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Small-scale farmers, children & COVID-19: What can be done?

According to FAO, smallholders – agricultural producers working on up to 10 hectares – comprise 90% of the world’s 570 million farms. Through linkages to domestic and international agribusiness firms or buyers, smallholders provide more than 70 percent of the global food supply, thus contributing to food security, rural development and poverty reduction.

However, as shown in the previous article, recent social distancing and restrictions on gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic pose a threat to smallholders’ production and marketing activities, their incomes and livelihoods. Although some countries are implementing stimulus packages, there are no clear incentives to smallholder farmers. Consequently, the risk of child labour in agriculture is heightened because smallholder household poverty will rise; children are not going to school; and more children may have to take care of their sick parents. What can governments and commodity buyers do to support and protect smallholders and children from the negative impacts of COVID-19.

We see Governments and buyers working in a complementary fashion to cushion smallholders and children in agricultural communities from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic by: (1) partnering in COVID-19 prevention measures in farming communities; (2) ensuring input distribution as well as collection and orderly marketing of farm produce; and (3) ensuring continuity of education.

1. Partnering for COVID-19 prevention and mitigation in smallholder communities

Worldwide, Governments and intergovernmental organisations are raising awareness on handwashing and other preventative measures through TV, newspapers, the internet, posters and billboards. Although useful for urban populations, such media may not be effective in reaching most smallholders in the countryside. First, there may be language barriers as local dialects are often different from national languages. Second, poor electricity and road networks means that access to television, internet and newspapers is limited. Third, literacy levels among smallholders are often low, making it difficult for them to interpret technical information. Fourth, experience shows that social network structures are often more effective for knowledge sharing among smallholders than other media.

We see local action, driven by Government but with a strong partnership of companies sourcing from communities as vital to respond to the immediate crisis and developing longer terms plans for resilience and recovery. Agribusiness firms often have field extension workers who live and work with smallholders, speak the local language and are a trusted source of information. These field extension workers understand the local farming systems, the farm labour situation, the power levers in the community and the most vulnerable households. These cadres are connected to rural producer organizations, farmers’ organisations and cooperatives and should be at the centre of effective and efficient messaging, dissemination and coordination of COVID-19 prevention and response among smallholder farming communities.

2. Partnering for production and marketing of smallholder produce

Some industries can be put on hold in order to contain the spread of COVID-19, but not agriculture. Inputs for next season must be distributed timeously, whether for rainfed or irrigated crops. Harvesting must take place on time and produce transferred from the farmgate to retailers and processors quickly to avoid product deterioration and post-harvest food losses. These characteristics of agricultural commodities call for stronger partnerships between governments, farmers’ organizations and agribusiness firms in planning and implementing the measures for COVID-19 response among smallholder farming communities.

Practical measures that Governments, farmers organisations and agribusiness firms must take can include:

  • Setting up community-level raw product collection points and input distribution.

  • Removing or putting on hold centralized, in-person selling systems such as auction systems by negotiating minimum prices and permitting decentralized purchasing.

  • Ensuring purchases and transport of agricultural products are exempt from travel restrictions.

  • Enabling mobile payment systems to prevent disruptions in delivery of cash entitlements due to restrictions on movement.

  • Removal of taxes on mobile payment transactions.

  • For smallholders with outstanding loans to banks or agribusiness firms, extending payment due dates, or offering alternative repayment accommodations to ease the pressure on farmers that cannot work or sell their produce due to the pandemic.

  • Introduce or re-activate government procurement schemes that purchase agricultural commodities from smallholder to increase (or establish) strategic buffer stocks.

  • Governments and companies to consult rural producer organisations, farmers organizations and agricultural unions to ensure decent work conditions for farm workers, including children above the minimum age of employment.

3. Partnerships to ensure education continuity

UNESCO estimates that, as of 7th April 2020, over 90% of the world’s student population – 1.5 billion children and youth – is affected by school closures in 188 countries. School closures are placing unprecedented challenges on governments, teachers, students and parents to ensure learning continuity.

A variety of education continuity programmes are being implemented in many countries. These include Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) styled lessons, distance education modalities based on different mixes of technology. However, such solutions are of little value in smallholder agricultural areas that often have no electricity and poor or no internet connectivity.

Based on ECLT’s experience in Malawi, we see Literacy and Numeracy Boost programmes as interventions that governments and agribusiness firms can scale up and promote to ensure education continuity in agricultural communities. In brief, the programme involves trained volunteers who provide education for children, which keeps them out of child labour. The volunteers provide maths and reading skills for children outside the school environment, and yet are aligned with the school curricula. To comply with government restrictions on gatherings and social distancing, literacy and numeracy boost programmes can be adjusted to accommodate more volunteers who can then provide learning to smaller groups of children.

For further reading on policy and practical responses to COVID-19, we recommend the following resources:

1. FAO‘Coronavirus Food Supply Chain Under Strain: What to do?’

2. UNESCO‘Three ways to plan for equity during the coronavirus school closures’

3. ECLT‘Quality Education for a Brighter Future’