During the past few months many African countries received news of the new Virus with disbelief. The advent of COVID-19 pandemic has come as a shock not only to policy-makers but to the entire population.
The impact of the current COVID-19 virus on rural small-scale producers is unprecedented. The effects are already being felt within the economies of the rural African farmers.
The majority of the sub-Saharan African population, including that of Zambia, depend on subsistence and small-scale agriculture for their food security and incomes. In many of the countries in the region, the agricultural sector is constrained by unfavourable policies, low budget allocations to the sector and droughts.
Even before the advent of COVID-19, in Zambia, the sector had been under severe stress, having registered poor harvests in the previous years. It was further constrained by, among others, lack of access to adequate marketing, storage, transportation and lack of access to finance. Thus the presence of COVID-19 poses a severe challenge not only to food security and incomes of the rural farmers but also the entire Zambian economy. There is no doubt that the scourge will put the rural African farmers, particularly women-headed households, in extreme poverty.
Some of the negatives effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had are identified below:
• Effects on production and productivity
Farm field works depend mainly on affordable hired labour from local communities and villages. In rural villages, investments in resources by subsistence farmers depend on what their relatives living in urban areas can provide. Some of the small-scale farmers usually travel from urban and peri-urban areas to rural farm fields. The farmers in Zambia have resorted to staying at home, avoiding breaking the law.
Messages from the Zambian Ministry of Health on non-movements of people and ‘’lockdowns’’ of some towns and cities have caused farmers to slow down or abandon their work completely. “’We are not moving; we cannot travel into town to buy insecticides or fertilisers for our crops. My winter maize will be drastically affected,’’ remarked one farmer. And their work is not attended to. Farms are running dry without water. Labour has been slowed down. There is very limited farm production. The scenario has had a drastic impact on farm production levels and productivity among rural farms.
• Slowed down or lack of transportation
The movement of farm products from rural to urban centres is severely affected by the crisis. Horticulture and seasonal maize (corn) farmers rely mainly on private transporters to ferry their produce from the farms to urban markets. Due to COVID-19, farmers find it difficult to bring their produce to the markets. The transport system has been slowed down, and at times, it is unavailable because of travel restrictions. A number of transporters fear taking risks and do not turn up to collect farm produce. Furthermore, as a result of the escalating costs of fuel, the cost of hiring has become unaffordable for many. The cost of fuel had already been comparatively high in Zambia even before the crisis.
• Poor market prices
Farmers expect the theory of supply and demand to work in their favour. But unfortunately, the price of farm products has not worked towards their advantage. With the President having advised people to “ Stay Home, Stay safe’’, only few are now turning up to open markets. Some towns are going through a “lockdown’’ on movements of people. The situation has caused a number of products, such as tomatoes, fruits and vegetables to be destroyed, ultimately creating loss of revenue.
• Instability or changes in the COVID-19 approach
Via its Ministry of Health, the Zambian government provides the population with daily briefings on the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst this is good in terms of information delivery to the people, it has not reflected well on the marketing of goods and services as well as on the rates of financial markets, and it has caused instability. The currency rates to dollar have gone extremely high since the advent of the virus COVID-19. The rate of kwacha to US dollar is pegged at almost 18:1 compared to 14:1 three months ago, a steep rise that stimulates price increases among consumer goods and farm inputs.
• Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP)
High poverty levels among rural farmers prompted government to introduce the Farmer Input Support Programme, where it subsided the growth of Zambia’s staple food in order to improve food security. Not only is the state of rural farmers costly for the government, but the FISP measures have also been ineffective in addressing high poverty levels in rural Zambia. Each year, rural famers have recorded low yields per hectare.
At the heart of Zambia’s agricultural growth paradox is the country’s heavy reliance on FISP and output price support via the Food Reserve Agency (FRA). These two programmes have been costly and ineffective in addressing high rural poverty rates and low crop productivity.
Moreover, they tend to disproportionately support farmers with larger land sizes and asset endowments. For agricultural spending to effectively address the challenges of entrenched rural poverty and low crop productivity, it must be better targeted to poorer farmers, it must further target crops that are better suited for the small land sizes that predominate in rural Zambia, and it must be less prone to appropriation by more wealthy and powerful individuals. The crops promoted by the Government should be those that are conducive to a given agro-ecological zone and should be economically profitable without needing government input subsidies or output price support.
The current situation has government extension officers no longer conducting their functions owing to travel restrictions. This means that much of the agricultural information flow that is normally given to farmers has been curtailed. In the prevailing environment, farmers will have to either adjust to other income-generating activities or wait for the situation to cool down.
It is true that the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic is putting stress on the overburdened economies of the African countries and will escalate poverty levels among the poor small-scale farmers. African governments, including that of Zambia, will need to urgently look at the situation and ask questions regarding what needs to be done to alleviate the plight of small-scale farmers. This means strategies should be put in place to ensure bail-out options to African farmers.
Africa Union Economic and Social and Cultural Council (AU-ECOSOCC) Zambia
Director, Zambia Diaspora Foundation