COVID-19: Millions of smallholder farmers facing tough times ahead


Millions of smallholder farmers across Africa are facing economic devastation as COVID-19 pandemic disrupts exports and global food supply chains, a report has noted.

A report, dubbed ‘Impact of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on Africa’s Agriculture’ noted that millions of African smallholder farmers who grow fruits and vegetables (FFV) for export have lost market access as flights are canceled and borders restricted around the world.

This comes after another statement was released by the Kenya Flower council citing the crippling of the horticultural sector by the COVID-19 pandemic. The flower exporters said that lack of freight is now the major hindrance to Kenya’s cut flower export.

The recently released report by Selina Wamucii notes that Morocco, Kenya, and South Africa are the most affected countries in Africa.

Global disruption of supply chains is also affecting the import of agricultural inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, and insecticides.

According to John Oroko, CEO of Selina Wamucii, intra-Africa trade is around 2 per cent while exports from Africa to the rest of the world range from 80 per cent to 90 per cent of total exports, of which a huge share is made up of agricultural produce.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately come at a time when our farmers depend largely on exports to markets outside the continent and also before the commencement of trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) that was scheduled to commence on July 1, 2020, thereby creating a single continental market of more than 1.3 billion people. Now, unlike no other time, we can see a demonstration of why the success of the African Continental Free Trade Area will be directly linked to securing the livelihoods of African farmers in the future,” says Oroko.

“COVID–19 is severely disrupting trade in key markets for Africa’s agricultural produce and African farmers are bound to experience a nightmare in export market access,” adds Oroko.

According to the study, before the COVID–19 pandemic, farmers in Kenya and other East Africa countries were already suffering severe locust invasion and now COVID–19 has worsened the situation.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) also issued a warning a new wave of locust swarms are starting to form, representing an unprecedented threat to farmer livelihoods – specifically in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia.  As a result, farmers are facing a double catastrophe from the impact of COVID–19 and the locusts at the same time, a combination that will negatively affect their farm yields.

“While the agricultural production in South Africa has not been adversely affected by the Coronavirus pandemic, logistics and border restrictions are likely to affect South Africa’s agricultural exports. The country has closed 35 land borders and two seaports. Coupled with the fact that the county also has prohibited crew changes in all of its ports amidst a looming container shortage, the export volume is bound to go down especially for fish, seafood and fresh vegetables.” The study reads in part.

Farmers are currently experiencing a disruption of the supply chains whereby access to quality seeds, fertilizers, and crop-nurturing and protection inputs and implements to achieve good production in their farms, is limited.

“They need packaging materials too for post-harvest handling and dispatch of the produce to markets. Currently, there is a global disruption of supply chains and this is affecting the import of agricultural inputs from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and other regions.

While countries and farmers may have enough stock of fertilizers, chemicals and other implements to last them a few months, if the situation persists and they are not able to receive input shipments from China and other countries, then the situation will turn dire.” The study reads.

The study has therefore called on the need for smallholder farmers to be equipped with means of protection, being a vulnerable group that is also vital to food security across Africa. Other agricultural workers, for example packhouse workers, are also at high risk given that most packhouse packing line configurations make social distancing measures very difficult to comply with.

With the logistics sectors being adversely affected, this is hampering agricultural produce exports and imports.

So far 31 countries across Africa have imposed full border closures, while a majority of the others are allowing only cargo and basic goods through. South Africa has closed 35 land borders, as well as two seaports from mid-March.

Uganda not only suspended all passenger flights but also closed its land borders with an exception of cargo flights and cargo vehicles. Kenya suspended all international flights from March 25 with the exception of cargo flights. Ghana, Ethiopia as well as many other African countries have closed all land borders.

Key border and trade facilitation agencies across Africa have also implemented preventive measures, including a reduction in the number of staff leading to lower capacity. As a result, importers and exporters are faced with technical challenges, especially around inspections and documentation. This is also compounded by delays caused by stringent medical screening of truck drivers at border points, and delays in vessel clearance to dock at different ports, as follows:

  • Truck delays at the border due to screening resulting in delayed deliveries to clients and/or delayed return to ports.
  • Lockdowns and curfews affecting transit time and also affecting loadings at the port.
  • Challenges of moving some key operations online within a short time, e.g. online submission of documents, as well as the use of emails, in place of physical documents.
  • Closure of Internal Container Depots and restriction of movement.

These restrictions also have an effect on the domestic prices of various products. A ban is in place in Algeria affecting the export of various essential agricultural produce including coffee, dairy products, fresh fruits and vegetables, pulses, meat and poultry. In Morocco, the government has suspended the customs fee on all soft wheat imports until mid-year. In East Africa, amidst the closure of the Kenya–Uganda border, the prices of maize and eggs have risen by 15 and 5% respectively in Kenya, caused by the cut-off of supplies from Uganda.


Also Read:COVID-19: Kenya’s flower industry on its knees

Yvonne Kawira is an award winning journalist with an interest in matters, regional trade, tourism, entrepreneurship and aviation. She has been practicing for six years and has a degree in mass communication from St Paul’s University.

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