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Agribusiness & Manufacturing

Survey reveals Covid-19’s devastating impact on farmers

Covid-19 has disrupted food suppliers around the world. According to a new survey by agribusiness Olam International, one of the world’s largest suppliers of cocoa, coffee, cotton and rice, farmers across the world are suffering severe repercussions as a result of the pandemic.

Olam’s survey of nearly three and a half thousand farmers conducted across six months in 19 countries found that five out of 10 African farmers saw less demand for their produce.

And around half of all farmers saw crop production reduce and incomes fall. Approximately 50% of farmers have had to find new ways of generating income.

Julie Greene, Olam International’s vice president for corporate responsibility and sustainability, talked to African Business about the results of the survey. 

African Business: A year and a half into the Covid-19 pandemic, how drastic is the situation for African farmers according to the results of your survey?

Julie Greene: We did the first one last year in June and the second one in March 2021 and it was quite interesting to compare the results of these surveys. What we found was that seven out of 10 farmers are still reporting a reduction in income as compared to before the pandemic. That hasn’t changed much since our prior survey.

We’ve also found that five out of 10 farmers have reported having less production. Now while their situation was slightly less drastic than what they themselves predicted in their prior survey, it’s still quite significant that Africa is clearly the highest hit region. And furthermore, six out of 10 farmers in Africa reported that they’re eating less food and eating a less diverse, less nutritious diet.

A lot of that has to do with having less food available in local markets, being less able to afford food and the food that they have already being spoiled or infested. 

Do we know some of the direct reasons for the decline in productivity as a result of Covid-19? 

It’s really not so much a question of farmers getting ill from the virus. While of course there is a certain impact in that respect, the greater impact is on farmers’ access to inputs. 

Access to affordable seeds, pesticides and fertilisers was already difficult before the pandemic in many of these rural regions, but now with the pandemic, they are subject to movement restrictions and they simply have less income. They had less income from last season to invest in this season’s inputs. We’re seeing a knock-on effect that risks getting worse and worse. 

Is there any evidence of farmers finding ways of adapting to the huge changes bought about by Covid? 

There are a number of things that companies such as Olam are doing to support the distribution of inputs and to support access to markets and information.

Harnessing, for example, our digital connections with farmers, our applications such as Olam Direct, our Olam Farmer Information System, to push out information both about health and about the markets as well. Farmers are also diversifying their income sources. We found that a number of them started new activities as well as new crops.

Unfortunately, a number of farmers have had to resort to selling their assets. We found that about 52% of farmers in Africa reported that they actually had to sell household and productive assets to make up for the loss of income that they’ve experienced.

An Olam employee shows a cocoa farmer how to use the Olam Direct app.
An Olam employee shows a cocoa farmer how to use the Olam Direct app.

What more do you think that policymakers need to do to make sure that farmers are sheltered from the effects of Covid-19?

The support has varied in different regions. So just about every country in Africa has put into place some sort of a response and recovery plan. For example, in Côte d’Ivoire, the state has put in place social support programmes to help vulnerable populations cope with the pandemic and this is very good.

It’s important that this sort of support and financial support can really reach those who are most in need in some of these rural areas that are simply out of sight of a lot of these policies.

Furthermore, we have the challenge to children’s rights. Prior to Covid, 116m children worldwide were in child labour, quite a large number in Africa, typically on family farms and family microenterprises as well. A recent report by UNICEF finds that an additional 9m children will be in child labour now.

This is really reversing some of the positive trends that we’ve been seeing prior to Covid. While some governments have put in place ways to continue education, a lot of this is not accessible to rural communities who do not have access to electricity or internet.

Do these trends put in danger the concept of an African green revolution? 

I think we’re really at an inflection point. We’re seeing that farmers are at a point where they may go into this downward spiral – at least the farmers who are already in a precarious situation.

On the other hand, the pandemic has spurred us as a global society, as companies, as governments to really look at other solutions – for example, digital solutions – to deliver information to farmers and to connect with them more efficiently, both in terms of the distribution of inputs, the restocking of supplies in warehouses, and the access to markets. 

This is in a way a spur to innovation, not just digital, but also to mechanisation. We found alternative arrangements to support farmers with access to tractors to help them with land preparation.

This sort of activity is important, not just in the context of the pandemic, but also in the context of climate change where we’re seeing shorter periods that are appropriate for planting, and therefore farmers need to take advantage of that period quite quickly through faster means of planting such as mechanised sewing.

How can large agribusinesses help farmers to overcome some of the challenges that you’ve talked about?

Our findings indicated that the farmers experienced the most challenges in selling their crops and accessing incomes for the inputs, for their crops, when they didn’t have partners like Olam. So through partners like ourselves, and through our networks, through our technology, we’re able to help farmers to access credit, whether it’s directly from us or in partnership with third parties.

Banks and input companies were able to help farmers to access inputs, access seeds, and provide them with training for their crops and health and human rights. So I believe that the farmers that are connected really benefit from those links to large companies.

What are some of the initiatives that Olam has planned in this area over the next few months? 

Our priorities are continuing to train farmers on best practices. Now we’re looking a bit more at training farmers on the use of organic fertilisers and cover crops and such so that they can be more independent of chemical agricultural inputs, for environmental reasons as well and to help them maintain their soil productivity.

We’re also supporting more and more farmers with income-generating activities, with alternative sources of incomes in terms of crops like vegetable farming and other activities, and training farmers on the conservation of perishables.

Quite a lot of farmers we discovered from our survey had lost or were suffering from food insecurity because some of their food has spoiled or become infested sitting in mud granaries with thatched covers, and there’s a number of techniques, both chemical and packaging-wise that can easily help them to preserve those food stuffs.

We’re also focusing on improving financial security and resilience through popularising and deploying savings and credits associations, an initiative that we are upscaling.