Stephanie Hanson is the senior vice president of policy and partnerships at One Acre Fund, an agriculture organization serving one million farmers in Africa.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses challenges for African agriculture. Farming is the dominant way people in sub-Saharan Africa earn their living and feed their families. But government restrictions on movement designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have made the daily activities of African farmers more difficult and may well lead to a reduction in the production and availability of food in markets.
For example, purchasing seed and fertilizer is more difficult when many agrodealer shops are closed. Obtaining financing to purchase that seed and fertilizer is harder when microfinance organizations are not making new loans. Selling vegetable crops at market can be impossible when markets are closed or curfews limit transportation options to reach markets. In addition, East African farmers are also dealing with a second plague of locusts, a once-in-a-generation scourge that could decimates crops across the region.
Though it is still early, the anecdotal evidence is worrisome. There are signs that local food prices are increasing in some countries and reports from farmers that lockdown measures have reduced their ability to grow and sell their produce. In Nigeria, for example, rice farmers are having trouble getting rice to market because of increased transport prices and unclear security regulations further inhibit the movement of food to urban markets.
African governments in many countries, including Rwanda and Kenya, have made encouraging steps to allow the agriculture sector to continue to operate during lockdowns and movement restrictions, including recognizing agriculture as an “essential service.” But even in countries where agriculture has been designated an essential service, farmers and other actors in the agriculture sector find themselves uncertain of what’s allowed and what isn’t. In particular, more clarity is urgently needed for transport linkages that bring farm inputs to the last mile and farm production to consumers. Once African governments clearly define these rules, they need to work effectively with local government and local security officials to make sure those rules are implemented correctly. If national government gives farmers an exemption from a curfew to transport crops to market early in the morning, local police need to understand that exemption and allow farmers to reach those markets.
International donors should prioritize support for African farmers because African governments have a limited ability to cushion the economic shock of COVID-19 on them. As a result, donors and governments should work together to keep financing flowing to farmers over the next twelve to eighteen months, a critical period for the next two growing seasons. As the Rural and Agriculture Finance Learning Lab suggests, bridge loans and first-loss guarantees can help incentivize financial institutions that provide credit to farmers to continue doing so through the pandemic.
Focusing COVID-19 emergency aid on farmers now will reduce the amount of humanitarian food aid required as the pandemic continues, and help to prevent a health crisis from becoming a food security crisis.