Remembering African Farmers Amid COVID-19 Challenges

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Alex Abutu
The outbreak of COVID-19 has brought untold suffering and challenges to citizens across the globe but those at the receiving end are vulnerable subsistence farmers in Africa whose survival and that of their dependents is strictly linked to their farming activities.

About 330 million people who are already facing food insecurity in Africa need to be cushioned against falling into chronic hunger in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Remedial measures need to focus on enhancing the capacity of farmers to access quality seeds, fertilizer and other critical inputs.

The challenge however is how farmers such as Mallam Isa Mohammed, who is a 64-year-old maize, beans and yam farmer with three wives and 19 children in Uke, Karu local government area of Nasarawa state, Nigeria, is supposed to cope with the looming COVID-19 pandemic.

Mohammed said the pandemic has racked his family. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought lamentations to this agile and notable multi-crop farmer.
Mohammed had a bumper harvest last farming season and had stocked his barns in preparation for the 2020 sales and planting season. He had already targeted April 2020 for sales of his saved harvest, but this is not to be following government declarations restricting movement of people within and between states.

“Every year, I save my harvest and take to markets in Lagos and Kano where I make maximum gains, from which I pay my children’s school fees and buy other essentials for the household and also have enough money to hire labour that will help me work on my farm,” Mohammed said.

‘But this year, this is not to be as Coronavirus has forced us to stay at home maintaining social distances, we cannot travel to take the produce to any market beyond the ones in our area and there, our produce fetch less but we have no option but to sell”.
In a recent publication by AATF experts entitled COVID-19: How well is Africa prepared to conquer pandemics? Suggested series of actions including a well-coordinated plan of activities by African governments to protect the farmers from the pandemic.

The publications states that measures undertaken by African governments during this Covid-19 pandemic should be marshalled in a coordinated policy response framework at national and international levels to minimize the disruptions of agricultural supply chains.
Like Mohammed, several other farmers are already counting their losses even though COVID-19 has not infected them and their families.

Yakubu Sani, an engineering graduate from the Bayero University, Kano who teamed up with five other graduates in 2019 to start a farming venture is now full of regrets. Sani and his friends were able to access a loan from one of the commercial banks in the country after negotiating and securing about 13 hectares of land where they planted maize and beans.

“One of us is already sick because of what we are witnessing. We had envisaged a very huge profit margin following a bumper harvest, we have over 100 bags of maize and beans then Covid-19 came and we are stuck with our produce,” Sani said.
For Sani and most other farmers, the challenges COVID-19 poses come in different forms, but their major concern includes the inability to find markets for their produce as the restrictions imposed by governments hinder their movement.

Farming in Nigeria does not respect the law of social distancing as it is done in community fashion with many members of the community participating.

“Farming here is done in a community manner meaning we have to invite our friends, families and well-wishers on a particular day to assist in plowing the ground and planting but now we cannot afford to risk our lives to undertake any community activities. There are policemen and local vigilante groups all over the place preventing us from carrying out our normal farming activities,” Sani added.

Arch. Kabiru Ibrahim, President, All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), said that farmers, like other Nigerians are feeling the pangs of the lockdown adding that access to farms was of great concern as inability to access farms will result in productivity decline that would jeopardize lives and livelihoods.

According to him, farmers need to easily access seeds, fertilizers and other input now that the 2020 farming season is around the corner. The vendors of these items are not able to move around and their shops are not open due to the lockdown and the fear of the coronavirus. Extension officers also do not get around easily because of the fear of the virus too.

The President appealed to various authorities to support the acquisition of improved seeds, fertilizers both inorganic and organic, agrochemicals, and irrigation pumps to enable them to optimize their production capacity to meet the demands of the nearly 200 million mouths to feed in Nigeria. “We are fearful of what will happen if we do not upscale our production coming behind the UN prediction of famine in Nigeria,’ he said
The United Nations backed World Food Program had predicted that Nigeria will be among the dozens of countries to be hit by famine in 2020.

Another prominent farmer, Chief Dan Okafor from Abuja noted that restrictions in their movement is one of the major problems especially in the big cities.

“If farmers are not considered as essential workers it means we are getting it wrong. If farmers are not allowed to move freely, that will eventually affect productivity in this farming season which will in turn result to more people dying of hunger than the Covid-19 pandemic. This lockdown, if continued in the onset of the raining season, will end up forcing some farmers to sell their reserved grains which they normally use as their planting material as the prices of everything has gone up.”

He suggested the provision of support to smallholder farmers to help them in hiring labour, purchasing seeds and other farming input.
The AATF publication states that it is critical for African countries to embrace a policy climate that targets more efficient logistical operations to facilitate seamless movement of inputs and food/medical supplies.

“Experiences of past pandemics in Africa and recent lessons from China, the first country to be hit by COVID-19 strongly support the need for establishing “green corridors” for unimpeded flow of goods and services in a move that would lessen vulnerabilities of millions of people in countries affected by the pandemic,’ said the AATF experts led by Dr. Emmanuel Okogbenin.

Since its establishment in 2003, AATF has been working with farmers and national scientists to support introduction and use of innovative agricultural technologies that would contribute to enhancing food production efforts amidst challenges such as pest infestations, drought and drudgery.
*Abutu is a communication officer with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation