One of world’s harshest terrains for farming threatens to crumble under COVID-19. West Africa’s farmer collectives, small businesses and other stakeholders in agriculture reveal their plight as rains approach and call out for support through logistics facilitation, digital extension, awareness creation and financial backstopping to prevent food, nutrition security and livelihoods going downhill.
“It is real” – the need for awareness
“Farmers have varying perceptions about the pandemic. While some believe it is real, others believe it is a doing of governments. However, they all agree on one thing: the response to the pandemic has affected everybody because all activities have slowed down,” notes Yalaly Traore, a member of Local Union of Cereal Producers in Dioila, Mali.
“We initiated awareness campaigns for preventive measures because we noticed that our producers were not informed adequately,” says Nasser Aichatou Salifou of Ainoma Seed Farm in Niger. “Currently, farmers’ concern is whether they can go to the field when the rains come. Awareness campaigns should be increased to educate farmers are they are not adequately informed and then those who have access to social media have wrong information.”
Logistics – the seed of hardship
Farmer cooperatives are among the worst hit as they are unable to dispose of their seed stock, which they produced with borrowed capital.
“We cannot go to market to sell our seeds and it is difficult to reach our farmers. Also, because of social distancing, we cannot engage sufficiently big workforce for weeding or applying fertilisers. If this continues, we may have to decrease our acreage in production,” says a worried El Hadj Abdul Razak of Heritage Seeds Company, a farmer-centric organisation in Ghana.
Suddenly, without flights, orders for inputs including seeds, sprayers and pesticides that are usually imported to countries like Mali are now not possible. Restrictions in transport makes any local procurement of inputs difficult.
“Rising cost of haulage and cost of inputs have doubled due to non-availability of labor. We are trying to create an online presence for sales and increase machines to reduce human labor. It takes almost two weeks to move goods from Kano to Ibadan in Nigeria due to interstate issues and bad vehicles,” Stella Thomas of Techni Seeds Limited in Nigeria points out.
Among the implications are a costly delay in certification of seeds, explains Coulibaly Maimouna Sidibe of Faso Kaba Seed Company, a predominantly women-run seed organisation in Mali.
“This will lead to a lack of availability of seed for the production of certified seeds by individual farmers, associations and cooperatives,” she adds. Any dip in quality of seeds entering farms can jeopardize incomes and food security.
The pandemic has also hit seed systems in Senegal, according to El Hadj Ibrahima Diouf of Jambar, an economic interest group or Groupe d’Interet Economique.
“The seeds we produced last year still need to be certified, packaged and distributed to farmers. All the processes has been stopped due to the pandemic, while the rainy season is about to start,” he said.
Recently, the international non-profit association, CORAF, called for a concerted effort to ensure access to certified seeds of major staple food crops in the West Africa and Sahel region to soften the impact of the pandemic on agriculture.
Digital Extension – the elephant in the room
“About 80% of smallholder farmers we work with are at risk of losing their dry season investments as a result of the lockdown. Farmers are left without field demonstrations as skeletal visit-and-train extension services is all there is. They are unable to apply critical second-phase urea fertilizers and necessary pesticides. We fear they cannot feed their families or the nation,” rues Hajia Salamatu Garba of the Women Farmers Advancement Network in Nigeria.
Digital extension services are yet to come of age in rural Africa, even as rest of the world accustoms itself to a new norm – social distancing and increasing reliance on digital technologies.
“Most farmers like me do not have smartphones and other virtual platforms that those in the cities are using to connect. Therefore, we are very concerned about missing the season’s activities,” Fanta Diamoutene, of a women farmers group in Mali’s Farakala says echoing the concerns of farmers.
As the rainy season approaches, farmers’ collectives and small seed enterprises cannot weather the pandemic without financial support, the stakeholders say, and Ms Garba adds support is needed for six months post lockdown. The price of agricultural inputs like fertilizers and herbicides is increasing, and an impending shortage is likely to further limit availability and drive costs up.
Funding support is key to help African food producers adjust to the new norm by taking precautions to prevent contamination. Many of the stakeholders interviewed said they are not in a position to make prevention kits – masks, sanitisers or handwashing soaps, available to all their members. Seeing how most countries in the region are affected, NGOs like Malian Awakening Association for Sustainable Development look hopefully beyond the region to mitigate the fallout from the pandemic.
He thinks this pandemic is also an opportunity to explore new ideas such as the use of digital solutions. “We must use this crisis as an opportunity to refresh our approaches and technologies” he concludes.
A tree stage robust plan to secure farming communities through and after COVID-19
Recently the International crops research institute for the semi-arids tropics (ICRISAT) has developed a tree stage robust plan to secure farming communities through and after COVID-19 in for West and Central Africa. Taking on ICRISAT’s mission to “reduce poverty, hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation in the dryland tropics” as framework, our investments in agricultural programmes will assist rural and urban communities to become more self-reliant, mitigate the impact of covid-19 sanitary shock by contributing to ensure more sustainable food systems and food security.
“Keeping a loop the comparative advantage of crop improvement programs, in the recovery phase, ICRISAT’s interventions in West and Central Africa will prioritize on increasing of agricultural production through adequate warehousing and supply of targeted breeder seed to ensure continued support in production of quality certified seed in partnership with selected Seed Companies and Farmers’ cooperatives.
The institute is also ready to provide assistance to development and food aid programs targeting relief interventions through digital platforms that can remotely monitor crop and environmental conditions, farming activity, commodity prices and supply chain transactions from remote” says Dr Ramadjita Tabo, Regional and Research Program Director of ICRISAT in West and Central Africa.
By Agathe Diama (Head – Regional Information, ICRISAT – West and Central Africa)