Smallholder farmers are Africa’s lifeline in Covid-19 food crisis

Every so often, a cataclysmic event shakes the very foundation on which the global economy and the social well-being of its people is anchored.

It makes us scramble for resources in an attempt to make sense of what’s happening and try to conjure solutions on the go, while testing the resolve of even the most resolute. This is such a time.

A lot has been written about the devastation caused by the Covid 19 virus. There is therefore no need to belabour what has already been exhaustively commented on. However, as African governments scramble to put in place mitigants for the pandemic, there is a very important group of people who appear to have fallen off the radar: our smallholder farmers.

Yet, if we are to avoid an even worse aftershock from the Covid-19 devastation, we must put in place a mechanism to cushion our smallholder farmers to ensure that the crop production cycle is not disrupted.

They are the ones who will ensure that once we have successfully navigated the pandemic, we will not then have to deal with another tremor in the name of famine and hyperinflation caused by food scarcity.

As an institution that works to improve the wellbeing of millions of Africa’s smallholder farmers, AGRA feels that this global pandemic threatens our very livelihoods in the not-too-distant future.

And, as much as we are putting in place measures to contain the spread of the disease — such as curbing movement of people — we also need to consider the very real danger that the pandemic will leave in its wake a food security crisis that could affect the political, social and economic health of African countries. Already, over 250 million people in Africa are suffering from food deficiency. These vulnerable people will suffer more from both the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Africa’s GDP growth is expected to drop from 3.2 percent to 1.8 percent on the back of the pandemic, which will likely increase the number of people without food.

We can therefore protect the interests and well-being of the most vulnerable among us by ensuring farmers continue to do their work, albeit with all necessary precautions in place. Africa’s smallholders produce 80 percent of the food we eat. It, therefore, goes without saying that if they can’t farm because of Covid-19, Africa will inevitably face a debilitating food crisis.

There are very good lessons coming from across Africa and beyond on how to avoid a food crisis. For instance, the Indian government has exempted agriculture and allied activities from the ongoing lockdown.

Closer home, the governments of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Ghana and Ethiopia are developing or already have guidelines to keep agricultural value chains alive even as they abide by public health guidelines.

The Government of Ethiopia is additionally finding ways to get inputs to farmers at lower prices than usual to ensure they have access to the right inputs. In Ghana, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture has secured inputs, seed and fertiliser for farmers through the government flagship ‘Planting for Food and Jobs’ programme. The government is also supporting rice millers with working capital so they can continue purchasing rice from farmers. In Kenya, the government will stock up cereals and pulses for use to mitigate the post-Covid-19 food security challenges.

Additionally, the Village Based Advisors (VBAs) in the country have come up with creative ways of delivering government subsided inputs to farmers while educating them on Covid-19 safety guidelines.

Our collective duty now is to ensure that efforts like these are scaled across the continent. At AGRA, we are working with our partners and governments to support farmers, most of whom are women and youth to plant, harvest, transport, and sell food without endangering their safety and that of others.

One of the measures we are pushing with governments is to ensure that village-based agro-dealers shops stay open to enable farmers access inputs at affordable prices, especially at this time.

In the long-term, this pandemic underscores the need for Africa to focus on agriculture transformation as its surest path to inclusive economic growth to build the resilience of its population.

Our fragility with regards to food access is exacerbated by the fact that we import significant amounts of food, depend on smallholder-led and rain-fed agriculture that is exacerbated existing shocks from climate change and locust invasions.

As the world grapples with Covid-19, African countries must maintain laser-focus on the sufficiency of their food production. Together with our partners, we will carry on rolling out innovative ways and building partnerships to transform smallholder farming from a solitary struggle to survive to farming as a business that thrives.

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