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10 September 2020

Farmers are true COVID-19 heroes and we must support the people who produce our food

Photo: Abubakar Balogun / Unsplash.

“If you have any idea about farming then you probably know that crops need to be planted at a certain time of the year. But this March, Zimbabwe went into a national lockdown, and the window for seeding wheat had passed,” says Ruramiso Mashumba, a farmer and CEO of Mnandi Africa, an organization that helps rural women in Zimbabwe obtain knowledge and better farming skills through training, access to farming equipment and collective marketing.

Ruramiso reports that the movement restrictions and their timing lead to a very low wheat harvest, and her country will likely face grain deficit and a subsequent sharp increase in food prices. At the same time, in March, many farmers had only just harvested their vegetable crops but had to waste their produce because markets were closed, and it was not allowed to sell by the road either.

These encounters are not unique, COVID-19 continues hurting health and economies around the world. The ongoing crisis threatens undoing decades of development progress in poverty and hunger alleviation, challenging our food production and hitting hard the small-scale farmers, who provide half of the global food supplies. So, what we do now to protect them will have long term implications for food security in the years to come.

Is it plausible to provide critical COVID-19 relief without losing sight of the long-term food security and resilience goals? And how to leverage our experience of the pandemic crisis to the benefit of sustainable food security in the future? These questions were at the heart of discussions during the “Recovery, reactivation and resilience – sustainable food security in a post-COVID world” online event organized by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and SIANI on September 4, 2020 (watch the recording of the event).

A high-level overview

“I believe it’s possible to be fast and strategic at the same time,” says Johannes Oljelund, Director-General for International Development Cooperation at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

“Of course, COVID-19 invites political response, but it’s also key to invest in the multilateral development system to foster efficient and flexible crisis response that does not depend on the short-term reality of politics.” Last week, Sweden committed US $5.7 million to IFAD’s Rural Poor Stimulus Facility, which was set up to counteract the effects of COVID-19 and ensure that food production does not stop and value chains deliver food to where it is needed.

According to Olejlund, the solutions to the ongoing crisis need to be rooted in sustainability, employ a One Health approach and promote gender equality in decision making as well as on the ground, ensuring that women have access to the necessary resources and can take advantage of the opportunities when they arise.

Coordinating the efforts between different development agencies, public and private sectors and civil society is vital for cost-efficiency, for utilizing the power of combined efforts and timely delivery of acutely needed support.

Indeed, according to Stephen Muchiri, CEO at Eastern Africa Farmers Federation, the lack of harmonized and coordinated policy response caused trade blockages between countries in Eastern Africa and led to food supply disruptions and shortages: “Trucks with produce are stuck in several kilometre-long queues at the borders and deals have only been re-started a month ago.”

“We’ve got to have a long-term perspective on what we do short term. That’s why our crisis response has to be sensitive to gender, youth, biodiversity and climate,” says Marie HagaAssociate Vice-President of the External Relations and Governance Department, International Fund for Agricultural Development, IFAD.

 In response to COVID-19, IFAD has repurposed funding from the existing 120 projects in 80 countries and collaborates with the Food and Agriculture of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) to support governments in the development of national response plans. IFAD also launched the Rural Poor Stimulus Facility to accelerate the recovery of poor and vulnerable rural people.

85% of funds generated through the Facility will be used to support 59 of the most at-risk countries with country-level financing, and 15% will support particularly innovative or strategic regional initiatives.

Focusing on the good

The coronavirus pandemic caught the world off guard, but it also pushed us to implement solutions we thought are years ahead. When markets were shut in Zimbabwe, farmers started to look into other ways to sell their produce, finding buyers and reaching consumers through WhatsApp groups. The use of e-commerce skyrocketed: “Online marketplaces, like the Fresh in the Box, a start-up that buys fresh produce from farmers and delivers it to customers, existed before, but it was hardly used. Now, this is how many Zimbabweans buy their food,” says Ruramiso Mashumba.

Before the pandemic field trips were the standard format for farmer training in Zimbabwe, which can be cumbersome and logistically demanding for companies and public services. On their end, farmers had to travel more than 20 km to attend such training, which takes a full day and may not always be feasible, especially for female farmers.

But now it’s possible to learn about how to select better cultivars and other farming techniques on the radio in your kitchen or at a local supermarket and the training is available in English, as well as in the local native languages. This may not deliver on all the benefits of in-person learning, but it definitely reduces the logistical burden and increases the outreach.

Kenya-based Stephen Muchiri agrees that COVID-19 triggered a digital leap in agriculture. He shared insights from his work with the e-Granary digital platform, created and owned by the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation. E-Granary facilitates demand and supply of agricultural outputs and inputs as well as access to financial and mechanization services. Connected to a network of service suppliers and buyers the platform aggregates supply and demand based on the data from farmers. When a big enough market is created, a service is delivered, and farmers can pay for it with mobile payments.

E-Granary already connects 240 000 smallholder farmers in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. “This digital platform also makes it possible to provide targeted extension and advice, depending on a crop, time of the season and tailor it according to farmer’s gender and age. Additionally, this database allows us to record farmer’s financial history – an essential and often lacking requirement when it comes to accessing bank loans or insurance products,” explains Muchiri.

“The experiences and frameworks discussed throughout this event already exhibit many signs of resilience building,” points out Line Gordon, Director at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, SRC in Stockholm. Bringing together partners from different sectors, information sharing, learning and experimentation as well as trust building are all key to higher collaboration capacity, which, ultimately, makes our societies more resilient and capable to drive change.

“We know it is possible, we just need to move steadily in the right direction,” concludes Gordon.

Reporting by Ekaterina Bessonova, Communications Officer, SIANI.