In early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic started spreading around the globe, many countries experienced the implementation of contact, travel and/or trading restrictions, curfews, or even complete lockdowns. In order to assess the challenges that small-scale farmers experienced, and their coping strategies developed during the initial phase of the pandemic, the Centre for Rural Development (SLE) at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin initiated a joint research study with partners in Indonesia, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Silke Stöber is a senior researcher at Centre for Rural Development (SLE), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, with many years of experience in academic research, consultancy and teaching, covering the areas of food security and climate change adaptation. Her research and training is driven by transdisciplinarity and co-research with smallholder farmers. She is experienced in communication and management of junior research teams and supervises up to three Master or Bachelor theses per year. She has specialised on mixed methods research methodologies and designs, including representative household surveys, historical weather analysis, randomised field experiments, inter-farm comparison trials and participatory co-research with smallholder farmer groups.
Judith Henze is a post-doctoral consultant for sustainable innovations in agriculture, focusing on ICTs. She currently explores how AI can be employed to support farmers, food systems and to minimise human-wildlife-conflicts.
Prof. Dr. Markus Hanisch is the Director of Centre for Rural Development (SLE) Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He has a PhD. in agricultural and resource economics. Many years of experience as a chairholder, project manager, and university lecturer at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Particular expertise in the field of rural cooperatives, international/national. Professional experience as a consultant and expert for various international organisations, including the GIZ, FAO, World Bank, Conservation International, and UN-DESA.
Seminar für Ländliche Entwicklung (SLE)
Using the open access tool KoboToolbox, a smartphone-based digital data survey was conducted with more than 700 (peri-) urban farmers in Cape Town (South Africa) and Maputo (Mozambique), as well as rural farmers of Masvingo (Zimbabwe), Java and Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Farmers played an active role as co-researchers and engaged in data collection and analysis and contributed with own stories. Between April and June, the team managed to send out surveys five times.
Small-scale farmers answered survey questions about food security, challenges of farming and marketing, and how they cope with the crisis. Observations on food price development, its implications on household diets and major fears were also reported on.
The remote and digital data collection included also some challenges. As many of the Maputo urban farmers do not own smartphones, enumerators had to be engaged to conduct telephone interviews with the farmers. Data were entered after the telephone interview. Due to instable and weak internet connection, farmers in Zimbabwe and the remote mountainous Toraja responded by WhatsApp to a regional coordinator, who then transferred the data into KoboToolbox.
The results reveal that the level of imposed restrictions had a corresponding impact on the small-scale farmers. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, a strict lockdown was imposed. As small-scale farmers were not regarded as ‘essential services’, farmers were often unable to access their farms. In South Africa, the government introduced permits for farm access, which were difficult to obtain. As a results, 46% of the responding farmers in Cape Town were not able to access their farms during the lockdown. Similarly, a third of the respondents in Zimbabwe reported difficulties accessing their farms. Restricted access to farms, shutting markets and the closing of borders, meant both cities experienced reduced access to food, spikes in prices of particular food products, and a looming hunger crisis. In Masvingo, a prolonged drought affecting maize harvest intensified food insecurity.
In contrast, small-scale farmers in Indonesia and Mozambique were deemed essential, and almost all participants could access their farms and were able to sell their produce. In fact, as closed borders inhibited the regular food imports, Maputo, generally strongly dependent on food imports from South Africa, saw a growth in demand for local vegetables and local unrefined sugar.
In Indonesia, small-scale farmers are usually important players in the local food systems. This crucial status prevailed in the crisis, and the majority of farmers had access to their farms. However, farmer markets closed down in Sulawesi, where consequently 38% of respondents were unable to buy and sell food produce. In Java, marketing of fresh products like cabbage became a major issue, as logistic channels to the capital Jakarta broke down. Farmers had experience with previous epidemics, such as SARS, and feared the health consequences of Covid-19. Because of this, along with the increased meat prices, many people in Toraja chose a healthier diet rich in vitamins and increased their consumption of vegetables and even of fruits
From this research five lessons stand out:
The severity of the national COVID-19 restrictions correlated with the impacts in all five food regions. The harsher the constraints the more severe the impacts reported by the farmers. Impacting on food insecurity, a rise in poverty and unemployment, the situation led to hunger and higher levels of crime in Cape Town, and to food shortages, food price spikes and an increase in thefts in Masvingo. In the countries with less strict restrictions, farmers experienced less severe impacts. Yet, some farmers in Maputo, claimed that the COVID-19 interventions lowered their incomes due to a decline in customers. In Java, farmers reported fewer farming related outcomes apart from rising fertilizer prices. Marketing was also affected by travelling restrictions to other regions of the country.
Farmers adapted to market restrictions. In Cape Town, farmer respondents reported selling their products to local communities more frequently, to compensate for the loss of demand from and sales to restaurants and high-end markets due to COVID-19 containment measures. Similarly, urban farmers responded to the temporary cessation of NGO retail markets by establishing neighbourhood-wide WhatsApp marketing groups, and initiated word-of-mouth advertising for their produce. Farmers in Masvingo followed a similar pattern, actively compensating for the reduction of sales to restaurants, high-end markets, and farmer markets, by marketing 37% more often to local communities.
Rural farmers with multiple marketing channels and a diversity of crops grown had fewer difficulties to market their produce. While those depending on one product and one trader, such as marketing cabbage within Jakarta, had serious problems. This resulted in some having to let part of their harvest rot back into the fields.
As consumers, the urban poor, living in slums or shantytowns, were most affected. Concerning financial means, many lost their limited income as day labourers and/or, have few to no financial buffers to stockpile or bulk-buy food products during the lockdown. Access to food products became restricted as formal and informal markets were closed, and most urban dwellers were unprepared and lacked the resources (e.g. land) to grow vegetables or keep small livestock such as chicken to self-support their families (unlike most of their rural poor counterparts).
Mobile phones and mobile phone applications were an important part of local strategies employed to navigate the COVID-19 restrictions. Communication apps - such as WhatsApp – linked farmers with consumers and gave access to new markets. However, inadequate or expensive local mobile data networks and the investment costs of smart phones hinder many small-scale farmers to sell their products digitally.
Digital research was vital to assess the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic on the ground. Probably this type of inquiry will become more common and increasingly utilised by nutrition and food security projects not only in crisis regions, due to a range of factors: first, new software has made mobile surveys a cheaper and a scalable option; second, real-time data can contribute to rapid responses for policy actions and decision-making; third, it can give a voice to the often unheard, such as small-scale farmers; and fourth, participants do benefit from the exchange with other participants if the results are relayed back to the participants (in this case a South-South exchange where a joint learning process was enabled).
Since many of the projects of the SEWOH initiative are concerned with the development of small-scale farmer market access and value chains, the comparative experience with local food systems in the pandemic must be further evaluated and taken seriously. Subsequent projects should strengthen and help farmers to further develop their own means and instruments for making food systems more robust and resilient against external shocks. Local and federal governments, as partners of such projects, have to be made aware of the “systemic relevance” and general importance of small-scale farmers for maintaining quality nutrition and food security, but also food justice in times of crisis.
The authors would like to thank all farmers who participated as co-researchers – for initiating the study, collecting data, and contributing to the analysis. Thanks to the colleagues in Southern Africa and Indonesia for contextualising the data. We thank Foundation fiat panis and Freunde und Förderer des SLE e.V. for providing financial support.
This text is a summary of following publications:
Paganini, N., Adinata, K., Buthelezi, N., Harris, D., Lemke, S., Luis, A., Koppelin, J., Karriem, A., Ncube, F., Nervi, E., Ramba, T., Raimundo, I., Sulejmanović, N., Swanby, H., Tevera, D., Stöber, S. (2020). Growing and Eating Food during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Farmers' Perspectives on Local Food System Resilience to Shocks in Southern Africa and Indonesia. In:Sustainability. 12. 8556. 10.3390/su12208556.
Henze, J., Paganini, N., Stöber, S. (2020). Chapter 8. Switching over instead of Switching Off: A Digital Field Research Conducted by Small-scale Farmers in Southern Africa and Indonesia. In book: Researching in the Age of COVID-19 Volume I: Response and Reassessment. Publisher: Policy Press and Bristol University Press.
Buthelezi, N., Lemke, S., Karriem, A., Paganini, N., Stöber, S., Swanby, H. (2020). Invisible Urban Farmers and a Next Season of Hunger -Participatory Co-research during Lockdown in Cape Town, South Africa. In:Critical Food Studies Collection. 10.13140/RG.2.2.34845.54247/1.
Stöber, S., Adinata, K. Ramba, T. Paganini, N. Sulejmanović N. (under review). Coping with COVID-19 containments: insights from smallholder farmers on food security and farming in Indonesia. AFJAND, Nairobi, Kenya.
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