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From the ‘Frying Pan to the Fire’? The COVID-19 Pandemic and Smallholder Farmers

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi, Geert van Dok - 22. April 2020
© AgFunderNews

For a highly contagious disease like COVID-19 raging mostly in major cities, it’s tempting to think that being in a rural area sounds better than living in a big city. Also, empty shelves in supermarkets of cities can be frightening.

Make no mistake: the pandemic is a crisis within a crisis for vulnerable and poor smallholder farmers across rural areas in developing countries. For smallholder farmers, empty fields and barns or loss of perishable produce and accumulation of non-perishable produce is more devastating. Enhancing the resilience of smallholder farmers, therefore, will require focusing not just on people in crisis, but also those vulnerable to a crisis. Any support extended to smallholder farmers should also build on fostering local skills to adapt. Indeed, for a meaningful impact, development cooperation has to be intensified and not curtailed. A global crisis requires a global response.  


The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is felt widely, but unevenly. That is why the cliché that the pandemic is a “great leveler” is shallow. It worsens inequalities and hunger among those who are already disadvantaged and vulnerable – the poor, rural households, migrants, people with disabilities, and the unemployed and people working in the low-paying informal sector.

Smallholder farmers, mainly in developing countries, are disproportionately exposed. Even before the pandemic, the food systems – the complex web of networks that are needed to produce and transform food, and ensure it reaches consumers – weren’t meeting the needs of large sections of society. Smallholder farmers are important players of the food systems, but they have little to fall back during a crisis of such magnitude.

How is the pandemic affecting smallholder farmers? What can be done to minimize the impact and rebuild their resilience?

A crisis within a crisis?

“Hundreds of billions of locusts are swarming through parts of East Africa, as we speak,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “It’s a frightening scene. These insects are laying waste to crops and livelihoods.” It’s estimated that 20 million people currently risk going hungry as a result of the swarms.

That was February 2020. I was catching up with a friend from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The insects, which eat their body weight in food every day, pose an alarming and unprecedented threat to food security and livelihoods, with Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia the hardest-hit countries. 

For a highly contagious disease like COVID-19 raging in major cities, it’s tempting to think that being in a rural area sounds better than living in big cities. Yet, with the outbreak and spread of the pandemic, the situation for smallholder farmers in rural areas is like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Smallholder farmers in rural areas live in fragile situations, lacking basic services like health and transportation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard countries that face multiple vulnerabilities, with weak healthcare systems and limited coping capacities, as well as people in poverty or at risk of falling into poverty. The pandemic-linked flight restrictions, in the case of smallholders in East Africa, have prevented efforts such as securing helicopters used for locust surveillance. Restricted movements have also reduced cargo flights and the supply of pesticides from Europe and Asia.

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, smallholder farmers in other parts of the world had also been affected by multiple crises – from climate change leading to extended severe droughts and back-to-back failed harvests to fluctuating agricultural prices.

Without a doubt, the pandemic is shaking global food systems, disrupting regional agricultural value chains, and posing risks to household food security. It has put the world on a crisis footing, as it touches everyone, even though differently: farmers and farm laborers, key inputs such as fertilizers, seeds and veterinary medicines, processing plants, freight distributors, retailers, and more.

Food systems: widening inequities, worsening hunger 

The pandemic has significant short- and long-term disruptions to food systems, which have for decades been on a knife-edge. The list of challenges is long: sudden shocks to long-​term stressors, such as natural disasters, armed conflicts, pest outbreaks, economic and political crises, climate change, and resource degradation.

Add the pandemic on top of the list of challenges to food systems and it becomes a strong driver of inequality and hunger. It painfully exposes the existing and persisting inequalities by worsening an already deteriorating global hunger and food insecurity of more than 820 million people. Malnourished people are weak and vulnerable to diseases. This makes achieving Zero Hunger by 2030, one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) commitments, a far more difficult objective.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN estimates that 2.5 billion people in the developing world depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. The majority of them are smallholder farmers for whom the pandemic is much more than a health crisis. Even if the pandemic may be contained in a relatively short period, it can feed off long-term problems.

While governments of rich countries unveil huge financial packages to save their economies, developing countries are drowning in debt. Heavily indebted countries, in which most vulnerable people like smallholder farmers live, are facing serious problems of declining exports and sharply increased borrowing costs, raising the prospect of a new debt crisis. These differences are observable not only between countries but within countries as well.

As economies grind to a halt, the impacts fall hardest on the poor like smallholder farmers. In the short term, the pandemic curbs farmers’ access to markets to buy inputs and sell products. Those relying on a good harvest and feeding their families, making a living, and in some cases paying back their debts and preparing for the next season cultivation are now in a much more difficult situation.

For people living in big cities, empty shelves in supermarkets can be frightening. Yet, for smallholder farmers, empty fields and barns or loss of perishable produce and accumulation of non-perishable produce is more devastating.

The longer the pandemic lasts, the more serious the impacts are. It threatens trade, economies, and the food system. Loss of income and jobs reduce people’s ability to buy food, which, in turn, hit hard smallholder farmers. Before the pandemic, productivity and income have been quite low for many smallholders across different countries.

A large number of poor people still live in rural areas. It’s also true that in some cities and peri-urban areas, urban agriculture remains a vital source of food, dietary diversity, and income. Migrants from rural areas working or living in cities heavily depend on wages and on informal food systems which are also affected by the lockdown.

As seen in India and Bangladesh, the pandemic is forcing millions of migrant workers to flood out of cities on foot or whatever means of transport they could lay their hands on and return to their homes in the countryside. In the process, they speed up the transmission of the infection to rural areas.   

Enhancing resilience

The pandemic, together with other crises, is undermining livelihoods and national development gains that have taken years to build. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel warns, handling the pandemic is “not the end phase but still just the beginning".

At some point, the time will come to rebuild from the damages of the crisis and accommodate the “new normal” of co-living with this new pathogen. The extent and speed of the recovery and adaptation depend on getting the immediate response right, and on updating it throughout the entire cycle of COVID-19.

Not just people in crisis, but also those vulnerable to crisis  

An immediate and meaningful support mechanism should aim at keeping smallholder farmers afloat by minimizing the economic damages caused by the pandemic.

Yet, the road to recovery requires concerted or coordinated efforts; people need extended support far more than immediate, life-saving support. This is more than cash transfers and direct nutrition interventions. Interventions aren’t just about people in crises, but also those who are vulnerable to crises.

Crises can also accelerate unsustainable, business-as-usual approaches that exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. As governments and other stakeholders move to support smallholder farmers, the aim should be to make agriculture and food systems productive and risk-sensitive.

One concrete way of doing this is to focus on (a) sustainably increasing productivity and incomes, (b) adapting to risks, and (c) reducing impacts on climate, where possible.

Building on people’s capacities and priorities

In the process of enhancing resilience, any support extended to smallholder farmers should build on fostering local skills to adapt. Many developing countries don’t have government-run social safety nets. In times of need, smallholder farmers adapt and innovate constantly, and they do so through informal networks of social and economic relations.

Smallholder farmers are often more productive, per hectare than large farms. If we also consider agro-ecological conditions and access to technology, smallholder farmers provide more employment per hectare than larger industrial farms. Such issues are often ignored.

What is common among smallholder farmers in developing countries is their vulnerability and limited access to markets and services. Yet, building back better should consider the sheer diversity of farm management practices and livelihood strategies. Besides farming, smallholder farmers have multiple economic activities, often in the informal economy, to contribute towards their small income.

Intensified and not curtailed development cooperation

Long-term solutions will be needed in terms of funding economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable food systems. Thus, now, more than ever, global solidarity is highly necessary. No country alone can address the economic and social fallout from the pandemic.

Developed and wealthy countries may turn inwards during and right after the pandemic. This is understandable. However, it’s in everyone’s interest that the commitment to development cooperation should be intensified and not curtailed to strengthen the resilience of people and economic systems.

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Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies