in crises and emergencies, including COVID-19. Digital Green blogs are showcasing specific actions that Digital Green has already taken to support beneficiaries during COVID-19.  

Below we have listed a compendium of resources addressing agricultural challenges surging under this pandemic and responses from various actors.

Impact on Food Security

Many of Digital Green’s partners and collaborators are at the forefront of the analysis regarding COVID-19 and its effects on agriculture and food security.  The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has been curating resources covering COVID-19. IFPRI suggests that the impact of COVID-19 in the agriculture sector will be felt unevenly; farm operations may be spared the worst, but small and medium-sized enterprises in urban areas will likely face considerable problems. They recommend addressing food security impacts stemming from reduced incomes or unemployment.

In India, the food-based safety net is providing rice or wheat and pulses to families, which helps families meet their cereal requirements, but there are concerns over exclusion of the urban poor, maintaining food quality, and the long-term effect of relief that may depress prices and affect farmers’ incomes in the long run. IWWAGE put together a study with qualitative evidence from 1331 mandis to show that by comparison to last year, only 6 per cent of wheat sold during the first three weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown. Economic & Political Weekly, a peer-reviewed policy journal,  published an article that highlighted COVID-19’s high transaction costs and uncertainty in India’s transformed food supply chains: food security is at risk as 92% of food consumption in India is purchased; 80% of food consumption by value is non-grain, which means a shorter shelf life and a need for a continuous supply; and more than 60% of Indian rural incomes are linked to the post-farmgate food supply.

In Africa, COVID-19 related lockdowns are affecting informal urban food trade. Better communication between political leaders and market leaders, as well as ensuring that safety nets reach these market actors, can help mitigate effects on informal traders and markets.

The United Nations (UN) University released estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on global poverty, showing that COVID-19 poses a challenge to the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty by 2030; global poverty could increase for the first time since 1990.  Furthermore, non-monetary indicators such as undernutrition and malnourishment, could also be seriously hit. 

In a blog, the World Bank recognizes that it is imperative to keep food moving during these times of pandemic. They recommend addressing the domestic issues that affect food supply in stores. Secondly, countries should not issue export bans, as these would only exacerbate economic losses. This is of particular importance, as some countries are starting to place export restrictions already. Lastly, safe and affordable methods to get food from field to table need to be implemented, including cash transfers for farmers, ensuring the availability of key agricultural inputs, and developing health screening protocols.  Furthermore, the World Bank is emphasizing modernizing government-to-people payments as a social mechanism to deal with COVID-19’s effects.

The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition reports the effects of COVID-19 on food systems on low- and high-income populations, along with mitigation and adaptation systems. Main concerns include food prices and shocks to the most vulnerable. But they offer hope: this is an opportunity to focus on and prioritize food safety issues.

Digital Green’s collaborators are sharing their concerns stemming from this pandemic. For example, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) published recommendations for addressing COVID-19’s effect on Indian agriculture. In India specifically, the agricultural cycle dictates when farmers make most of their income; therefore, ensuring proper storage, access to seeds and inputs, and allowing for intra and inter-state movement would allow farmers to sell their products or store them appropriately in order to prevent income losses.

Role of Digital Extension

Organizations in the digital space are rethinking how to adapt their work and approaches in light of COVID-19. ICT Works, a community for international development professionals committed to utilizing new and emerging technologies, is providing resources specific to digital responses to address COVID-19. The Skoll Foundation, which focuses on social entrepreneurship, adapted its annual Skoll World Forum into a virtual forum. A session on climate-smart agriculture digital tools addressed concerns with locusts and COVID-19 in East Africa, leveraging WhatsApp and machine learning on food security and locust interventions, as well as insurance, cash transfers and market support.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other stakeholders organized a virtual Global Digital Development Forum  to mobilize COVID-19 digital responses and address long-term challenges to build an open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystem. Digital Green presented on learnings from digital agricultural extension from the DLEC project and applicability to COVID-19. USAID has also issued guidance on COVID-19 preparedness and response digital technologies and data systems.

Arghyam, a foundation focusing on sustainable water solutions in India, recently released a “content store” with information from partners and government agencies on handwashing, social etiquette, and government relief schemes in the form of videos, posters, and audio.

Donor Responses

Many donors in the agriculture and nutrition sector are taking active steps to overcome COVID-19 challenges. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced funding to develop vaccines and treatments of COVID-19, which will be critical for saving lives. The World Bank has launched a $160 billion USD COVID-19 emergency response to protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery.

The World Bank has organized an agribusiness management and resilience task force in Uttar Pradesh, India, with the purpose to help farmer producer organizations address the challenges related to pre- and post-production operations stemming from COVID-19. This multi-stakeholder initiative includes the participation of the Government of Uttar Pradesh, the Water Resources Group 2030, the BioEnergy Board, civil society organizations, microfinance institutions, private sector logistics and agri-business solution providers, ICT companies, amongst other key stakeholders.

USAID has pledged $274 million USD in health and humanitarian assistance to help countries respond to COVID-19. The agency has released guidance to implementing partners on how to deal with implementation disruptions resulting from COVID-19.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has policy tools to help decision-makers, including a food and agriculture policy decision analysis and food price monitoring analysis. The FAO recognizes its role in supporting the emerging needs stemming from COVID-19, and plans to ramp up field implementation to support access to agricultural inputs for farmers and herders; distribute kits, seeds, and/or small stock in communities with higher prevalence of undernutrition; and stabilize access to food by supporting purchasing power through cash distribution. In a paper focusing on the role of extension and advisory services at the frontline of the response to COVID-19 to ensure food security,  FAO indicates that extension and advisory services plan an indispensable role in minimizing the impact of COVID-19 in rural areas. They recommend adapting the delivery mechanisms of extension and advisory services, including going digital and joining forces with emergency response actors.  

How are you and your organization adapting your approaches and the way you support beneficiaries during this pandemic? If you see opportunities to collaborate with Digital Green, please reach out to us too! Share your ideas and feedback at