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A multi-phase assessment of the effects of COVID-19 on food systems and rural livelihoods in Zambia: The case of small-scale farmers surrounding Mkushi Farming Block

Written by: Chrispin Matenga and Munguzwe Hichaambwa

Following the identification of the first COVID-19 case in Zambia on 18 March 2020, the government announced some lockdown measures intended to prevent the spread of pandemic. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has not only led to loss of human life and negatively affected health systems in the country, it has also disrupted local food systems and rural livelihoods. This blog reflects on the findings of APRA’s A Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Zambia, which highlights a case study on small-scale farmers surrounding the Mkushi Farming Block in Central Province of Zambia. The study focused on documenting and understanding the impacts of the pandemic at the household level in terms of changes in farming activities, availability and cost of services for agricultural production, labour and employment, marketing, transport services, food and nutrition security, and poverty. It also reviewed the COVID-19 health guidelines and ‘lockdown’ measures imposed by the state authorities, and how they may have contributed to these observed changes over time.


COVID-19 guidelines and ‘lockdown’ measures

Following the announcement of the first COVID-19 case in the country, the Zambian government, in line with global trends, instituted orders and public health guidelines including face masks, handwashing, use of alcohol-based hand sanitisers, social distancing, and a partial lockdown involving phased restrictions. The ‘lockdown’ measures included the closure of learning institutions at all levels, restrictions on social and religious gatherings, ‘stay-at-home’ appeals, rotational work and ‘work-at-home’ orders, and closures of bars, restaurants, nightclubs, casinos, cinemas and gyms. However, most businesses, particularly those dealing with essential goods and services including shops, food markets and supermarkets, have been allowed to continue operating throughout the pandemic. Other measures included brief closure of borders and international airports. Of note is the non-imposition of a country-wide curfew, as well as early easing up of the restrictions and a lacklustre attitude by state authorities in the enforcement of the public health guidelines.

Despite the fact that government has not issued any regulation to prevent people from making movements within the country or confining people at home, apart from moral appeals for people to ‘stay at home’ to avoid contracting or spreading the virus, the study revealed that most households reduced their movements both within and outside their own villages during the two rounds of the study. This was attributed to the fear of contracting coronavirus as little was known about its channels of transmission. Zambia’s ‘lockdown’ measures can thus be described as moderate relative to other countries in Southern African.

Farming, labour and marketing

Results show that farmer participation in farming activities and business decreased since the pandemic began. The proportion reporting decreases in participation in farming activities increased from 47% to 58% between the survey’s first round (R1) in October 2020 and the second round (R2) in March 2021. Similarly, the proportion reporting a decrease in participation in businesses/household enterprises slightly improved from 87% in R1 to 76% in R2 although it still remained high. Availability of labour, key agricultural services and access to markets decreased, while costs of inputs, farm labour and transportation of produce increased.

While most households reported increasing ability to hire labour from R1 to R2 of the survey, the cost of labour continued to rise during the period. COVID-19 has adversely affected the availability of key services for agricultural production (farm inputs; agricultural extension; contractual arrangements) but an improvement in availability was reported by R2 except for contractual arrangements for cash crops and concessionary loans. Prices for farm inputs and other services were reported to have increased with the onset of COVID-19 by most households, and the proportion reporting an increase has continued to rise. Brief border closures and mandatory testing/quarantine of truck drivers disrupted cross-border movement and impacted the supply chain for agricultural inputs at the time. The pandemic reduced households’ ability to sell farm produce at all market levels although the proportion reporting a decrease in access to these markets has begun to abate. For instance, the proportion of households that reported a decrease in access to national markets was 65% in R1, but this reduced to 46% in R2. Access to markets across the border similarly reduced from 82% in R1 to 68% in R2. While most households reported the ability to transport produce to the different market levels, the proportion reporting an increase in the cost of transport increased from 56% in R1 to 74% by R2, signifying that the cost of doing business for small-scale farmers was getting higher.

Food and nutrition security

Results indicate that household food and nutrition security was compromised, as food availability generally decreased during R1 but generally picked-up by R2. That food availability increased in R2 can be confirmed by the proportion of respondents reporting a reduction in the prevalence of having insufficient food to meet family needs from 58% to 42% between R1 and R2. Food prices were reported to have increased in R1 for most food items by most respondents, and the proportion reporting an increase in prices for most food items continued to increase except for ‘other vegetables’ and ‘other fruits’, which remained the same and reduced respectively between R1 and R2.

Poverty

More than three quarters of the respondents in both survey rounds (83% and 85%, respectively) reported that the overall cost of living had increased. While COVID-19 significantly reduced households’ ability to take full control of their lives during R1, an improvement was reported during R2, although remaining far behind pre-pandemic levels.

Conclusions

Overall, the study results show that COVID-19 has had negative impacts on small-scale farmer agricultural production and livelihoods in the short- to medium-term. Largely, the impacts have manifested themselves through disruptions to farming activities and services, labour supply, market access and spikes in prices for farm inputs, and labour costs. These disruptions were driven largely by fears among communities of infection during the initial period of the pandemic, as well as the perceived movement restrictions by state authorities (though these were not legislated). However, by R2 in March 2021, a recovery in many deteriorating indicators had begun, although they remained behind pre-pandemic levels and it is likely that it will take small-scale farmer households a longer time to fully recover.