Farmers in West Africa have varying perceptions of the novel coronavirus pandemic. While some believe it is real, others believe it is a contrivance of governments, a report published on Monday indicated.
However, the report said the farmers all agree on one thing: the response to the pandemic has affected everybody because all activities have slowed down.
The report was produced by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), when it reached out to some farmers in the sub-region.
ICRISAT is an international organisation which conducts agricultural research for rural development.
“Currently, farmers’ concern is whether they can go to the field when the rains come. Awareness campaigns should be increased to educate farmers as they are not adequately informed and then those who have access to social media have wrong information,” the report said.
“We initiated awareness campaigns for preventive measures because we noticed that our producers were not informed adequately,” Nasser Aichatou Salifou of Ainoma Seed Farm in Niger said.
The World Food Programme (WFP) reported that over 40 million people across West Africa will face desperate food shortages in coming months as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions, which it described as a new factor adding to people’s vulnerability.
The report estimated that 12 million children under five years old could be acutely malnourished in the lean season – from June to August – up from 8.2 million in the same period last year.
Logistics – the seed of hardship
The report highlighted that farmer cooperatives are among the worst hit as they are unable to dispose of their seed stock, which they produced with borrowed capital.
Also, it said West Africa’s farmer collectives, small businesses and other stakeholders in agriculture reveal their plight as the rains approach.
In the report, the farmers called out for support through logistics facilitation, digital extension, awareness creation and financial backstopping to prevent food, nutrition security and livelihoods going downhill.
“We cannot go to market to sell our seeds and it is difficult to reach our farmers. Also, because of social distancing, we cannot engage sufficiently big workforce for weeding or applying fertilisers. If this continues, we may have to decrease our acreage in production,” said a worried Abdul Razak of Heritage Seeds Company, a farmer-centric organisation in Ghana.
Since the pandemic began, restrictions in transport makes any local procurement of inputs difficult. For West African countries like Mali, import of seeds sprayers and pesticides are not possible.
“Rising cost of haulage and cost of inputs have doubled due to non-availability of labour. We are trying to create an online presence for sales and increase machines to reduce human labour. It takes almost two weeks to move goods from Kano to Ibadan in Nigeria due to interstate issues and bad vehicles,” Stella Thomas of Techni Seeds Limited in Nigeria pointed out.
Among the implications are a costly delay in certification of seeds, explained Coulibaly Sidibe of Faso Kaba Seed Company, a predominantly women-run seed organisation in Mali.
“This will lead to a lack of availability of seed for the production of certified seeds by individual farmers, associations and cooperatives,” she added, saying any dip in quality of seeds entering farms can jeopardise incomes and food security.
The pandemic has also hit seed systems in Senegal, according to Ibrahima Diouf of Jambar, an economic interest group or Groupe d’Interet Economique.
“The seeds we produced last year still need to be certified, packaged and distributed to farmers. All the processes has been stopped due to the pandemic, while the rainy season is about to start,” he said.
Recently, the international non-profit association, CORAF, called for a concerted effort to ensure access to certified seeds of major staple food crops in the West Africa and Sahel regions to soften the impact of the pandemic on agriculture.
Digital Extension – the elephant in the room.
Digital extension services are yet to come of age in rural Africa, even as the rest of the world accustoms itself to a new norm – social distancing and increasing reliance on digital technologies.
This report shows that about 80 per cent of smallholder farmers are at risk of losing their dry season investments as a result of the lockdown.
It said farmers are left without field demonstrations as skeletal visit-and-train extension services are all there is.
“They are unable to apply critical phased urea fertilisers and necessary pesticides. We fear they cannot feed their families or the nation,” rued Salamatu Garba of the Women Farmers Advancement Network in Nigeria.
“Most farmers like me do not have smartphones and other virtual platforms that those in the cities are using to connect. Therefore, we are very concerned about missing the season’s activities,” Fanta Diamoutene of a women farmers group in Mali’s Farakala said, echoing the concerns of farmers.
As the rainy season approaches, farmers’ collectives and small seed enterprises cannot weather the pandemic without financial support, the stakeholders said. Ms Garba added that support is needed for six months post lockdown.
The price of agricultural inputs like fertilisers and herbicides is increasing, and an impending shortage is likely to further limit availability and drive costs up.
Funding support remains key to help African food producers adjust to the new norm by taking precautions to prevent contamination.
According to the report, many of the stakeholders interviewed said they are not in a position to make prevention kits – masks, sanitisers or hand-washing soaps, available to all their members.
ICRISAT developed a tree stage robust plan to secure farming communities through and after COVID-19 in West and Central Africa.
The institute also said it is ready to provide assistance to development and food aid programmes targeting relief interventions through digital platforms that can remotely monitor crop and environmental conditions, farming activity, commodity prices and supply chain transactions from remote,” said Ramadjita Tabo, Regional and Research Programme Director of ICRISAT in West and Central Africa.