Written by: Leah Salm, Nick Nisbett and Alexandra Lulache

The COVID-19 pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa has elicited reactions that are also seen worldwide: widespread and indefinite health effects, and deep reverberations on almost all parts of daily life, from livelihoods, to freedom of movement and the availability of foods and services. As was seen in previous health crises such as that of HIV or Ebola, the effects of the pandemic are mediated by pre-existing power structures, vulnerabilities, and systems of support, which lead to differentiated outcomes for people and communities, often to the detriment of the poorest groups. This study examines the impact of COVID-19 on commercialising farmers across sub-Saharan Africa, with a deeper focus on Nigeria and Malawi, from a food equity perspective.

Written by: Amrita Saha, Marco Carreras and John Thompson

Since it began in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to considerable concerns about the viability of local food systems and rural livelihoods across sub-Saharan Africa. This paper presents the results of a three-round assessment of the effects of COVID-19 on the farming, labour and marketing practices, food and nutrition security, and well-being of over 800 male- and female-headed rural households in eight countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In this paper, we argue that when we closely examine the lived experiences of people in different country contexts, results suggest that the immediate restrictions and strict control measures imposed by governments at the start of the pandemic on social and commercial activities acted as a major shock to the well-being of many rural households and communities. Furthermore, while some households and communities were able to find ways to cope or adapt to the COVID-19-related disruptions, for others the pandemic coincided with a number of other shocks and stresses (extreme weather events, locust infestations, conflict and insecurity, or a combination of these), exacerbating some of the observed risks.

As COVID-19 took hold in March 2020, the primary focus was on ensuring that people stayed healthy and safe from infection. However, it soon became clear that the pandemic would have much further reaching effects than just the disease itself – and nowhere was this more evident than in sub-Saharan Africa.

Restrictions enforced to help curb the pandemic created additional challenges for a region already facing myriad trials, from climate change and malnutrition to political unrest and inflation. Many parts of society were negatively affected, none more so than the agricultural sector. Thus, on 9 February 2022, researchers of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme, together with expert commentators, came together for a two-hour e-Dialogue to discuss, more specifically, the effects of COVID-related interventions on rural livelihoods and local food systems in the region and what can be done to support their recovery.

Despite the fact that households in Africa demonstrated impressive resilience and managed to defy the United Nations World Food Programme’s prediction that the number of those experiencing hunger would double, families did not go unscathed – and “an intersecting crisis between food and livelihood has been noted,” highlighted Amrita Saha, APRA researcher and Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. The lockdown restrictions, which varied in severity between countries, posed one of the biggest challenges. Movement restrictions halted in-country and cross-border trading, causing huge financial losses. Unable to match their usual trading levels, households saw decreases in income and, in turn, experienced higher food insecurity and lower living standards. These movement limitations also had consequences for those (such as farmers) working elsewhere in the production process: for example, with significant labour shortages and breaks in supply chains further contributing to reduced food supplies and incomes. Thus, the APRA findings suggest that the shock of COVID-19 has resulted not so much in a “food production crisis” as an “income-nutrition-livelihood crisis” for many communities.

Worsening inequalities

The lack of State aid and humanitarian relief created issues in many countries. Social support payments for individuals in sub-Saharan countries typically totalled less than US$5 per person, and a lack of communication and accessibility saw large numbers unable to obtain even this small amount. There were also discrepancies between support measures provided to urban and rural communities, with the latter being more frequently overlooked. In these instances, households relied on aid from local religious organisations and traditional leaders rather than the state or other outside agencies. But, according to John Thompson, CEO of APRA and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, this was “very piecemeal”. While there was evidence of the emergence of a “COVID economy” in some places, where people were able to adapt the restrictions by shortening supply chains, producing and selling masks and soaps, and so on, this was also patchy.

In addition to new challenges, the pandemic served to exacerbate and highlight existing concerns – a key one being that of gender imbalance and bias. “Women have borne the brunt of COVID-19 related impacts,” stated Akosua Darkwah, associate professor of sociology at the University of Ghana. For instance, women in the agricultural sector “struggled to access resources previously – and COVID-19 only exacerbated this issue,” shared Aida Isinika, Professor at Sokoine University of Agriculture and Country Lead for APRA Tanzania. Government measures and policies created to assist families during the pandemic also rarely took women into account, said Sandra Gagnon, Programme Officer at Canada’s International Development Research Centre. “Policies aimed at formal businesses excluded low-income women engaged in production and informal trading,” she added. Furthermore, with schools closed and children at home, women were tasked with childcare and home-schooling responsibilities – leaving them with notably less time and energy to dedicate to their own work and pursuits, either on- or off-farm.

Planning for a stronger future

A number of recommendations were made with regards to what households, communities and governments can do to be more resilient to future shocks, such as the pandemic. Digital innovation was a key suggestion, as this “will create opportunities for extension, remote education and trade,” suggested Matsautso Chimombo, Lecturer in Rural Sociology at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources and APRA Malawi researcher. Greater access to the web will allow for online trading when it is not possible to do so in-person and, in some instances, this is already occurring: Darkwah revealed that traders in Ghana began engaging in deals virtually following the introduction of movement restrictions. Providing better internet and telecommunications access would also serve to enhance the flow of information to all actors across food chains, which is critical so that “individuals can make more informed decisions,” said Isinika.

Governments also need to ensure their policies and support measures are more inclusive, encompassing both genders, all age groups – youths were particularly affected by the pandemic – and communities. “While it was positive to see that social protection was ramped up,” noted Steve Wiggins, Senior Agricultural Economist at the Overseas Development Institute and APRA researcher, he saw no reason why they could also not have increased even further. While richer countries in the North didn’t hesitate to run-up large budget deficits during the pandemic, most African countries were constrained in their spending as a percentage of GDP. However, it seems that some lessons have been learned by those in power and positive changes are occurring as a result – with ministers in Malawi dedicating more funding to hospitals and medical supplies, for instance.

Maximising resilience

Finally, it’s important for people to recognise the value of community. While “community support efforts rose to new levels,” explained Adebayo Aromolaran, Professor at Adekunle Ajasin University and APRA Nigeria researcher, households should better utilise farmer organisations – as these provide an invaluable source of assistance across a number of areas, including loans of otherwise costly agricultural equipment.

Ultimately, the agricultural sector needs to be viewed more broadly and larger emphasis put on more than just a few primary areas – such as imports and exports, economic growth, and environmental impact. Only then can resilience be maximised and guarantees put in place to ensure that no-one is left behind in the face of evermore frequent shocks and stresses.

For more information on the e-Dialogue, see:

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All APRA COVID-19 publications can be found, here.

The next APRA e-Dialogue, ‘Transition Pathways and Strategies for Supporting More Equitable and Resilient Food Systems in Africa‘ will be held on March 23rd, 2022. Register, here.

Written by: John Thompson

The COVID-19 crisis has caused severe disruptions to agri-food systems across the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, where many people already suffer from shocks and stresses related to climate change, conflict and poverty, the pandemic further threatened the economic and nutritional status of tens of millions of people. With border closures and mobility restrictions imposed by governments to curb the spread of the virus, access to markets and trading were disrupted, thereby affecting the livelihoods and well-being of poor farming households across the region who rely on these activities to survive. In collaboration with a range of local and international partners, the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC), with support of the UK Foreign, Development and Commonwealth Officer/UKAid, conducted a series of studies over 2020-21 to track how responses to the crisis were affecting local food systems, value chains and rural livelihoods across the region.

Lessons from APRA research

On Wednesday 9 February 2022, APRA researchers presented the results from a ‘Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Local Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods’ spanning eight countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe). That research involved three rounds of telephone surveys with over 800 households and qualitative interviews with more than 65 local and regional key informants. Expert commentators engaged in complementary studies of COVID-19 and agri-food systems then offered reflections on the APRA work and highlighted implications for agricultural development and food and nutrition security in the future.

This event is part of the on-going e-Dialogue series on ‘Towards an Equitable and Sustainable Transformation of Food Systems, which is being convened by APRA in partnership with UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Foresight4Food. Because of the emphasis on equity, this e-Dialogue focused on how and why the effects of the pandemic have led to differentiated livelihood and food and nutrition outcomes for various households and communities, often to the detriment of the most vulnerable groups. After reviewing the evidence presented by the APRA team, the dialogue will also ask: what can we learn from this crisis to respond to major shocks in future?

Understanding equity mediating factors

In the APRA studies, researchers found that decisions made by many African governments to navigate and manage the COVID-19 crisis left deep marks on the region’s food systems, leading to inequitable livelihood and food and nutrition security outcomes for the most disadvantaged groups. The capacity of households and individuals to respond to those decisions was influenced by a range of equity mediating factors, including their social position in society, job status, socio-cultural beliefs, and the availability of local or external support structures. While neither uniform across countries nor among all social groups, these factors influenced the extent to which household livelihood security and well-being are compromised. Those with the least capacity to cope with the restrictions often faced higher care burdens, lower access to healthcare and inadequate diets.

Many of the people most affected were already facing intersecting vulnerabilities due to insecure livelihoods and other inequities. The barriers to movement and trade imposed by governments during the initial lockdown period in 2020-21 led to job and revenue losses and disruptions to the labour supply for many people. Further, those not reached by national support systems and official state aid were at a particularly high risk of loss of income and insecurity at a time of high unemployment and constricted incomes. Those groups include temporary and landless labourers, smallholder farmers, and women and girls, who are more likely to be at risk of long-term nutritional losses as the pandemic threatens their access to education and healthy meals.

Although formal support structures, such as social protection programmes and humanitarian assistance, are often seen as a protective (when they exist), APRA research observed that there was little COVID-19-specific support provided from governments, NGOs or the private sector. In many cases, community-based organisations were seen as the groups who could help those most in need, although this was not universal. This community mobilisation often built on pre-established local structures, e.g. religious organisations, traditional leaders, community support schemes created for previous public health crises, etc.

Preparing for future shocks

Together, as the e-Dialogue deliberations showed, the APRA studies highlight key lessons and priority actions that need to be taken to respond to the food and livelihood security challenges resulting from the pandemic in a way that addresses informality and the intersecting vulnerabilities of the most marginal groups.

To mitigate impacts of large natural and human-driven shocks, such as COVID-19, countries must meet the immediate food and income security needs of their vulnerable populations, keep agricultural markets open and trade flowing, and support smallholder farmers and small and medium enterprises to continue to operate.

Adaptive social protection measures can build the resilience of these households to the impacts of major shocks, such as pandemics, but structural inequalities must also be addressed to ensure these reach the poorest and most vulnerable populations. Local support structures can fill some of the gaps, but they are often localised and patchy and therefore insufficient to meet the needs of larger populations.

COVID-19 provides an opportunity to rethink policies for ensuring food and nutrition security and economic recovery that are aligned with the commitment of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ‘leave no one behind’. We are hopeful that the robust evidence and analysis provided by APRA researchers and our partners can inform those charged with the responsibility of charting that course, and help build more just and resilient food systems in future.

Read the latest blogs from our APRA country teams on their own COVID-19 research, here:

Written by: Vine Mutyasira

Zimbabwe enforced its first lockdown on 30 March 2020 in an attempt to contain the further spread of COVID-19. On that day, the Ministry of Health and Child Care had officially recorded eight confirmed cases and a single death. The government had declared the COVID-19 crisis a national disaster a few days earlier, on 27 March 2020, allowing it to focus state resources towards fighting the pandemic. Several statutory instruments and a raft of measures were developed to support the lockdown, which closed most sectors of the economy, including informal markets, while allowing only a few ‘essential services’ to operate. To examine how COVID-19 affected food systems and rural livelihoods, APRA Zimbabwe conducted a series of rapid assessment studies. The results of the three survey rounds are presented in A Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Zimbabwe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted agri-food systems around the world, laying bare their fragility and worsening the welfare of millions of smallholder farmers whose livelihoods depend on farming. And it’s not just food systems that have been impacted but economies as a whole – both directly through the debilitating toll on human health, and indirectly through complex dynamics triggered by lockdown measures. In Zimbabwe, COVID-19 struck at a time when the country was experiencing a worsening economic and humanitarian situation, and when runaway inflation had already eroded the purchasing power of households and, hence, their ability to access diversified diets. Several global and country-level studies have been carried out to analyse impacts of the pandemic on food systems. However, these high-level studies provide limited insights on localised dynamics and coping mechanisms, including changes in labour participation and consumption patterns as households adapted to changes in their economic environment. Our multi-phase study, therefore, focused more on community and household dynamics and response measures to cope with the pandemic.

Shaking the core of rural livelihoods

One of the biggest impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has been its disruptions to critical input supply chains for seeds, fertiliser, tillage services, agrochemicals and hired labour. Farmers have been unable to access essential inputs as local agri-dealerships were unable to restock due to supply chain blockages. This led to a general rise in input costs due to the shortage, and as a result of opportunistic behaviour of traders seeking to cash in on the situation. Movement restrictions also increased the cost of hiring labour services for critical farming activities, which also increased the risk of post-harvest losses, especially for time-sensitive operations such as soybean harvesting. These disruptions, and increasing overall costs, also resulted in a contraction in cultivated area.

Access to veterinary drugs was also reduced, which led to a surge in tick-born and other livestock diseases. As a result, cattle deaths increased, negatively affecting the availability of draught power which normally compliments tractor tillage services.

Beyond the farmgate, ravaging impacts of the pandemic were felt through disruptions to other livelihood activities. The closure of local shops and marketing stalls as part of the stringent lockdowns left farmers with limited marketing opportunities. Limited availability and rising cost of hiring transport to ferry agricultural produce, also limited farmers ability to access different marketing channels. The pandemic also affected households’ ability to engage in non-farm enterprises that are a traditional source of income, as well as their ability to access off-farm work within and outside their villages.

The lockdowns limited the ability of traders and brokers to access farming communities for the purpose of buying agricultural produce. They also limited arbitrage activities and hence the availability of grain at local markets, thus causing local shortages and rising prices for consumers. As a result, a significant number of households reported that the cost of living had gone up since the onset of the pandemic.

What has been evident throughout the multi-phase studies, which took place between June 2020 and February 2021, is that the nature and extent of pandemic disruptions varied depending on the stringency of lockdown conditions adopted; with disruptions in general easing as lockdown conditions were lifted. It was also observed that the magnitude of impacts varied across households depending on their adaptive capacity and differential access to support services.

Can we build back better?

Generally, the pandemic has exposed the serious lack of resilience in the smallholder farming system, as farmers struggled to cope with the shocks induced by COVID-19 especially in the absence of external support and safety nets. But while the pandemic poses some serious challenges for agri-food systems, it is also an opportunity to make strategic interventions to bolster the resilience of farming systems and protect incomes and assets of smallholder farmers so that they can emerge from the pandemic shocks and effectively participate in economic recovery efforts. COVID-19 has made it abundantly clear why transformative changes in food systems are needed. One of the biggest impacts observed has been the disruptions to input systems and food supply chains. This points to the need for interventions to support more diverse and resilient input and food distribution systems. Options include strengthening agri-dealer networks and empowering agri-food small- and medium-sized enterprises by addressing their capacity, liquidity and financial constraints so that they can effectively participate in transforming Zimbabwe’s food system.

To hear more about APRA’s research findings on COVID-19, join the e-Dialogue on February 9th, 2022. Learn more and register, here.

Read about previous APRA research on COVID-19 in Zimbabwe in the following blogs:

Written by: Gideon Boniface, Aida Isinika and Ntengua Mdoe

Since the onset of COVID-19, which was first announce in Tanzania early in March 2020, consecutive waves of the pandemic have resulted in a series of health, social and economic impacts. This was revealed in A Multi-Phase Assessment of The Effects of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Tanzania, which was based on data collected from farmers in Mngeta division in Kilombero District to gain knowledge on the real time impact of the pandemic on that rural community. The data were collected from 100 farmers at three intervals; July 2020, October 2020 and February 2021. Key informants including rice processors, village executive officer, traders and extension officers were also interviewed.

Disruption to rice trading

Unlike many other countries, Tanzania did not impose a lockdown in order to contain the spread of the virus. Nonetheless, movement and gatherings were restricted; not only due to government guidelines, but also due to fear among traders about travelling to rural markets to buy rice, and fear from rural residents about receiving strangers from urban areas. These changes had a direct, and negative, impact on rice trade, which is the major cash crop in the study area, accounting for more than 90% percent of farm income. The flow of local traders visiting Mngeta Division was reduced to a trickle, while foreign buyers from neighbouring countries stopped visiting completely. This in turn caused a backlog of rice/paddy supply stored at mills and at home because the domestic market could not absorb the entire stock of paddy carried over from 2019/20 plus the new harvest from 2020/21. Consequently, the price of rice/paddy significantly declined. More than two thirds of farmers reported that they did not sell their paddy/rice during the whole survey period. A few farmers were, however, forced to sell at the prevailing low prices due to pressing family needs.

The impact of COVID-19 was also not limited to the producers. Other actors and service providers up and down the value chain, including processors and transporters, were also affected. Rice processors reported operating at only 30% of their installed capacity. This led to jobs losses for many people, youth and women in particular, who used to provide various services along the value chain as casual labourers, transporters, food vendors, input suppliers, and hospitality services.

Reduced participation in farming activities

Following the decline in farmers’ purchasing power, resulting from their inability to sell rice/paddy and other farm produce, their farming activities were affected. Most farmers could not afford inputs, including fertilisers, agrochemicals and tillage services, even though prices were reported to have remained unchanged. Many farmers (20-37%) could also not afford to hire labour, and relied exclusively on family labour instead. Due to restrictions on gatherings, farmers could not access advisory services for hands on instruction. They also missed opportunities to share knowledge with others at farmer field schools.

COVID-19 also negatively affected people’s participation in off-farm businesses, hence reducing opportunities to raise household income. About 40% of responses confirmed experiencing decreased participation in off-farm businesses. 

Threats to food security and the cost of living

The significant decline in farmers’ purchasing power also impacted their food security, since they could not afford to buy as much food from the market. This was confirmed by most (51-76%) respondents who stated that they were not able to eat a variety of foods for a balanced diet. Others reported they were unable to eat as much healthy and nutritious foods as they had before the start of the pandemic. The findings also revealed an increase in the number of households experiencing severe food insecurity compared to pre-COVID-19 times, even though the prices of most food groups remained constant. The most severe impacts on food insecurity were also found to be highly gendered, with female- and youth-headed households being most affected because they already faced lower access to resource and less power in decision-making.

High levels of households (more than 40%) also reported experiencing a rise in the cost of living, with many also stating that they felt less in control of their lives.

Social isolation

The government’s restriction on gatherings and discouragement of ‘unnecessary’ movement, limited the people’s participation in various important events such as religious gatherings, village development meeting, sports and games, weddings and funerals, and other ceremonies. Since such occasions used to bring unity within communities, the restrictions left people feeling isolated and being more wary of strangers due to fear about contracting the virus.

So what next?

Due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, most respondents felt less confident about the future; their ability to participate in agricultural commercialisation in future, has been undermined. The government and other development stakeholders therefore need to address the challenges which emerged during the pandemic. Support including social protection for the most affected, or subsidies and grant schemes for inputs to farmers, for example, would ensure that agricultural value chains remain active for the benefit of both upward and downward stream actors and service providers. It is also essential to continue tracking the impacts of COVID-19. Developing strategies for better preparedness at difference levels – including national and local government, businesses as well as rural communities – would raise the resilience of everyone in Tanzania to face future pandemics and crises.

To hear more about APRA’s research findings on COVID-19, join the e-Dialogue on February 9th, 2022. Learn more and register, here.

Read about previous research on COVID-19 in Tanzania in the following blogs:

Photo credit: CIMMYT – Kipenz Films
Written by: John Olwande

After Kenya confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 12, 2020, the country underwent a series of movement restrictions and closures to stymie the spread of COVID-19 infections. The containment measures helped to slow the local spread of coronavirus, but with negative consequences for the country’s food system and livelihoods. Thus, we would expect improvements in people’s food security and overall livelihoods after relaxation of the containment measures, which began gradually in July 2020. The APRA Kenya research team conducted three rounds of mixed-method, comparative assessments to investigate the impact of COVID-19 and associated containment measures on the food system and the sub-set of the country’s population that is largely dependent on agriculture. The results of the three survey rounds are presented in A Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Kenya.

Food and nutrition security

One of the most important pathways through which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected households is through its impact on their food and nutrition security. This is especially true for agricultural households who disproportionately depend on their own production for food supply, and on agricultural markets for income and other household needs. In round 1 (R1) of the survey in June 2020, most respondents reported no change in the availability of most food items in local markets, except for vegetables where a decrease in availability was noted. This pattern changed in the second survey round (R2) in October 2020, during which the majority of households reported an increase in the availability of vegetables in local markets. In the third survey round (R3) conducted in February 2021, however, things took a largely dismal turn with most respondents reporting reduced availability of most food items, including grains, roots, tubers, and plantains which constitute the major staples.

In terms of food prices in local markets, the majority of respondents in R1 and R2 reported an increase for most food items except those of animal origin (milk and milk products, meat and poultry, eggs and processed foods). In R3, most respondents reported a decrease in the prices of meat and poultry and processed foods. A significantly higher percentage of respondents (76%) in R3 compared to R2 (49%) stated that the prices of grains had increased in local markets, despite the fact that the November–February period coincides with the harvesting season for maize – the main staple grain – and ordinarily prices would not be expected to increase.

Using the food insecurity experience scale, reported food and nutrition insecurity was highest in R1 and lowest in R2 and R3. Although this finding may appear to contradict the above results, given that November–February is usually the harvesting season for maize, it may be that most households had their own stock of grains and were not selling, hence the lower incidence of hunger in households and reduced supply and higher prices of grains in local markets.

Cost of living

Approximately 96% of respondents in R1 stated that their cost of living had increased. This percentage reduced to 66% in R2 before increasing to 98%, in R3. . These statistics are generally consistent with the official consumer price index (CPI) published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, which indicated that the CPI increased by 1.2% between June and October 2020 and by 3.4% between October 2020 and February 2021. It is also important to note that schools opened in January 2021 and so households also needed to pay school fees and purchase school items for their children, a factor which further strained household budgets.

Control over own life

On average, the respondents felt that they had greater control over their own life before COVID-19, compared to after the pandemic had struck. Perceived control over their own life also increased, on average, in subsequent survey rounds.


Despite the gradual relaxation of COVID-19 containment measures which significantly affected households’ participation in social and economic activities, food and nutrition insecurity generally remained a challenge for most households. Households mostly continued to experience a high cost of living, consistent with the official statistics which reported increases in CPI between October 2020 and February 2021. While the government was the main source of assistance to households to support them in coping with the negative effects of the pandemic, that assistance sharply declined over time, leaving most of the households to manage the pandemic’s effects on their own. On the positive side, however, perceived control over the respondent’s own lives increased over time, which suggests that the relaxation of COVID-19 containment policies was making individuals feel that they were gaining more control.

To hear more about APRA’s research findings on COVID-19, join the e-Dialogue on February 9th, 2022. Learn more and register, here.

Read about previous APRA research on COVID-19 in Kenya in the following blogs:

Photo credit: World Bank – Sambrian Mbaabu

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland.

The Omicron wave peaked in Zimbabwe just before Christmas. With people moving about for the festive season and large numbers coming back from South Africa and elsewhere for the holidays, the fear was that the spread would be dramatic, with devastating consequences. Border restrictions were maintained, curfews imposed and the lockdown was extended.

As we reported in our last blog on 20 December, many had already reported that the infection was proving relatively mild, a finding subsequently supported by hospital evidence from South Africa, the UK and Denmark. And, just as the spread of Omicron was dramatic and fast, its decline has similarly been sudden, although cases still persist. Across our sites in the last few weeks, multiple cases have been reported, but way down on the situation a few weeks back. No deaths have been recorded in our sites in the past weeks. A few of our agricultural extension colleagues went down with Omicron around Christmas, but they all isolated and quickly recovered.

A festive mood

Although Omicron presented more uncertainties to contend with for the holidays, people across our study areas reported that they were not going to be put off. People were in a festive mood, relatives had returned after a long gap and there were parties to be had. Many large gatherings were reported, including the return of large church services. In towns and business centres large crowds gathered, bars were open and there seemed to be little social distancing, there was reduced mask wearing and people were sharing calabashes in communal drinking sessions.

The now familiar ‘bakosi’ markets were in full swing across our study sites, especially in locations further south. These sprawling open air markets usually operate once a week and sell everything from food to clothes to hardware and more. Huge numbers attend, perhaps several thousand at times, and of course are potentially major infection hot spots. But they also serve important economic and social functions: they are places to gather, to meet people, to exchange ideas and goods, and are now an essential part of rural economic life, and no matter what the potential risks people were not keeping away over the holidays.

Open air market Guwini, Chikombedzi

Despite the caution of the public health authorities, the people were not going to let the virus get in the way of a holiday mood or the need for business. Fear had receded of COVID, perhaps because of the experiences with Omicron in the previous weeks of relatives and others both in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Changing remedies and home treatments

As we have reported many times before, local remedies and home treatments have become the way people have coped. People fear quarantining and forced isolation now more than the disease. Because Omicron presents differently – more ‘flu-like symptoms, with a combination of nose and throat congestion and a dry cough, rather than the impact on breathing and the chest as in previous waves – the treatments have changed.

The most recent, circulating widely on family Whatsapp groups, is a concoction of Coca-Cola and chilli, which is supposed to work wonders. Others reported include a mix of lemon, cooking oil and onion. And of course the full array of other herbal treatments we have discussed on this blog before. The important point is though that with an effectively new disease in Omicron, with different symptoms, people have experimented, learned and shared new remedies – literally in a matter of weeks.

Mrs CF holding her traditional medicine
Mr F. Soko from Mvurwi at his nursery: lemon trees are selling fast because of the pandemic

Nurses in clinics across our sites reported that it was a busy time over the holidays, but many were not coming to the clinics if they thought they had COVID as they feared quarantine. They would prefer to treat themselves at home, while self-isolating. Having a variety of treatments to hand people argue, is a more effective response. It seemed that the nurses (informally) agreed as they noted the problems in the public clinics.

A plural health system: fostering resilience

Meanwhile, public health interventions continue focusing on vaccines. There was a big spike in vaccine take-up in the rural areas over the holiday period. This was apparently due to people coming home from town, and choosing mobile rural clinics over the urban ones where they normally live. The rural alternatives were quicker, easier and more accessible it seems. Even diaspora relatives took up the opportunity, and many younger workers from town were persuading their parents and others to join them at the clinics.

During the pandemic a network of health professionals has emerged to support rural people’s response to the disease. These include of course the doctors, nurses, vaccinators and village health workers, part of the public health system, but the wider health system also includes herbalists (those with specialist knowledge of particular herbs), n’angas (spirit mediums with treatment powers), and family based health specialists (often individuals within a wider family recognised as especially knowledgeable). And supporting them there are the wide range of collectors of herbal products, those who process them and the vendors who sell them, often with street advice on how to prepare presses, teas or other concoctions.

Susan, a traditional healer from Mutomani village, Chiredzi, with her husband

A plural health system has therefore emerged, partly out of necessity as the public system is inadequate, but partly out of the need to respond in a diversified way, recognising that many people have expertise in a fast-changing pandemic setting, and there is no one right way, especially as the virus changes. With such a plural system, innovation, learning and sharing can happen quickly and effectively. Some of the remedies may not work that well, but others might, and people will respond accordingly.

In March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, in the first contribution of this now long series on COVID responses in rural Zimbabwe, we argued that rural Zimbabwe might offer some level of resilience, having been able to manage turbulence and uncertainty of different sorts for many years, despite the obvious ‘fragility’ of the state. Resilience is not a single property; it is relational based on how people, individually and together, respond to unfolding events. This requires flexibility, responsiveness and collective sharing. As we have seen now over nearly two years, these are all features that have been central to rural Zimbabwe’s (largely informal) pandemic response.

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team in Mvurwi, Matobo, Chikombedzi, Masvingo and Gutu for contributions to this blog.

Focusing on 9 February 2022, APRA, in partnership with the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and Foresight4Food (F4F), will host an interactive e-dialogue on COVID-19 and its Effects on Local Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa.

The context

Across the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused severe disruptions to agri-food systems. With border closures and movement restrictions imposed by governments to curb the spread of the virus, access to markets and trading were interrupted, thereby affecting the livelihoods and well-being of hundreds of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa who rely on these activities to survive.

During 2020-21, with support of the UK Foreign, Development and Commonwealth Officer (FCDO)/UKAid, APRA researchers conducted a series of studies to examine how responses to the crisis were affecting local food systems, value chains and rural livelihoods across the region. The central research question was: How has the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted farming and domestic activities, health and human welfare, and agricultural markets and value chains, and what can we learn from this crisis to respond to major shocks and stresses in future?

Drawing on these studies, this event will bring together policy-relevant lessons on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural communities.

What to expect

Providing an overview, Amrita Saha, IDS economist, will highlight the main approach and key findings of APRA’s multi-phase assessment to analyse the differential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on agricultural commercialisation, food and nutrition security, employment, poverty, and well-being in over 800 rural households in eight countries.

Country-specific lessons will be presented by APRA researchers:

  • Mirriam Matita and Masautso Chimombo – Malawi
  • Adebayo Aromolaran and Milu Muyanga – Nigeria 
  • Aida Isinika and Gideon Boniface – Tanzania 
  • Vine Mutyasira – Zimbabwe

John Thompson, APRA CEO, will wrap up the first discussion by providing the key findings for equity and nutrition.

Steve Wiggins, agricultural economist at ODI, will continue the talks with a review of the implications of COVID-19 for agricultural development, food and nutrition security. Brief reflections on this discussion will be provided by expert commentators Akosua K. Darkwah from the University of Ghana and Sandra Gagnon from the International Development Research Centre. 

To conclude the session, a general discussion with the presenters will be lead by development economist Rachel Sabates-Wheeler, before a final Q&A with the audience and take-aways from the panel.

Join us to hear more on 9 February at 1300 GMT to gain more insights. Register, here.

To find out what to expect during the dialogue, read the programme here.

Did you miss the dialogue? A full recording of the event can be seen here!

Written by: Adebayo B. Aromolaran, Milu Muyanga, Fadlullah O. Issa and Oladele Oladeji

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Nigeria, there have been serious concerns about the impact of the pandemic on agri-food systems, given that most of the population depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihoods. These concerns are compounded by the fragile state of the country’s health and food systems. This blog summarises the findings of APRA’s A Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Nigeria, which studied the differential impacts of the pandemic on agricultural commercialisation, food and nutrition security, employment, poverty, and well-being in rural households. The assessment was designed to help gain timely insights into how the COVID-19 crisis was unfolding in various parts of Nigeria and how rural people and food and livelihood systems were responding.

Compliance with COVID-19 guidelines and support to households

To control the spread of COVID-19, the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), released COVID-19 prevention guidelines. These included various human and vehicular movements control strategies, social distancing, sanitary measures and wearing of masks. The study found a low rate of compliance with government guidelines and regulations for prevention of spread, due to skepticism about the genuineness of government claims about COVID-19, the inconvenience of adhering to the regulations, and inadequate enforcement of regulations by law enforcement agencies. Government and religious organisations were the main source of support during the peak of the pandemic but this support faded out very quickly as restrictions on movement were relaxed.

Impact on agricultural production

In most parts of Nigeria, hired farm labour (mostly casual) is provided by migrants across states borders. Thus, the COVID-19 related restrictions in movement severely affected the supply of hired labour for farming operations, especially during the planting season. Most households also experienced increased cost of tillage services and land rentals. A sizeable proportion of households reported having experienced a decrease in the availability of farm inputs, such as seeds, fertilisers, agrochemicals, and veterinary drugs. This likely led to a reduction in farm employment and income.

Impact on employment and income

Household participation in off-farm work and non-farm businesses was lower during 2020 compared with the pre-COVID-19 period due to restrictions on movement. In addition, households experienced a decrease in their ability to sell produce at the farm gate and local markets, partly due to high transportation costs and restrictions in movement. Also, the number of traders visiting local communities to purchase farm produce also fell substantially. All these impacts amounted to a severe reduction in income flowing into farm households. This, coupled with higher costs of living, indicates a decline in household welfare.

Impact on food consumption and nutrition

Households experienced a decrease in food availability, especially with respect to white roots, tubers and plantains, and grains, during the first 11 months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria. Furthermore, dietary diversity declined, as most households were unable to eat healthy and nutritious food. A substantial proportion of household members interviewed ate only a few kinds of food. Lack of access to markets, reduction in farm and post-harvest activities, and food supply chain distortion due to severe restrictions in movement were the main reasons for the negative effects of COVID-19 on food consumption and nutrition among rural farm households.


Compared with the pre-COVID-19 period, rural farm households in Nigeria experienced various challenges which included higher costs of tillage services, land rentals and casual labour, increased prices of purchased farm inputs and food items, reduced household income, a consequent decline in household food consumption and dietary diversity, and negative effects on children’s education. These observed effects of the pandemic were due to government lockdowns and movement restrictions rather than COVID-19 infections.

The government needs to actively support the recovery of farm and off-farm businesses in the informal sector that have suffered due to COVID-19 restrictions. This will result in the reabsorption of workers into the labour force. It is also important for the federal and state governments to address the issue of rising costs of food that resulted from declining crop and livestock yields, which indirectly arose from reduced access to and rising costs of farm inputs and hired labour. Finally, federal, state and local governments need to re-evaluate their commitment to social protection schemes to better provide livelihood support to targeted vulnerable groups such as unemployed youths and female-headed households.

To hear more about APRA’s research findings on COVID-19, join the e-Dialogue on February 9th, 2022. Learn more and register, here.

Read about previous APRA research on COVID-19 in Nigeria in the following blogs:

A typically busy street in Ghana’s capital, Accra [Photo credit: Louis Hodey]

Written by: Louis Hodey

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed and destroyed – not only lives – but livelihoods as well. The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted food systems in Ghana since its emergence in the country in March 2020. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, the socio-economic burden imposed by COVID-19, particularly through restrictions on social and commercial activities, appears to be more devastating than the actual health burden of the virus in many countries. The story of the disruptive consequences of the crisis on food systems and livelihoods have been told worldwide. Yet, these stories are not the same for all societies and sectors. The recent APRA publication ‘A Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ghana‘ explores these differential effects in Ghana. This blog explores the findings of this report.

In Ghana, evidence abounds that the impact of the COVID-19 crisis cuts across economic sectors, social strata, and geography, though the severity of impact is undoubtedly not the same. Earlier studies by the Ghana Statistical Service suggests that the pandemic has had severe consequences for agribusinesses in Ghana. Particularly, the demand and supply shocks, as well as the operational challenges that confronted agribusinesses in the country during the implementation of containment and lockdown measures, lingered even after the initial lockdown was lifted. It was estimated that 77.4% of households in Ghana experienced income reductions, 78,412 agribusiness workers were laid-off, and 267,211 experienced wage reductions during the post-lockdown period from May 2020 to January 2021 (Ghana Statistical Service, 2021).

What has been the effect of the COVID-19 crisis on the livelihoods and food systems of rural farmers whose vulnerability to shocks appear the greatest? Undoubtedly, the vulnerability and resilience of food systems and rural livelihoods were brought into sharp focus by the COVID-19 crisis. As the crisis continues to disrupt livelihoods and food systems globally, key questions on country- and region-specific impacts of the pandemic must be answered. This blog highlights outcomes of APRA’s study which investigated the impact of the crisis on food systems and rural livelihoods in south-western Ghana. Data for this assessment is taken from three waves of telephone surveys and interviews involving a sub-sample of respondents who previously participated in panel studies by APRA on agricultural commercialisation and livelihood outcomes in south-western Ghana. Based on a mixed-methods design involving household telephone surveys and qualitative interviews, the APRA Ghana study made the following findings.

Business activities underway at Madina market, Accra [Photo credit: Louis Hodey]

What have been the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food systems and livelihoods?

Though the rate of reported COVID-19 infections appears quite low in the study area, the livelihood impacts were significant. Our findings show that the global crisis continues to impose adverse impacts on rural livelihoods and food systems. Most households in the study, for example, reported having experienced significant hardship and vulnerability in the form of restrictions on movements, reduced participation in farming and business activities, rising costs of transportation, perception of having reduced control over their own lives, decline in food availability and consumption, and a generally rising costs of living, culminating in food and nutrition insecurity concerns. Overall, as a direct impact of the pandemic, more than a half of the study participants reported having reduced the quantity and variety of food eaten due to a lack of money or other resources. Further, on a scale of 1-10, individual’s perceived control over their own lives declined from 5.3 in the pre-COVID-19 period to 3.9 by January 2021.

Further, the study found that the impact of the pandemic differed across gender and demography. Women and children appeared to be the hardest hit by the pandemic. For instance, schools were closed for almost a year which affected teaching and learning since remote learning opportunities were almost non-existent in the study area, thus affecting the education of children. This is expected to further widen the educational inequality gap between rural and urban children. Women, particularly those engaged in cross-border trade, also suffered some trade losses. Further, the extra burden of childcare during the school closures impacted women more heavily than men.

Some food items displayed for sale at the Madina market, Accra [Photo credit: Louis Hodey]

How did households survive the pandemic?

Households in the study appear to be showing remarkable resilience in the face of very little or, in most cases, no external assistance. Some farming households have been coping with the crisis by intensifying their engagement in non-farm business activities, reducing food and non-food consumption, and relying on savings. Further, we found that to escape the consequences of border closures on their livelihoods, traders diverted their activities from cross-border destinations to regional and national markets. Additionally, to mitigate the impact of the cost of sanitary items and other personal protective equipment, and to generate extra income, households embarked on the production of face masks, alcohol-based hand sanitisers, handwashing soaps, and makeshift hand washing buckets. Indeed, these together with enhanced hygiene practices such as regular washing of hands with soap under running water, and the wearing of face masks, appear to have minimised the health and the socio-economic burden of the COVID-19 crisis and other airborne and hygiene-related diseases among the study participants.

What challenges are lingering?

Even though households appear to have shown remarkable resilience in the face of the negative impacts of the pandemic, some shocks persist and may potentially impose greater livelihood challenges for smallholder farmers. First, food inflation continues to be on the rise, with consequences for nutrition and food insecurity. Second, access to farm inputs remain generally constrained due to increasing input prices and severe financial difficulties resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. Finally, Ghana’s land borders have remained closed since March 2020, further exacerbating the socio-economic consequences for households whose livelihoods heavily depend on cross-border trade. These impacts are far from over and may linger in the coming years; hence the need for policy to address them to safeguard lives and livelihoods.

What are the implications of the study for policy and practice, and the way forward?

These findings have relevant implications for the government’s poverty reduction strategy, especially in the design and implementation of COVID-19-related livelihood support programmes to safeguard the sustenance of poor and vulnerable households. Indeed, safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable people is important in minimising the impact of the COVID-19 crisis worldwide. Given the lingering challenges imposed by the pandemic on livelihoods, there is a need for coordinated recovery efforts focused on building the resilience of food systems by targeting the worst affected groups such as smallholder farmers, women, and children.


GSS (Ghana Statistical Service) (2021) Summary Report on Impact of Covid-19 on Agribusinesses in Ghana. Accra: Ghana Statistical Service. Available at: https://www.gh.undp.org/content/ghana/en/home/library/ghana-covid-19-agribusiness-trackersummary-report.html 

Hodey, L.S. and Dzanku, F.M. (2021) A Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ghana. APRA COVID-19 Country Report. Brighton: Future Agricultures Consortium. Available at: https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/20.500.12413/16990

To hear more about APRA’s research findings on COVID-19, join the e-Dialogue on February 9th, 2022. Learn more and register, here.

Read about previous APRA research on COVID-19 in Ghana in the following blogs:

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland on December 20, 2021.

It was just a few weeks ago that our last report noted the arrival of a new variant identified in South Africa. In the interim Omicron has swept through the country. This initially resulted in panic, with a rush to get vaccinated and the government swiftly responding with further lockdown measures. As someone recalled, “it was like the world was about to come to an end”, so panicked were both officials and many in the population.

The rapid spread is reflected in the case data that is officially reported, but the real figures are massively higher. Across our rural sites, people report that about 50-60% of villagers have been struck down by a virulent ‘flu in the past weeks, suggesting massive under-reporting in official figures.

Just two weeks ago we were hearing reports of a ‘flu in our site in Chikombedzi, in the far south of the country near the border with South Africa. On 5 December, our research team member reported via Whatsapp that many people in the villages had been coming down with ‘flu, but no deaths were being recorded. Since then, the same reports have come from all sites as the variant has spread north and across the whole country.

However so far, just as observed in Guateng in South Africa, which has been the epicentre of the Omicron epidemic, there have been very few deaths. Indeed, in our last review across sites over this past weekend, no local deaths have been reported and the only COVID related burials have been of those who have died elsewhere – all in our Chatsworth site near Gutu, with four bodies returned from South Africa and one from Chiredzi.

Omicron seems to cause a debilitating flu, involving a severe headache, joint aches, body weakness and severe fatigue, together with a running nose. People say it’s like malaria, with hot and cold sweats. It is extremely transmissible and very often whole families are down with it together. Indeed one of our research team members has been suffering from it over the past week, but the whole family has now thankfully recovered. It affects all ages, and vaccinated and unvaccinated people are all affected. However, recovery rates seems extremely good and it lasts about five days, slightly longer for older people.

Rapid spread, rapid learning

While in the first days at the beginning of December people were seriously worried, as they have experienced the disease over the last couple of weeks and been able to treat its symptoms, people have become more relaxed. With such rapid spread, the learning cycle in this pandemic is speeding up. The remedies used in previous phases have all be deployed, but this time the focus on body aches and fatigue has meant new innovations. The long used medication from China called ‘Tsunami’ (an aromatic oil, as shown by Mr Mutoko from Mvurwi below) is in high demand, as it can be applied to joints and even drunk in a tea. Equally, onion compresses are widely used to help with body aches and cold symptoms.

While many have taken up the offer of vaccines (20% fully vaccinated, 27% with at least one dose), few think that this is enough. An interesting argument emerged in discussions across our sites about the importance of having lots of different responses so that new variants can be tackled on many fronts. A single response – just focusing on vaccines as the government is emphasising – is not enough, people argued: “You can be doubled vaxxed even have a booster and still get Omicron… the variant needs many things to fight”. “Treatment responses must be wide and varied and this must include local remedies”, was a wide consensus as expressed in one discussion.

The sharing of remedies and treatment responses has been as rapid as the spread. Those in the border areas near South Africa experienced it first, and shared information about symptoms and remedies to relatives and others elsewhere. Whatsapp messages and Facebook groups are full of advice on how to tackle Omicron. Each family and village has a different set of responses, but the sharing of options is widespread. There are many, diverse prongs of attack. And (so far) it seems to be working.

Major disruptions

With whole families out sick for a week, and with the rapid spread sometimes half a village at a time, this has seriously disrupted the beginning of the farming season. The rains have finally (it seems) come, with steady rain falling over the past days. This is the time to be in the fields to plough and plant, as timing is all. Omicron is causing havoc with farm labour and this may have knock on effects into the harvest. The need for labour for land preparation is heightened this year as many livestock have perished due to January disease (known as cattle COVID locally), and so draft power is scarce.

However, what is causing most disruption and what was the centre of people’s commentaries was the return of lockdowns. People are just fed up. They have no livelihood options, people are poor. Kids have been out of school for months and are really suffering. Social problems are building up. Noone can face another round of lockdowns, especially with what appears to be a mild disease. And for this reason, very few are reporting sickness to clinics with the fear of being quarantined. As someone observed, “getting locked up is worse for you; you don’t have the support of your family, you cannot use your local remedies”.

The politics of control

Perhaps more than in previous phases, or at least with a different accent, there is a political critique of the current response and a demand for freedom and liberty, with an abandoning of a standard, centralised response to the pandemic. “We must learn to live with the disease, just as we have before with AIDS, and so many other diseases”, someone argued. “It’ll always be there, so we need vaccination alongside our own methods”, another said. “Who profits from this very standard way of responding – vaccines, vaccines, vaccines?”, someone asked rhetorically, answering: “it’s the big businesses who make a profit, and the governments who want our resources. A vaccine may be free, but it isn’t really”. People are very aware of the vaccine politics being played out in Africa and they don’t like it. In commentary across sites, there was a widespread critique of the top-down response to the pandemic:

It’s government, the WHO, corporations who are in control. The powerful. The messages come one-way from them to the masses. We are bombarded with messages and instructions, which require adherence without question.

The restrictions of endless lockdowns were getting to many: “It’s just don’t, don’t, don’t; it’s terrible for us, we are trying to live. How can we live a life of lockdowns? We are not comfortable with this”. Another informant observed, “We are not scared now of this disease; the only challenge are the lockdowns. We are approaching Xmas, but we cannot do any business, we are stuck.”

Even those enforcing lockdowns are fed up. One police officer commented, “We are tired of this, but we have to enforce the law. We need a compromise”. Lockdowns, as we have discussed before, lead to businesses collapsing and people seeking other forms of income. Corruption and crime are rife. Civil servants have not been paid a living wage for years, so as someone observed “it’s no surprise that people steal and get involved in corrupt practices like the police….It’s the same with the rise in petty crime. People are desperate.”

Collaborative approaches

So what’s the way out of this endless cycle? There were some interesting ideas expressed about ‘living with the disease’ in discussions in our sites during the last week:

We have to do this together. We cannot have government just saying do this, do that, the top-down control doesn’t work. We have to find a way to discuss. After all it’s us who must ultimately respond to the disease in our own localities”.

A more collaborative approach, taking account of local needs and knowledges, was advocated:

We have our own ways of dealing with the pandemic, we don’t like being controlled. Those in charge don’t know what we do, let us do it. Yes, we need the vaccinations and the drugs from the clinics, but let’s recognise the many other responses. We have to work together”.

This may be an important lesson for other countries too as a wider social contract emerges about how to deal with what inevitably will be an ongoing response to a disease (or now seemingly a variety of diseases), even as it settles towards an endemic state across the world, with inevitable new variants and new surprises in store.

This is part of a series of reports, starting in March 2020 on the unfolding COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe. It is based on reports from the field team led by Felix Murimbarimba based in Mvurwi, Chatsworth, Wondedzo, Masvingo, Hippo Valley, Chikombedzi and Matobo.

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.


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.


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.

To hear more about APRA’s research findings on COVID-19, join the e-Dialogue on February 9th, 2022. Learn more and register, here.

Read about previous APRA research on COVID-19 in Zambia in the following blog:

Written by: Chrispin Matenga and Munguzwe Hichaambwa

COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020. The speed with which the pandemic spread geographically, and the high rate of mortality of its victims prompted many countries around the world to institute ‘lockdowns’ of various sorts to contain it. While the global concern in the early months following the emergence of COVID-19 was with health impacts, the ‘lockdown’ measures put in place by governments triggered global socioeconomic shocks as economies entered recessions due to disruption of economic activity that the ‘lockdown’ measures entailed. Data suggests that the socioeconomic shocks arising from ‘lockdowns’ have been more severe in sub-Saharan Africa countries, generating dire livelihood consequences for most citizens who depend on the informal economy for survival. In Zambia, the effects of COVID-19 combined with a severe drought, and a decline in mining activity to contribute to a downward spiral in Zambia’s economy. This report aims to gain real-time insights into how the COVID-19 crisis was unfolding in Zambia and how rural people and food and livelihood systems were responding. The study focused on documenting and understanding the differential impacts of the pandemic at the household level in terms of changes in participation in farming activities, availability of services for agricultural production, labour and employment, marketing and transport services, food and nutrition security and poverty and wellbeing.

Written by: Gideon Boniface and Christopher Magomba

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 at the end of 2019, the pandemic has brought both social and economic impacts to global communities, although to varying degrees. Since the onset of the pandemic, different regions have responded in various ways by taking different measures to fight the pandemic and its effects. In Tanzania, the first case was recorded on 16 March 2020 and, to contain the spread of the virus, on 17 March 2020, the Prime Minister announced measures including the closure of all education institutions, the suspension of public gatherings and international passenger flights, and mandatory quarantine for individuals entering Tanzania. However, in June 2020, the government announced the easing of the restrictions after observing a significant decrease in the COVID-19 infection rate and, despite a subsequent ‘second wave’ of the virus, the government declined to re-institute movement restrictions. This decision led to the implementation of non-tariff trade barriers which were imposed on cargo carrying grain and other exports to neighbouring countries, especially Kenya. The situation became so bad that diplomatic intervention had to be sought. In order to understand the resulting socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis in Tanzania, data were collected in three waves during mid-July2020, October 2020 and February 2021. This paper presents a synthesis of the results of these three survey rounds.

Written by: Adebayo Aromolaran, Milu Muyanga, Fadlullah O. Issa and Oladele Oladeji

The first case of COVID-19 in Nigeria was reported on 27 February 2020. By 30 March 2020, Nigeria had recorded 131 confirmed cases and two deaths. To mitigate the impending health crisis, the Nigerian Government quickly commenced a series of COVID-19 lockdowns across states in Nigeria on 30 March 2020. These lockdowns lasted for three months before a gradual relaxation began on 1 July 2021. However, infection and death cases in the country increased substantially during the months of substantial relaxation of restrictions between October 2020 and March 2021. This paper presents the results of the rapid assessment study in Nigeria between July 2020 and February 2021, which sought to document and understand the differential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on agricultural commercialisation, food and nutrition security, employment, poverty, and well-being in rural households.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland.

The unfolding drama of the pandemic continues. With a new variant identified in the region (Omicron) thanks to the effective work of South African genomics monitoring, Zimbabwe has been subjected to international travel restrictions. However, despite the global concern about the potential spread of what may be a highly transmissible, immune-escaping variant, things on the ground feel very different. So far at least. After the sky-high infection rates and substantial deaths of a few months back, rates subsequently declined dramatically again. Will the new variant upset this? No-one knows of course.

Conversations with our team across our sites suggests that people have been getting back to ‘normal’ life, despite some remaining lockdown regulations. What does this new normal feel like? Some quotes from across our sites illustrate. “We are now not afraid, it’s not like the early days. We know how to prevent, treat and manage the disease”. “We have indigenous remedies at our disposal. We have made so many discoveries, and now know how to fight the pandemic”. This confidence may yet be shattered by the new variant, but for now a new version of normality seems to have settled in.

While people may wear masks on transport and mask wearing gets enforced during visits to town, the situation in the rural areas is much more lax. “These masks are far too hot in this season”, someone explained. Large gatherings have started again. Political rallies are the most noticeable as electioneering starts up already in advance of the 2023 vote. “It’s the politicians who are the biggest law-breakers”, someone noted. Churches, farmers’ fairs and so on are also being held, with few restrictions and little social distancing. Curfews too, people report, are barely acknowledged especially in the rural areas. It feels, at least on the surface, pretty normal, with people making judgements about risk not in fear but with knowledge about the trade-offs and consequences.

But of course such knowledge is not certain. All can be upset with a new variant, as it has been before. And the wider context has changed too through the pandemic as livelihood possibilities have been restructured and attitudes and practices towards health and disease have changed.

Local knowledge and innovation

People repeatedly mention their discoveries of local treatments that have given the confidence in the face of disease threats. “We have done so much research”, someone observed, “we really know the situation now”. As well as COVID-19, this applies to what people call ‘cattle COVID’ too (January disease) that has struck people’s herds in dramatic fashion, often resulting in greater impacts on livelihoods than coronavirus. “We have mixed grasses, mutsviri ash and water, soaking overnight… and it works for cattle”. We are trying mutsviri ash with lemon for humans too. Along with the many remedies from local herbs to boost immunity (such as ndorani) and for COVID treatment (like zumbani), as well as the range of mixes of garlic, onions, ginger and lemon, people have a battery of treatment meaning that for now they no longer worry about the disease as they once did.

Uptake of vaccines goes hand-in-hand, with supplies now good and queues small as people take up vaccine offers. This is far from universal and to date only 18.3% of the population have received two doses. But this combination of local systems of containment and disease management with external medical intervention is seen as efficacious, and the way forward for navigating on-going uncertainties.

As experience has increased with COVID, with different waves and different impacts on different groups of people, people’s local epidemiological knowledge has increased. The seasonality of the disease is often commented on (“now it’s hot, there’s much less disease, we are not inside”); the dangers of close proximity and crowded places is clear (“even though it’s hot, I wear my mask on the combi, but not around the town”); and the dangers to those who are already vulnerable is clear (“it’s the diabetes and the BP that’s the killer – we have to eat better and consume our indigenous foods”). The revival of debates about appropriate diet (millets, not processed maize, less meat and so on) has been part of the local conversation about the disease over time.

With this knowledge comes the ability to make choices. As people commented, “in the beginning we had so much conflicting information on Whatsapp, on the internet, from friends, we didn’t know who to believe”. Now people make judgements made on experience after 18 months of the twists and turns of the pandemic, taking account of local circumstances and not taking anything at face value.

Our conversations last week happened before the new variant was identified, and this of course presents a new uncertainty that may yet shatter local confidence, returning things to dark days of just a few months back. Such is the experience of the pandemic: continuous change, continuous uncertainty.

New livelihoods

No matter what a new variant throws at Zimbabwe’s rural population in the coming weeks, the pandemic has affected the structural conditions by which people remain healthy or become sick.

Due to repeated lockdowns and the parlous state of the Zimbabwean economy, people must make livelihoods in new ways. Many businesses have closed, jobs in town are scarce and people must increasingly rely on local provisioning, especially through agriculture. There are also many new opportunities that have emerged, which have been documented in this blog series before. In urban and peri-urban areas for example, the demand for COVID treatments is met by a proliferation of new gardens, growing key ingredients. Ginger is now widely grown for example, and no longer imported from Mozambique or the Eastern Highlands. While transport has returned and farmers can move their crops to market, many have adopted new market networks, spreading risk and going for shorter transport distances, as the predatory police presence on the roads is still a problem (and a cost).

As we have documented before, many have returned to rural homes, seeking out a plot from a relative or a parent, when jobs have dried up in Zimbabwe’s cities or in South Africa. Agriculture, and especially in the land reform areas where there is more land available, is a vital source of resilience in pandemic context.

Some have taken up new agriculture-based business, switching from a town job to intensive horticultural irrigation for example, or in the case of women vendors in Chikombedzi moving into goat rearing and trade to South Africa on a huge scale. Time will tell whether this is a more permanent restructuring of the economy, but the shifts are significant and will be important for thinking about post-COVID recovery.

Autonomy and resilience

Across the commentaries from our informants in all the sites, there is a great emphasis on autonomy, and how this brings resilience. People have learned and innovated on their own. They haven’t been reliant on the state or international donors. Indeed, they have not been able to provide – the government and party doesn’t care, the donors are not interested in Africa are frequent refrains. And the competition between the Chinese, Russians and Americans over vaccines and COVID response is seen from afar with disgust.

The emphasis in local commentaries is on local adaptation through experimentation and way of responding that is localised and seemingly effective. Knowledge is shared through local networks, through Whatsapp, but is sifted now more carefully as options are considered. As people confronted the information on a new variant this weekend, according to informants there was a mix of scepticism and stoicism, but equally a sense that people were on their own as before but now with the capacity to innovate and respond.

A politics of the ‘new normal’

These new social and economic patterns of the ‘new normal’ occasionally confront the emergency focused public health efforts from the state. The emergency mode is relinquished slowly, as it serves certain interests: both political control in a volatile context and also opportunities for corruption and enrichment as lockdown laws are enforced.

There is however a distinguishable shift in our informants’ attitudes in the last month or two. With the relief that the massive peak had passed, state-enforced public health is become less accepted. Before, public health was paramount, and people mostly accepted often quite top-down, heavy-handed state intervention. The government was getting high approval ratings. It was after all a crisis, and through the news from the UK or South Africa, people also knew how bad it could get and how limited the resources in Zimbabwe were to cope with it. “We saw it on the news, we were scared.”, someone commented.

Now with less fear and more grounded knowledge along with much more experience, there is a more circumspect view, with people prepared to make judgements about risk and assess trade-offs. In the end, basic survival and the sustaining of businesses and livelihoods is important. How the arrival of a new variant will affect the assessment of risk and collective responses is of course still unknown.

Vaccine mandates

These dilemmas reflect experiences elsewhere where the limits of state intervention are being tested. There are no mass protests as has been seen in Europe and other regions, but people are also asking where does public health stop and individual liberty start? A core focus of this debate is the vaccine mandate for civil servants. In one of our study sites, a district agricultural extension office lost a significant number of staff as they refused the vaccine due to their religious beliefs being members of one of the Apostolic churches. They were put on indefinite, unpaid leave, and so effectively fired.

This has caused reverberations among civil servants, in part because for some their workload has doubled, but also they are asking whether this is fair and just. Some labour unions are contesting the decisions in the courts arguing that the vaccine mandate is anti-constitutional. Others relay concerns that this is simply the exertion of authoritarian political control, linked to a surveillance state that has no concern for liberty.

Uncertainties are everywhere

If there is one thing that this pandemic has taught all of us it is that uncertainty is everywhere and we don’t know the future. But how uncertainties are navigated and how risks are perceived does change, and we have seen this clearly through our tracking of the pandemic in Zimbabwe since March 2020 (see the previous 20 odd blogs in this series). In the last months, there has been a tangible shift in ways people are going about their lives and how they see the disease. This may yet change if the new variant strikes hard as some fear.

However, for now at least and despite Omicron dominating the headlines, most people in our rural sites across the country currently don’t spend much time thinking about COVID, as the rains have come and it’s time to plant and get on with the agricultural season. There are always other uncertainties to contend with.

Written by: Louis Hodey and Fred Dzanku

The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted food systems in Ghana since its emergence in the country in March 2020. According to the United Nations World Food Programme, the socio-economic impact of the pandemic caused by the imposition of restrictions on social and commercial activities appears to be more devastating than the actual virus in many countries. This study is part of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa programme’s assessment of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on food systems and livelihoods in Ghana and seven other African countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Conducted between June–July 2020 and February–March 2021, the study seeks to estimate the potential impact of COVID-19 on food systems and livelihoods in south-western Ghana.

Written by: John Olwande, Milton Ayieko, John Mukundi and Nicholas Odhiambo

Kenya confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on 12 March 2020. Like many governments across the world, the Kenyan government implemented various measures aimed at slowing down local spread of the virus and cushioning the population against the negative economic effects of the pandemic and the associated policy restrictions. International organisations and researchers postulated that the measures would negatively affect economic activities and livelihoods, with undesirable implications for poverty and food insecurity. Particularly vulnerable would be populations in developing countries such as Kenya, where many people depend on food systems for their livelihoods, and the majority of those are smallholder farmers who often have low economic power. The objective of this rapid assessment was to investigate the impact of COVID-19 on the food system and the sub-set of the population largely dependent on agriculture in Kenya to inform actions that can assure protection of rural livelihoods and continued access to adequate and affordable food of acceptable quality to the population. This report presents results of that rapid assessment.

Written by: Masautso Chimombo and Mirriam Matita

From September, throughout October and into November, Malawi has seen its new daily COVID-19 cases sharply reduce to an all-time low. In fact, zero new daily COVID-19 cases have become very common during this period as reported by the Ministry of Health. New admissions into the COVID-19 hospital wards have also sharply reduced. The flattening of all these three curves is obviously a great relief to government, private sector, and households whose businesses and livelihoods ground to a halt as a result of the ruthless pandemic. This blog reflects on this steep decline in COVID cases and the public’s perception of its causes, as well as recent research presented in APRA’s Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Malawi Synthesis Report.

The study, which drew from three rounds of face-to-face and phone-based surveys conducted in Mchinji and Ntchisi districts in central Malawi, aimed at assessing the impact of COVID-19 on food systems and rural livelihoods and found that farming households had become more concerned about their ability to access food during the pandemic. One of the study’s findings showed that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted important aspects of food security and rural livelihoods in Malawi, with significant slowdown in economic activities and worsening performance of agricultural produce market reported in both districts. No wonder, therefore, that the sharp slowing down of new daily COVID-19 infections, hospital admissions, and deaths is welcome news for government, private sector, and farming households in Malawi. 

Government of Malawi relaxes COVID-19 restrictions

In fact, in response to the country’s sharp decline in COVID-19 cases, the Malawi Government announced relaxation of some of the COVID-19 restrictions on October 9, 2021. Among others, in closed places, a maximum of 500 people are now allowed to meet, up from 100, and in outdoor spaces 2,000 people can now meet up from 200. Subject to submitting a negative COVID-19 test certificate, all travel restrictions in Malawi have also been lifted. Moreover, passenger service vehicles are now permitted to operate at full seating capacity, rather than the 60 per cent capacity they were previously required to operate at, making transport more efficient. In addition, leisure and entertainment venues like bars and restaurants can now operate until midnight, rather than 8pm. Certainly, these relaxations are likely to bear positive impacts on government operations, business profitability and livelihoods.

People on the street, excited by the sharp decline in COVID-19 cases and the return to normalcy, have been commenting on the reasons behind the improving situation. In minibuses, radio programmes, social media and marketplaces, the public, from their layman streetwise perspective, are attempting to answer the question: what has led to the sharp decline in COVID-19 cases?

It’s the hot weather…

Firstly, since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Malawi in April 2020, there has been a perception that when atmospheric temperatures are very high, coronavirus loses its potency and dies, rendering it non-communicable and non-infectious. Indeed, true to this belief, during the hot months of September, October, November and December in 2020, COVID-19 cases sharply declined in Malawi. This year (2021), the sharp decline in COVID-19 cases has also coincided with the onset of the hot summer season in Malawi which is characterised by very high temperatures and scorching sun during the day. Specifically, as previously stated, the sharp decline of COVID-19 infections and deaths began in September 2021 and remains the same up to now (November 2021). This has led people on the street to conclude that their theory on the negative relationship between COVID-19 infection rates and levels of atmospheric temperature to be true and valid. Potentially, this perceived validation of the theory could also result in the widespread adoption of herbal steaming as a home remedy for managing COVID-19 under the assumption that coronavirus cannot survive in hot spaces.

It’s herd immunity…

On the street, the public is not using the public health and epidemiological jargon of ‘herd immunity’ but some members of the public are implying it in their explanation of how the country has managed to slow down COVID-19 infections. In their explanations, there is a belief that most of Malawians already were, at one time or another, infected by COVID-19 since the virus arrived in the country. Low testing capacity masked and underestimated the extent of COVID-19 infections in the country. Strong immunity resulting from manual and tiresome labour and the consumption of organic foods meant that most Malawians who were infected with COVID-19 never displayed serious, if any, symptoms. As most Malawians had already been infected and recovered without needing any hospital management, layman theorists believe that such survivors across the country have developed herd immunity and are thus less vulnerable to the virus now. This theory has the potential to create a sense of safety among the public that they are immune to COVID-19, which could encourage them to totally disregard all COVID-19 prevention measures and protocols.

It’s the COVID-19 vaccines…

For city dwellers and white-collar workers in the cities, the decline in COVID cases is being attributed to the vaccinations administered to willing urban residents. The vaccines have reduced both the risk of infection and the risk of becoming symptomatic when infected among the city dwellers. Some urbanites believe that in rural areas, COVID-19 cases were already nearly non-existent and therefore the high level of anti-COVID-19 vaccination sentiments and the associated rejection of COVID-19 vaccines among the rural communities cannot subdue the impact of the vaccines in urban areas. However, others are of the view that even in the cities and other urban areas, only a tiny and insignificant percentage of residents had access to COVID-19 vaccines. In their view, the opponents of those attributing the sharp fall to COVID-19 vaccines believe that such a drop in the ocean of vaccinated people cannot have such a huge impact on COVID-19 trends in the country. The attribution of the fall in cases to COVID-19 vaccinations could be beneficial if leveraged in social-behavioural change communications that could see more people demanding COVID-19 vaccinations. Blowing the trumpet on the vaccine’s success and efficacy could go a long way in encouraging its uptake, especially considering that early in 2020, many vaccines expired as a result of low acceptance rates among Malawians – a waste that was unpopular with the bilateral and multilateral donors who donated the vaccines to Malawi.


COVID-19 remains a huge threat to Malawi and the current sharp decline in COVID-19 infection rates should not be interpreted as permanent. There is a high probability that the current trend is a temporary episode which could be followed by a sharp and lethal increase in COVID-19 cases, catching everyone unaware. This becomes an especially scary possibility when one recollects the events of last year when, following a similar decline in COVID-19 cases leading up to late December 2020, the public abandoned the COVID-19 prevention measures and enjoyed the festive season as though the pandemic did not exist. In January 2021, the country paid a huge price as COVID-19 tore through the population, with frighteningly high rates of COVID-19 infections, hospital admissions and deaths. Stakeholders should, therefore, pay attention to what the public are identifying as the explanations for the current sharp decline in cases in Malawi, and develop effective messaging strategies that could ensure the public does not become reckless again during the forthcoming festive season. As the old adage goes: Once beaten, twice shy.

Photo credit: © Kwame Amo/Shutterstock

To hear more about APRA’s research findings on COVID-19, join the e-Dialogue on February 9th, 2022. Learn more and register, here.

Read about previous APRA research on COVID-19 in Malawi in the following blogs:

Written by: Dawit Alemu

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only led to the loss of human life and resulted in an unprecedented challenge to public health, but has also seriously affected food systems and work opportunities. Following the confirmation of the first COVID-19 case in Ethiopia on 13 March 2020, and concerns about the sharp increase in cases, the federal government put in place different measures to prevent and control the pandemic that have affected the food system and rural livelihoods. This blog reflects on the findings of APRA’s Multi-Phase Assessment of the Effects of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ethiopia: The Case of Fogera Plain, which presents the characteristics and awareness of the country’s different public measures, the responses to these measures, their effect on farming and marketing, food and nutritional security on smallholders, and perceived/self-assessed household level of poverty, drawing on primary data generated from three rounds of surveys and key informant interviews of rice farmers and other actors in the Fogera Plain of Ethiopia.

COVID-19 preventive and control measures and awareness

In general, the measures can be categorised into three phases: (i) the five-month State of Emergency, from April to September 2020; (ii) the period of implementation of the directive issued for the prevention and control of the COVID-19 pandemic in October 2020; and (iii) the period from November 2020 when some relaxation of the restrictions began. Overall, rice farmers from the study area were aware of COVID-19 threats, and prevention and control guidelines over the three rounds of the survey, specifically those measures related with the State of Emergency (April 2020), the enacted directive (October 2020), and the adjusted directive.

Responses to the threat of COVID-19

The results indicate that many respondents remained sceptical about the seriousness of the outbreak and compliance with government guidelines continued to be very limited – mainly due to a limited understanding of the danger of COVID-19, limited access and capacity to buy required inputs (sanitiser, masks), and a lack of regulatory measures to enforce the guidelines.

Effect of COVID-19 on farming, labour and marketing

The results indicate that agricultural activities continued to be minimally affected, whereas devastating floods, which occurred during the second round of surveys (October 2020), emerged as a more serious challenge and caused major disruption and displacement. Access to agricultural inputs remained a bottleneck, with the proportion of respondents reporting a decline in availability surging from 22% in the first round (July 2020), to 51% in the second (October 2020), and 71% in the third round (February 2021), while the number reporting an increase in input prices rose slightly from 71% to 74%, and to 87% over the three rounds.

The ability to sell produce at local and regional markets improved over time, with the proportion of respondents reporting a decline decreasing from 33% to only 6% (local markets) and from 32% to 8% (regional markets) between the first and third rounds, implying improvements in marketing opportunities linked with the relaxation of trading and movement restrictions.

Effect of COVID-19 on food and nutrition security

COVID-19’s impact on food and nutritional security was assessed in terms of availability of diverse food items, price trends, and the perceived level of household food and nutritional security. Accordingly, an increase in the proportion of respondents reporting reduced availability of foods over the three periods of the survey was observed for root crops, milk and milk products, meat and poultry, and dark green vegetables, which indicates that food availability continued to be directly or indirectly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For most food items, more than 50% of respondents reported an increase in food prices over the three surveys due to the direct or indirect effect of COVID-19, mainly for milk and milk products, pulses, and processed food, which indicates that the price of nutritious foods increased more than other types of food items, like cereals.

Food security seems to have improved over time, with the proportion of respondents reporting their worries about not having enough food to eat decreased from 64% in the first round to 30% in the third round. In addition, indications of consumption at levels below necessary intake decreased from 31% in the first round to 17% in the third.

Nutritional security also improved initially, with the proportion of respondents reporting an inability to eat healthy and nutritious food decreasing from 42% in the first round to 31% during the second round. This was primarily associated with emergency assistance provided by the government and non-governmental organisations in response to the flood in the Fogera Plain. However, the reduction of this emergency assistance saw this figure increase to 61% during the third round survey.

The self-assessed level of poverty

The self-assessed level of poverty indicated by male-headed households was on average better than that of female-headed households, with about a one-step difference based on the responses before COVID-19 and during the three rounds of survey. In addition, distribution of respondents by the perceived level of poverty indicates that there was a general increase in the proportion of respondents who rated themselves five and below (decline in perceived poverty), and a general decline in those who rated themselves six and above over the three rounds of surveys, compared to their rating before the COVID-19 pandemic (increase in perceived poverty).


Though COVID-19 prevention and control measures were put in place and rice farmers are aware of them, the results indicate limited compliance to them under the study area context. In general, agricultural activities were not affected by the pandemic, though access to agricultural inputs remained a bottleneck, and the ability to sell produce was a challenge especially during the initial period.

The effect of COVID-19 on food and nutritional security manifested in the reduced availability of food items such as root crops, milk and milk products, meat and poultry, and dark green vegetables. The extent of reported nutritional security impacts has declined over the survey periods. Similarly, the self-assessed household poverty indicates a decline, which shows the cumulative effect of COVID-19 under the rural context of Fogera Plain of Ethiopia.

To hear more about APRA’s research findings on COVID-19, join the e-Dialogue on February 9th, 2022. Learn more and register, here.

Read about previous APRA research on COVID-19 in Ethiopia in the following blogs:

Written by: Mirriam Matita and Masautso Chimombo

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruptions to national and global economies with devastating effects on food systems and livelihoods across the globe. These effects of the pandemic on poverty, hunger, and malnutrition, among others, are likely to be greater among low and middle-income countries like those in sub- Saharan Africa, including Malawi. This is because even before the COVID-19 pandemic began the proportion of people facing poverty, and food and nutrition insecurity were already high. It is, therefore, imperative to understand the effects of COVID-19 on food systems and rural livelihoods. Using a multi-stage ‘rapid assessment’, this study provides real-time insights into how the COVID-19 crisis unfolded in Malawi and how rural people and food and livelihood systems respond.

Written by: Dawit Alemu and Abebaw Assaye

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only led to the loss of human life and resulted in an unprecedented challenge to public health, but has also seriously affected food systems and work opportunities. As a global pandemic, COVID-19 has impacted food systems and livelihoods as a result of both economic and health challenges that emanate from domestic public policy measures, and also actions taken by other countries, mainly in the form of trade restrictions. Following the confirmation of the first COVID-19 case in Ethiopia on 13 March 2020, and concerns about the sharp increase in cases, the federal government declared a state of emergency on 8 April 2020 which lasted for five months. This paper presents the assessment of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and its prevention measures on agricultural commercialisation, food and nutrition security, labour and employment, as well as poverty and well-being in rural Ethiopia.

Written by: Imogen Bellwood-Howard and Helen Dancer

African policymaking has turned to agricultural commercialisation as an engine of growth in the 21st century. But the effects have not been the same for everyone, entrenching long-term social difference based on gender, wealth, age and generation, ethnicity and citizenship. Social differentiation within commercial agriculture is shaped by power dynamics and the distribution of benefits between elites, and their relationship with the formal and informal institutions that underpin political systems. This idea of a ‘political settlement’ in the way that power is exercised between groups, often to avoid conflict or to give preferential access to a specific resource, gives different groups of people different standing within agricultural value chains. COVID-19 as a type of shock also shapes political settlements and the resilience of different actors in their response to the pandemic. It can also reinforce pre-existing trends in social differentiation. APRA’s research showed how this has happened across Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, and APRA Working Paper 69 presents the research findings.

The African Union’s 2003 Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme encourages agricultural commercialisation. Models range from large-scale industrialised production on plantations owned by multi-national corporations, to intensification of individual smallholdings, and various contract farming and outgrowing arrangements. The outcomes of political processes affect how commercialisation proceeds in each place, and its effects on different people. Political settlements sometimes act to the benefit of global actors as well as local, politically powerful groups. For example, some governments have established programmes to appeal to large-scale companies to invest and access land, such as Ethiopia’s Agriculture Development Led Industrialisation and Tanzania’s Development Vision 2025.

When smallholder farmers have political weight, subsidies and land reform favour them, as in the case of Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme, and subsidy programmes in several sectors such as maize in Malawi, cocoa in Nigeria, and Tanzania’s National Agricultural Input Voucher Scheme which has coincided with election years. Import-export policies can be used in similar ways – rice import bans in Nigeria favour international companies established there as well as local processors.

Entrenched inequalities

While providing benefits for some groups, political settlements have entrenched patterns of social differentiation in agricultural value chains. The nature of people’s interest in agricultural land remains the most significant determinant of agrarian relations, with poor access to land for women and migrants being the most important and striking factor contributing to social differentiation. Access to land is closely tied to access to labour and other capital, credit and inputs. Many larger farms and businesses are corporate in nature. Such businesses are more likely to be owned by men, autochthons, household and lineage heads, older people and some ethnicities, than by women, migrants, junior household and lineage members and youth. People’s trajectories are not set in stone: they can certainly use resilience and ingenuity to succeed in unlikely circumstances, but structural inequalities make this difficult.

For farmers, control over and interaction with land is usually the most important factor influencing how successful they can be, and this is relatively hard to influence in the short term. Personal land access can be enabled in a family context. However, social, legal and customary norms constraining the land access of women, migrants and the poor, limit the space within which individuals can manoeuvre to obtain and secure access to land. Liberalisation of land markets has not significantly altered this trend. Labour relations often interact with land access, to the disadvantage of women, migrants and the poor, who tend to have smaller farms. Female and migrant traders and processors also tend to have smaller, less prosperous businesses.

Absorbing shocks

Such smaller businesses are less resilient to shocks such as COVID-19, largely because they have less capital. In the early stages of the pandemic, smaller businesses were less able to pay for longer term storage of goods, absorb losses due to spoilage, sit out periods of low demand, and continue to pay workers. They were also less likely to be eligible for government rescue packages. When such shocks affect smaller businesses, it affects their ability to prosper in the long term. In this way, social differentiation, which has been reinforced over the long term by political processes, is reproduced and perpetuated by short term shocks such as COVID-19.

For many agricultural value chain actors in Africa, COVID-19 has not been the most severe shock they have experienced, while simultaneously resembling other shocks in some ways. Some very small-scale actors were resilient, drawing on their ingenuity and learning from past shocks. People with these capabilities made big changes in the COVID-19 pandemic, for example switching from wholesale to retail, advertising on social media, changing sale location, stockpiling, or switching livelihood activity entirely. However, this was difficult because such people remain disadvantaged in their access to capital and other resources.

In the early stages of the pandemic, COVID-19 did not lead to the types of changes that shape long-term agricultural and farming trajectories, such as distress land sales or permanent migration. However, as it becomes endemic and more of a stress than a shock, there is a greater likelihood that such actions will happen. If so, COVID-19 will begin to contribute to more long-term, structural social differentiation.

Photo credit: Rasheed Hamis and Nuktar Muktadha

Written by: Vine Mutyasira

The COVID-19 pandemic has continued to affect agri-food systems around the world and lay bare its fragility, worsening the welfare of millions of smallholder farmers whose livelihoods are anchored on agricultural activities. For the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africa, COVID-19 has coincided with a number of other macroeconomic shocks, which have also exacerbated the impacts of the pandemic on food security, nutrition and general livelihoods, as well curtailed policy responses and mitigation strategies. In Zimbabwe, the COVID-19 pandemic struck at a time the country was experiencing a worsening economic and humanitarian situation. This study focused more on community and household dynamics and response measures to cope with the pandemic. This paper presents a summary of findings emerging from a series of rapid assessment studies undertaken by the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme in Mvurwi and Concession areas of Mazowe District in Zimbabwe to examine how COVID-19 is affecting food systems and rural livelihoods in our research communities.

Event on the emerging evidence on the impact of COVID-19 on people living in poverty in Malawi and the policies needed to mitigate them.

About this event

This is a livestream of an in-person event.

How is COVID-19 impacting people living in poverty in Malawi? What are the policies needed to mitigate these impacts? Recent research from COVID Collective partners and APRA finds COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact on people living in, or at risk of, poverty in Malawi – particularly in regard to their education, food security and livelihoods.

To discuss the emerging evidence surrounding these impacts and encourage an open conversation on the policies and actions needed to mitigate them, policymakers, donors, researchers and civil society actors gathered at a recent event.

This event was hosted by the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) with an introduction from the FCDO Development Director. APRA researcher Mirriam Matita joined the presentations to share data collected from studies understanding the impact of the pandemic on food systems and rural livelihoods.

Other presentations presented findings from recent research into the cross-cutting issues impacting people living in poverty, including education, food systems, livelihoods. For example, the Chronic Poverty Advisory Network (Overseas Development Institute) shared research on how the pandemic, and the response to it, intersect with wider efforts to address poverty and inequality. In addition, the Center for Global Development (CGD) & Centre for Educational Research and Training (CERT) presented new research on the impact of COVID-19 on education, prioritising re-enrolment (especially girls); measuring lost learning; and the policies for reopening and catch up.

After the presentations, the discussion opened up to hear responses from participants in the room and encouraged open discussion between this small audience of key actors, as well as to take questions from the online audience.


9.30 START
  • Welcome and introduction: United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO
  • Presentations:
  1. Center for Global Development (CGD) & Centre for Educational Research and Training (CERT): Investigating COVID-19 education policy response in Malawi
  2. APRA: Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food systems and livelihoods: See this presentation, here.
  3. Chronic Poverty Advisory Network (Overseas Development Institute): Social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the poorest and those at risk of impoverishment and the policies needed to mitigate them.
  • Responses from key stakeholders
  • Questions and discussion with participants and online audience

About the COVID Collective

The COVID Collective research platform offers rapid social science research to inform decision-making on some of the most pressing development challenges related to COVID-19. It brings together the expertise of global partner organisations, coordinated by the Institute of Development Studies. It is overseen by an FCDO and IDS Executive Committee supported by an Advisory Group made up of representation from partner institutions to help guide the evolution of the Collective.

Andy Bowden of FCDO explains that “FCDO are hosting this webinar on behalf of IDS who are coordinating the COVID Collective, which provides vital research.”

Read more APRA research on the impacts of COVID-19 in Malawi, here:

Read APRA’s research on the impact of COVID-19 on food systems and rural livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa, more widely, here:

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

As farmers turn to the next season with the beginning of the rains, the country is in a good position having reaped a bumper harvest in 2020/21. An estimated 2.7 million tonnes of maize were produced, triple the amount in the previous season. Given COVID-19 and the endless lockdowns and restrictions, this is remarkable and witness to the possibilities of significant production if the rains are good.

For too long the narrative has been that after land reform in 2000 and the decline of large-scale commercial farming, Zimbabwe has shifted from a breadbasket to basket case, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary documented repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere.

However, the harvest this last season has been spectacular. Does this mean that the biased commentators can finally abandon this tired narrative? What are the factors that have contributed to this success?

Good rains make a big difference, but how reliable?

Well, obviously good rainfall makes a massive difference. In the last season, this was substantial and well spread. Without significant irrigation support, most farmers must produce on dryland fields, so good rains are essential.

However with climate change this is far from guaranteed, and the recent period has shown much variability. Often unexpected extreme events such as mid-season droughts, floods, even hailstorms, destroy the crops, even if on average the season is OK. Climate change predictions suggest that this is likely to be the pattern into the future, meaning mechanisms of climate adaptation are essential.

Planting in pits: the Pfumvudza/Intwasa programme

One response to uncertain rainfall has been the Pfumvudza/Intwasa programme – a system of zero tillage cultivation involving the construction of small pits allowing water and fertility to concentrate. The government reports that yields on such plots increased from on average 1.2 tonnes per hectare in extensive dryland fields to 5.3 t/ha on Pfumvudza plots.

This is impressive, and certainly our early assessments suggested boosts, although perhaps not quite as much. In some areas waterlogging and intensive weed growth hampered crop productivity and for some a lack of labour meant that digging pits in the required format was impossible.

Overall, there is little doubt that where such intensification occurred many people across the country, especially smallholder farmers in the communal areas, gained significant yields, even though these were on very small areas per household.

Indeed, scaling up Pfumvudza techniques is very difficult without mechanisation, as it is so labour intensive. As a focused gardening technique to guarantee outputs it works well (and the adaptations that people have adopted this year, such as combining with winter ploughing, changing the pit design to avoid water pooling, often even better). But Pfumvudza will not solve Zimbabwe’s agricultural production challenge given the still relatively limited areas involved, even when these are multiplied by millions of plots.

It is difficult to tell, but it’s very unlikely that Pfumvudza such plots contributed massively to the big total harvest given the areas involved. Pfumvudza has been important at the margins, especially for poorer, smallholder farmers, and of course as a result has become central to early electioneering by local politicians. Instead, this year maize outputs from larger farms across bigger areas were key contributors to the total.

Command agriculture

Here the government’s other favoured programme – Command Agriculture – probably came into play. The programme has been plagued by corruption scandals, poor delivery and costs a small fortune due to poor repayment patterns. Through the ministry of agriculture and with military support, programme offers loans to mostly to larger-scale farmers, often in the resettlement areas (mostly A2), including seeds, fertilisers, fuel and other inputs.

Not surprisingly, such support boosts yields and on larger areas in a good rainfall year, this results in big outputs, which have to be channelled to the state Grain Marketing Board to facilitate loan repayment. In terms of aggregate food production Command Agriculture certainly delivered in the last season, although the economics of this achievement can be seriously questioned.

Of course, only relatively few, often well-connected, farmers gain full access to Command Agriculture packages. Even if a wider group may get some elements, there are multiple complaints that delivery is delayed, the input packages are incomplete and that there is so much corruption in the system, it’s difficult to navigate as a normal farmer. Many in our land reform study areas don’t bother and prefer to go it alone.

Land reform boosts food security

My hunch is that it is the large numbers of land reform farmers, often farming on relatively small areas (around 5 hectares of arable) in the so-called A1 areas, who have made the difference, and are the major contributors to the harvest success. Twenty years on, they have settled into a rhythm of successful, small-scale production, with selective use of inputs but on areas significantly larger than their communal area counterparts, who may have a hectare or less of land to farm.

Supplementary irrigation in small plots may help, assisted by the massive growth of small pumps and irrigation pipes. Although such areas rarely focused on maize, except for early green maize in gardens, the possibility of emergency irrigation in some plots is there, although not required in the past year.

We have been studying land reform areas now for 20 years, and the results are interesting yet still poorly understood. Production of course varies massively between years, across our sites (from the high potential areas of Mvurwi to the dryland areas of the Lowveld around Chikombedzi) and between people (some highly commercialised, with increased mechanisation and others much more subsistence producers).

Overall production is significant as this is on large areas (a total of around 10 million hectares across A1 and A2 farms nationally). A boost in yield as happened this past year can make a huge difference in aggregate, offering opportunities for sustained national food security, with surplus grains either stored or invested in value addition activities. The massive increase in poultry production across our sites reflects this, again having positive benefits across communities.

In the past year, government stopped imports of food and has planned significant storage of surplus grains for future years. Perhaps more importantly, it is the local food networks between land reform areas generating surpluses and communal area neighbours and town dwellers that is important.

Such networks, facilitated by informal trade often centred on small towns and business centres, are central to boosting food security. In the past year, with movement restrictions, closed shops and disrupted value chains due to COVID-19, these informal, yet again poorly understood, networks have been essential. This is the case in all years, but has been especially so during the pandemic.

With land reform and the emergence of a networked food economy, people have something to fall back on. This is in stark contrast to South Africa, where with a loss of jobs, the closing down of the economy due to COVID and multiple restrictions imposed, people suffered extremely with hunger rife. As we have seen, this can lead to desperation and unrest.

In our study areas, many Zimbabweans have returned home, as with some land it’s easier to survive. People are carving out new plots, reclaiming land in the communal areas and getting subdivisions in the resettlements. Land reform not only provides food security, but also social security and political stability.

Structural shifts, new potentials

While much commentary focuses on the technical responses to crop production – with much partial boosterism around particular ‘solutions’ – it is this wider structural shift in land and agriculture brought about through land reform that is perhaps more important in explaining the harvest success in the past year.

And linked to this is the new food economy, connecting informal networks of trade, involving lateral exchanges between areas via urban areas, often circumventing the old, formal centralised system altogether (although this past year there were more deliveries to the GMB as payment systems have improved).

However, as the painful experience of the past 20 years since land reform has shown so clearly, such gains are not necessarily sustained. A very poor year can follow a good one with disastrous consequences. Nevertheless, the potentials of the new structural relations of land, agriculture and food that have followed land reform have been demonstrated this past year (as indeed before). What is needed is major investment in agriculture and rural development – beyond the technical programmes, despite their benefits – to ensure that these potentials are built upon for the future.

Photos by Felix Murimbarimba (planting pit digging in Masvingo; Mr Mapurisa delivering maize to Nyika GMB depot, Bikita)

Written by: Blessings Chinsinga and Lars Otto Naess

Some initial – and selective – reflections on 11 case studies of agricultural value chains and commercialisation across sub-Saharan Africa demonstrate that the policy choices to promote a value chain depend, to a large extent, on its importance to the most powerful. This includes the ability of a value chain to generate, accumulate and distribute resources. The case studies thus give insights into the various ways in which politics play a role in facilitating or hindering the development of the value chain. This blog explores the findings of these papers, a synthesis of which is presented in APRA Working Paper 87 and Policy Brief 34.


The starting point for these studies, that were carried out as part of APRA over 2020-21 in six countries, was the (perceived) political importance of a crop in the country’s political settlement. The six countries and their respective value chains included: Ethiopia (rice), Ghana (oil palm and cocoa), Malawi (groundnuts), Nigeria (maize, cocoa and rice), Tanzania (rice and sunflower) and Zimbabwe (tobacco and maize). Using a political economy framework, we asked the following questions: What and who are the drivers and obstacles to commercialisation? What and who decides the particular commercialisation pathways? And, ultimately, who wins and who loses? In the following, we outline examples from contexts where governments were grappling with commercialisation challenges, amidst challenges brought on by climate change, as well as the fallout from the still unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.

The country contexts are very varied, comprising a mix of coastal and landlocked settings, as well as a combination of crops for domestic and export markets. Of the 11 value chains studied, some were mainly for the domestic markets (e.g. rice in Ethiopia), others are major export crops (e.g. cocoa in Ghana and Nigeria; palm oil in Ghana; and tobacco in Zimbabwe). In between, there are a wide range of more hybrid value chains providing for domestic and export markets. Key external factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, as well as responses to them, have had wide reaching consequences, many of which are still unfolding.

COVID-19, climate change and commercialisation

Some of the value chains are thriving, others are struggling. Yet others have been through a long decline with a recent promising resurgence due to a combination of policy intervention and exclusively contingent factors, such as the emergence of lucrative cross-border informal markets. Climate change represents a looming challenge and threat to many value chains, most visibly to their productivity potential, affecting mainly impoverished smallholder farmers who can ill afford mitigation measures such as crop diversification, use of improved seed that are disease and drought tolerant, and irrigated farming using either modern equipment or simply access to rich and fertile wetlands.

COVID-19 has added further obstacles. For example, the challenges in the cocoa sector in Ghana were exacerbated by the pandemic through closure of land borders affecting migrant labour supply from neighbouring countries, and farmers’ access to (imported) inputs. The border closure also made it difficult to transport goods to other African countries. For rice in Ethiopia, the lockdown and fear of the pandemic were major challenges, while the increasing demand for food benefited producers and processors. The cocoa value chain has been affected by the shrinking export market in Europe and other importing countries. Movement restrictions have, in many cases, meant that farmers are not present throughout the marketing and auction processes; the end result has been higher consumer prices and increased producer profits, with some farmers engaging in speculative activities to further enhance profits.

Winners and losers

The studies demonstrate that different actors’ engagements in various processes within the value chains culminate in some winning and others losing. One of the key issues relates to the administration of subsidies: from Ghana to Zimbabwe, the story of subsidies show how they are often justified as a means to boost agricultural production by specifically targeting impoverished smallholder farmers, while ending up being captured by the strategically, politically-connected elite – such as traditional leaders, local level bureaucrats and business people – for their own gains. Policies that do not offer these opportunities may be downplayed or ignored. Winners or losers result from how various policy instruments are implemented, such as whether and how subsidies are deployed, and the underlying dynamics of elite capture, patronage and corruption. These processes culminate in social differentiation, especially among smallholder farmers, which presents obstacles for the value chains to realise their full potential.

For example, in Nigeria’s maize value chains, input subsidies focusing on fertiliser and seed have been captured by the private sector and are poorly targeted and implemented. High demand for maize for food and feed have attracted unfair politician involvement to extract supernormal profits; regulation of maize imports through export bans and the associated informal cross border trade to the benefit of the politically connected and influential individuals; and each regime prioritises the implementation of a new set of policies that promote rent extraction at the expense of continuity that even the policies of their predecessors were generally working. All these culminate in marked social differentiation that manifest heavily between men and women, especially in terms of their ability to cultivate maize on a profitable scale and benefit from informal cross border trade, which is more lucrative than the local maize trade.

In Ghana’s oil palm value chain, inadequate supporting infrastructure, weak marketing systems, and poor industry-wide coordination continue to frustrate development of the value chain’s full potential. This is particularly the case because political leaders prefer distribution of targeted goods to smallholders because of its potential electoral payoffs.

In the case of Malawi, the groundnut value chain has experienced notable recovery in terms of productivity, but remains primarily informal and struggles to re-enter the lucrative and formal global export markets. Progress towards the possibility of establishing structured markets has stalled completely, perhaps because the results show that some policymakers are profiting from the impasse, with some exporting their share of crops through shady deals. This, perhaps, explains why the condemnation of the informal groundnut export trade, coordinated and dominated by the Burundians, does not translate into any concrete policy action to dismantle or regulate it.

In Tanzania’s sunflower value chain, its commercialisation increased cropping area, taking over some traditional grazing land, such that land for livestock has become very scarce in many villages. This has led to changes in the institutional framework for managing livestock, forcing large owners to redistribute their herds to poorer neighbours as caretakers. This, in turn, has meant that poorer households and women, especially female-headed households, are less able to benefit from sunflower commercialisation themselves. 

Where next?

These value chain studies clearly demonstrate that the nature of a country’s political settlement matters in either facilitating or hindering a value chain’s prospects for developing its full potential. The more a value chain is amenable to profitable rent extraction, the more likely it will be captured by key elites for personal and political gains. Value chains that are largely export orientated are more susceptible to this sort of capture than those that are domestically orientated, except for cases where they are very important for national subsistence.

These studies further show that domestic political, economic and social forces are far more important than external forces in determining a value chain’s prospects. However, the role of external forces remains important, especially when it comes to policies. But these studies highlight that domestic actors – notably politicians and policymakers – are extremely adept at appropriating policies and implementing them in a way that services, primarily, their own personal interests. The case of Tanzania (rice) shows how this might affect tariff policy implementation, often to benefit politically connected and influential individuals.

A further key finding of these studies is that emerging issues, particularly climate change and COVID-19, are exerting added challenges to commercialisation efforts. COVID-19 is, in many ways, a double-edged sword: it has created opportunities for some, as well as daunting challenges for others. The poignant fact is that its adverse effects are disproportionately affecting the poor and marginalised sections of the population, with the majority moving in and out of poverty depending on the severity of the impact. In all, the combined negative consequences of elite capture of the value chains in various forms, climate change and COVID-19, have deepened and broadened social differentiation across all six countries. The main victims are the poor smallholder farmers, particularly youth and women, which makes the aim of inclusive agricultural commercialisation almost impossible to realise.

To learn more about these political economy papers, read the blogs written by their authors here:

Ethiopia (rice), Ghana (oil palm and cocoa), Malawi (groundnuts), Nigeria (maizecocoa and rice), Tanzania (rice and sunflower) and Zimbabwe (tobacco and maize). 

Photo credit: ICARDA

Written by: Imogen Bellwood-Howard and Helen Dancer

Since the structural adjustment policies of the 1980s, policymaking at a national and continental level has increasingly turned to agricultural commercialisation as the foundation for Africa’s long-term nutrition and food security. However, socio-economic inequalities, land tenure and food insecurity, as well as livelihood and income precarities remain widespread challenges. The effects of shocks, such as COVID-19, have overlaid emergent and entrenched patterns of social differentiation that shape access to resources, markets, and other opportunities for those involved in commercial agriculture. This paper considered the impacts of COVID-19 on value chains in Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, to ask: 1) What can political settlements analyses tell us about agricultural value chains and responses to COVID-19 in the countries studied? 2) How are structures and power relations throughout the value chains and actors’ responses to COVID-19 related to social differentiation in the context of African agriculture?

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

The COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe has improved since our last report, with infection rates and deaths declining in all areas. The alert level has been reduced to Level 2, with restrictions relaxed. At the same time, the vaccination drive has continued apace, with the government now mandating all civil servants to take a shot. So far just over 20 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine – mostly from China – although there are big variations across locations and age groups.

The period of Level 4 lockdown during the most recent wave has taken its toll. During this period, lasting up to 7th September, many businesses closed and most public institutions, including schools and colleges, were shut. This had a big effect on the local economy and many suffered badly. This included farmers across our sites, who complained bitterly that schools, colleges and other businesses they supplied food to were slow to open up after the shift to Level 2. This particularly affected horticulture farmers in Chatsworth and Wondedzo who rely on vegetable sales for livelihoods at this time of year, with large amounts of produce rotting.

COVID controversies

Controversies around COVID-19 continue to be central to discussions across our sites. COVID has become a symbol of control, a centre of power struggles and local politics; much more than just a disease. This has been especially evident around the vigorous vaccine campaign that the state has led.

Many, particularly younger people, still dismiss the disease: “It’s just a strong ‘flu”, one commented. “We have our own remedies for it, we don’t need the vaccines”. The view that COVID is being used by the state to control people is widespread. A number of younger informants observed that the vaccines may be used by the government, in alliance with foreign powers, to control the population, making people infertile. While conspiracy theories can be dismissed, their existence must be taken seriously as they reflect the politics of COVID times and the deep lack of trust many, perhaps especially younger people, have in authority.

Geopolitics comes into it too. “Why is this government accepting vaccines from unfriendly states like the US when they impose sanctions on us…. It seems very fishy”, one informant observed.  Others argue that it’s odd to get a free vaccine from China when health centres have no other drugs “not even paracetamol, no basic drugs, no ambulances, yet these are all free and supplied by the government. We smell a rat… there is something not right…. What deals are being made about our future?” “It’s all about making money and controlling people”, one young person commented, “COVID is destroying our lives and economies”.

Trust and the politics of control

All sorts of theories are debated, but the common theme is the little trust in the state and its solutions. Many see politicians capitalising on the COVID moment, recognising that elections are just around the corner. Other local leaders are using the requirement of the state to vaccinate to control their populations, with chiefs and headmen threatening the withdrawal of food aid if people don’t get vaccinated. Vendors wanting to sell in local bakosi markets have to be vaccinated in some of our sites, again giving more powers to local leaders. Local officials keep lists of those vaccinated and not, creating new forms of local surveillance.  Government departments have until 15 October to get their staff vaccinated, otherwise they must go on ‘unpaid leave’ until they do. All our team who work in the agricultural extension service have got vaccinated, for example.   

Others resist the state vaccination efforts completely. For example, the Vapostori church followers refuse to take them. They say that COVID like other diseases is just punishment from God. It should not be resisted, and any requirement to stop praying in large groups should be resisted lest the Almighty is angered. God will answer and find a solution, they argue. Other churches, such as the Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic and others, urge their followers to get vaccinated.

Among traditional religious leaders, such as the svikiro spirit mediums, there are a variety of opinions across our sites. Some argue that COVID reflects the anger of the ancestors for not following local customs and rules. They promote traditional practices for curing and healing, and some herbalists have joined others in prescribing herbal remedies for teas/infusions, gargling and steaming. The massive growth in demand for local treatments that arose especially during the most recent deadly wave has reinforced the power of herbalists and traditional healers within local communities.

Recourse to ‘tradition’ and the rejection of modern ways, around food in particular, is a common refrain. The argument that foods made from rukwezamhunga (finger and pearl millet) and other traditional products give strength and help people resist the disease has been much repeated. This has strengthened the hand of traditional healers, mediums and some local leaders over their ‘modern’ replacements in local power struggles in a number of our sites.

There is a gender, generational and locational divide too. Women are getting vaccinated far more than men, according to those working in the local clinics across our sites. Older people too are much more likely to get vaccinated than the youth, as they have seen old people get sick and die. Parents complain that they cannot persuade their children to get vaccinated and follow the regulations on distancing, mask wearing and so on. Finally, those in town are more likely to sign up as they too have seen the effects of the disease in recent waves – some even travelling to rural homes to get their shots as there is more availability of vaccine.

Controlling daily life

COVID times have created many tensions centred on the control over daily life. Tensions play out between the state and normal people; across generations, between youth and older people; within families, and between spouses; among colleagues who are civil servants; between church followers of different denominations, within villages and even within families; between the living and the spirit world; and between local leaders and their followers within rural areas. All these tensions are refracted through local politics.

While vaccination has often been the central, immediate focus, these tensions are therefore about much more; a window on contemporary rural society in Zimbabwe. These disputes are about the politics of control, over defining freedoms and limits and the role of the state and other authorities in relation to citizens. They are about faith and belief, interpretations of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and the trust in state authority and science. And they are about wider politics around which foreign powers can be trusted with people’s health and well-being.

Written by: Evelyn Otieno

In the second blog of a series following APRA’s participation in an Independent Food Systems Dialogue on sustainable value chains for Africa’s rice sector in a post-COVID 19 context, we examine the nutrition-related outcomes of the dialogue. The event, which was held on July 29th, 2021, was attended by participants from African countries including Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, and United Republic of Tanzania, as well as representatives of nations all over the world.

In conjunction with the International Rice Research Institute, Africa Rice Centre, the Centre for Africa Bio-Entrepreneurship, the Coalition for African Rice Development, and Japan International Cooperation Agency, APRA co-convened and participated in the Independent Food Systems Dialogue. The dialogue brought together stakeholders in Africa’s rice food system including producers, consumers, policymakers, and other value chain actors to explore ways of building sustainable rice value chains in a post-COVID 19 Africa.

Pathways for increased nutrition in Africa’s agri-food systems

The dialogue was especially timely now, as rice has become an important food crop in Africa, but the continent does not currently produce enough rice to meet its demand, which is expected to increase by about 30 million tonnes by 2035.

As players in Africa’s rice value chain focus on increasing rice production to meet this ever-increasing demand, there are concerns on the need to link production to the continent’s nutritional needs. In this regard, the dialogue, which comprised of an online public forum with regional stakeholders and experts and breakout sessions, discussed i) how to shift stakeholder perspectives to integrate nutrition and health into agricultural activities and research; ii) how Africa’s rice sector can respond to regional and global crises, including the 2007–2008 food crisis and the current COVID-19 pandemic, and the lessons that the sector players can learn to build back better; and iii) the evidence that policymakers and multisectoral partners respond to in the development and implementation of the necessary policies and programmes in response to these crises and to the surging increase in rice imports in Africa.

Dawit Alemu, Country Research Lead for APRA Ethiopia, noted that rice has been declared as an important crop for import substitution in Ethiopia, but like other African countries, its production faces challenges. “Rice production in Africa experiences challenges, such as competition with imports, and each actor engages differently in the sector. Besides, different African countries have rice development strategies, but their implementation remains challenging. Therefore, we need to look at the sector case by case to address these challenges,” says Alemu.

To address these challenges, the conference proposed the integration of nutrition in efforts to increase agricultural production. This integration should include processing, nutrient diversification, fortification, use of fertilisers, adequate water supply, efficient distribution and post-harvest handling, financing, rice safety regulations, certification, inspection, support for women and youth, information, and incentives for actors to enhance the nutrition content of rice. 

Also important is the need to strengthen communication between the value chain actors, support informal markets, put in place infrastructure such as electricity, and ensure food safety from the farm to the fork through adequate infrastructure and innovations for effective drying, safe storage, packaging, and transportation.

The dialogue also proposed impact assessment and research which should yield good data to influence production and improve nutrition. Further, researchers should speak with one voice to influence policy and programming.


This dialogue provided a platform to consolidate efforts of players in Africa’s rice value chain to use timely, high-quality, and independent information to improve agricultural policy and practice to achieve inclusive sustainable agri-food systems in Africa, thereby contributing to the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

To learn more about this dialogue, read the first blog in this series, here.

Written by: Evelyn Otieno

This blog reflects on the recent East Africa Independent Food Systems Dialogue, which brought together rice producers, the research and academic community, donors and investors, the private sector and farmers which aimed to discuss and develop pathways to building sustainable value chains in Africa’s rice sector.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries the world over grapple with its negative socio-economic effects. Reduced food production, ill health, business closures, job losses, lockdowns, reduced labour availability, and declining economies are just some of the COVID-related challenges facing global populations.

As countries work to build back after the pandemic, one cross-cutting priority is building sustainable food systems to provide food not only for today’s consumption but also to ensure food security in years to come. The story is the same, if not worse, in Africa, where effects of the pandemic have ravaged the continent’s fragile food systems. More than ever before, there is an urgent need for sustainable food systems in the region, especially through agricultural value chains given that agriculture is the primary economic activity in most African economies.

The Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) remains at the forefront of research to provide timely, high-quality, and independent information and advice to improve agricultural policy and practice in Africa. As part of its work, FAC has recently focused on the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods and food security. In such efforts, the consortium participated in the independent dialogue dubbed IRRI East Africa Independent Food Systems Dialogue.

The dialogues entailed an online broadcast of a public forum, which paved the way for panel discussions on topics such as policy, research, and investment. The sessions involved other actors in Africa’s rice sector, including the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA), the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Coalition for African Rice Development, the Center for African Bio-Entrepreneurship, CGIAR, government and other stakeholders in the sector.

What data is needed to motivate actors in Africa’s rice sector

In his opening remarks, Dr Abdelbagi Ismail, IRRI Regional Representative for Africa, noted that the rice value chain has become longer, but faces challenges such as decreasing access to production resources, inadequate research capacity and challenges in the implementation of individual countries’ rice development strategies. He noted that research should address these challenges, and provide information for the development of appropriate agricultural pathways and opportunities. Dr Ismail went on to ask what data is needed to motivate players in Africa’s rice sector.

A panel report excerpt by APRA CEO John Thompson provides an answer to Dr Ismail’s question, emphasising that, “it is important to have good data and evidence-based arguments to support policies that strengthen the rice sector.” Thompson added that “speaking with one voice and an ability to influence policy and programming would be important in the search for sustainable value chains for East Africa’s rice sector.” Discussion from this panel also called for an introduction of standards to improve the quality of rice which is produced. There is a need for diverse processors who are well connected and can work with governments. Also important is improved access to financing, investments in irrigation, sustainable water management, efficient transport systems, continuous research, and strong rice associations.

Need for integrated value chain research

Participants in Session Three, which discussed rice research and production, noted that research has focused heavily on production, thus excluding other players in the rice sector who are not necessarily involved in production. Dr Mary Mwale, a food security specialist in the Kenya Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, reported that “although the government has subsidy programmes, Kenya’s rice sector has not received much support.”

This session recommended that rice research should improve nutrition and lead to increased production to match consumer preferences. It also recommended increased communication between value chain actors, support for informal markets and food safety from the farm to the fork (production, farm management, harvesting, transport and processing). Nutrient diversification, comprehensive planning, investment in infrastructure, innovation, integration of nutrition, improved availability of inputs, and access to finance are all important in achieving sustainable rice systems in Africa.

Need for relevant agricultural investments and initiatives

The conference noted that research can contribute to food outcomes if all involved actors have a common understanding of the status of the rice sector. Professor Joyce Kinabo, food technology nutritionist, Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania, called for an understanding of the value chain. “Value chains are different in terms of operations, and there is a need to contextualise the rice value chain, share information, enhance proper data management, and understand nutrition outcomes and local initiatives to deliver context specific interventions,” she explains.


As we talk about the UN Food Systems Summit, we need to think about how to make our actions politically sustainable through the implementation of sustainable, consistent policies across Africa. For research to contribute to policy-making, researchers and policymakers should understand each other. There should also be increased collaboration at all levels, such as between researchers, governments and farmers, and through regional organisations and dialogues like this one, which lay a foundation for food systems transformation in Africa.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

The third COVID-19 wave has firmly arrived in Zimbabwe’s rural areas. This is no longer the ‘rich person’s disease’ of those based in town. The number of cases and sadly deaths has surged across our rural study areas in the last month. This is a picture reflected across the country and indeed the region, with large increases since our last report.

After being spared for so long, why are the rural areas only now being affected? This was the topic of the conversations in our research team this month. It is clear that the Delta variant is proving extremely dangerous. Having spread from a small isolated outbreak in Kwekwe just a few weeks ago and through imports from across the border in South Africa, it seems to be the dominant variant now. Highly infectious and easily transmissible, the fact that rural people don’t move much and work and live outside makes much less difference in the face of this variant it seems.

There have been deaths recorded in all our study sites in the past weeks, with others being buried in the area having died in South Africa or elsewhere in the region. Many others have contracted the disease and have been battling it at home while isolating. Some of the most vulnerable are the front-line workers who have frequent contact with people, while living in the rural areas. Nurses, health workers, agricultural extension workers, police and others have all be noted as people who have contracted COVID-19 in our sites in the last weeks, very often passing it on to others. Mr FC is a 68 year old health worker and farmer in Wondedzo. He contracted the disease and went to the COVID quarantine centre. However, he was quickly discharged due to pressure on beds:

“The doctor and nurses decided to send me home for self-isolation paving way for the ever in-coming COVID-19 victims. I was given different drugs by the nurses, but I supplemented these by taking herbal teas. My son used to bring lemons, garlic, onion and mutsviri herbal tea. I used to cut onion or garlic into pieces where I could place underneath my pillow. Crushed onion was used to massage my chest and nose. All my belongings at home were heavily disinfected and I was given my own room where I stayed alone. All the food was brought by my son. I was given light food like crushed potatoes, rice, porridge, beans and mincemeat as swallowing was not easy. In the end, on the 15th day, I felt better and there was then slow improvement until I returned to work, when I got the disease again as I am in contact with people. This time fortunately it was not so severe and we now know how to treat it.”

Vaccine demand and compulsion

The demand for vaccination has risen significantly too as a result of the surge in disease and concerns about severe illness and death. Queues have been forming at vaccination centres in all our study sites, but demand far exceeds supply, and the many return home disappointed. While nationally over 10% of the population have had one dose, there is much further to go even amongst the older, more vulnerable age groups.

Zimbabwe’s vaccine programme has been the envy of neighbouring countries, but it does remain heavily reliant on supplies from China (and to a lesser extent Russia and India). The J&J single dose vaccine is now (finally) approved locally, so maybe there will be an expansion of supply soon, but with China now experiencing new outbreaks some worry that politically-driven gifts of free vaccines to Zimbabwe will be less of a priority.

Despite claims that vaccination will always be voluntary there have been recent moves to make it compulsory among civil servants, with memos circulating across all departments requiring reporting of coverage. This has provoked quite a bit of debate, including within our team. Among those who have been hesitant about the vaccine, several commented that they will get it now as they need to keep the job. The old tension between public health and individual freedoms is once again being played out.

Limited state capacity: reliance on local innovations

This latest surge is both more severe and more widespread than before. The state, despite its best efforts, does not have the capacity to respond effectively. Health services are overwhelmed, funeral parlours are full, drugs are in short supply and vaccines insufficient. Whether via treatment or prevention, the response has to be centred on local people, their ingenuity and capacities. As we have mentioned in previous blogs, there has been a blossoming of innovation and entrepreneurship in response to the pandemic, particularly focusing on traditional remedies.

The now-famous Zumbani herbal tea is in huge demand, and those who collect it and process it are making good money. Diaspora Zimbabweans based in South Africa are sourcing it in large quantities as an effective remedy. Team members comment that they have abandoned Tanganda (black tea leaves) for herbal teas and remedies. A few months ago, they did not like them much, but now such teas are the preferred beverage several times a day. For those who get sick there is now a common health folklore about what the most effective treatments are.

This is shared through various routes. One of our informants swore by a video she had seen on WhatsApp from a Nigerian woman extolling the virtues of steaming and certain breathing exercises. Others listen to what neighbours have done and share locally. Even our research team, now known to be the contributors to these blogs – which are often shared further through social media and in local newspapers – are asked for advice. “We are the new doctors!”, one quipped. While there is much misinformation on social media spread through rumours among relatives, neighbours and church members alike, there is also lots of useful advice. Sifting through this competing knowledge claims and making choices in the face of disease is a critical part of living with COVID-19 today.

Alongside traditional herbs and remedies, lemon, ginger, garlic and onion are the most common ingredients for local remedies and are used as teas, chest/body presses, inhalation steaming and so on. Mrs MC contracted COVID recently and explained:

I had two regimes, which is Zumbani mixed with lemon as tea taken twice a day, morning and afternoon. I also had ginger and garlic tea, which I took at sun down and late at night. I also used to chew raw onion regularly as means of opening the nasal system. I had learnt of these traditional medicines via social media, friends and relatives, I also learnt of the use of crushed onion wrapped in a transparent cloth, which then could be pressed against my chest whenever I go to sleep. It is now a habit in my family to take the traditional medicines all the time”.

The demand for such products is massive. Mrs Kwangwa has a nursery in Masvingo in the compound of her husband’s National Railways of Zimbabwe house (see pictures). They started the project back in 2014 after she graduated from Masvingo Polytechnic with a certificate in agriculture. They have been growing vegetable seedlings, fruit trees, flowers and so on, with a wide market across the province and beyond. In COVID times they have shifted focus – and now the big crops are onions and lemon tree seedlings, with plans for expanding into garlic and ginger growing once they secure a bigger plot with more reliable water supplies. As we noted in earlier blogs, everyone is now a gardener, and Mrs Kwangwa commented that her customers have expanded. “COVID-19 has popularised agriculture – I now have doctors, engineers, teachers coming for seedlings as well as the normal farmers.” Everyone wants to buy products that can help them fight infections. It’s a profitable business and they bought a Nissan Sedan and a Mazda truck to transport water, leaf litter and seedlings, and they now employ three people.

If the world is going to live with COVID-19 (in its now many forms) forever, even with protections from vaccines and so on, then the sort of innovations and investments that Mrs Kwangwa has made will continue to be vital. Research on new agricultural products and wild product harvesting and processing will be needed to support a longer-term strategy for responding to a seasonal, hopefully less virulent coronavirus into the future.

Disease spreading events

While traditional remedies help fight infection and treat disease, other behaviours may reduce transmission. People are now used to the idea of keeping a distance, wearing a mask, not going to large gatherings and so on, but it’s difficult to do this in normal life. Transport for example is rare because of restrictions and so people must resort to informal, illegal means. Such mushikashika transport is always packed, often with few measures to reduce infection. Cross-border movement is essential for many people’s businesses, especially in those study sites near the borders such as Chikombedzi and Matobo, but people have to pay the bribes to cross illegally so their business can survive. Different people commented: “It’s better to die of corona than hunger”; or “I have to carry on, I cannot let my business collapse. What will I do to survive?”; or “We just have to learn to live with this virus, we don’t have any other safety net”.

In our sites, our team (now all expert field epidemiologists too…) identified a number of spreader events. For example, one malaicha – an informal transporter of goods – became infected and spread the disease widely as a result of contacts made through his business. Equally, particular shebeens (illegal drinking places) have become a focus for outbreaks, as people gather in packed rooms, as the official bars and restaurants remain closed. Although church gatherings are officially banned and most churches comply, some – such as the Apostolic churches – resist and hold their (often huge) gatherings at night. It being winter, people huddle together and so become infected.

Perhaps the most risky gatherings are funerals. With more people being buried – sometimes several a week in a village – funerals bring together people from across the country as relatives gather to pay condolences. Village neighbours come to pay their respects and commiserate with the family. Viewing the body happens in closed spaces, within huts while the family sits nearby. With it being winter, more happens inside in closed spaces with limited ventilation, and no one knows if wood smoke disrupts the virus or makes you more susceptible. Funerals are of course important moments in any society, and are especially so in rural Zimbabwe and for the older (more vulnerable) generation. Children in the diaspora have been beseeching their parents to avoid funerals in their villages, but with little effect. How can you not attend, at least for a short time? The traditions and rituals of passing are so significant that even a public health crisis cannot prevent them happening.

While official case numbers and deaths are thankfully declining in the last few days, this third wave has brought with it new challenges, especially in the rural areas where, for the first time, infection, severe disease and deaths are being seen on a much larger scale. There are many hypotheses as to why this is only happening now, but much must be to do with the Delta variant, which is effectively a new disease. The state is doing its best, but can only do so much. As before, rural Zimbabweans are left to cope on their own, with important innovations supporting the struggle against the disease, both for now in the midst of the pandemic and likely into the future, as this is clearly not going to go away completely.

Written by, Paul Amaza, Sunday Mailumo, Asenath Silong

The aim of this case study is to understand the underlying political economy dynamics of the maize value chain in Nigeria, with a focus on how this can contribute to comprehending the drivers and constraints of agricultural commercialisation. The study is informed by theories of political settlements, rents, and policy processes. It asks questions around (1) the key actors and interests: who participates and how do they benefit? (2) Rules and policies: who makes the rules, and who wins and loses? And (3), what are the implications across different social groups?

Written by: John Thompson, originally published for the Institute of Development Studies

Covid-19 is having a major impact on livelihoods and food security across the globe, with women and those who work in informal economies often the hardest hit. This is the focus of our latest Research for Policy and Practice Report on ‘The impact of Covid-19 on livelihoods and food security’ and upcoming UN Food Systems Summit independent dialogue.

The dialogue event on ‘Building resilient and sustainable food systems: How can emerging lessons from communities affected by Covid-19 shape the way forward?’ and report are part of the CORE rapid research initiative, which seeks to understand the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, improve existing responses, and generate better policy options for recovery.

Household-level food and livelihood insecurity

Studies of livelihoods and food systems since the start of the global pandemic in 2020 have shown a consistent pattern: the primary risks to food and livelihood security are at the household level. Covid-19 is having a major impact on households’ production and access to quality, nutritious food, due to losses of income, combined with increasing food prices, and restrictions to movements of people, inputs and products.

The studies included in the Research for Policy and Practice Report span several continents and are coordinated by leading research organisations with a detailed understanding of local food system dynamics and associated equity and livelihood issues in their regions:

Together, these studies show how the hardest hit in both rural and urban areas are frequently women and those working in informal economies. They also draw out key lessons and priority actions that need to be taken to respond to food and livelihood security challenges in a way that addresses informality and gender dynamics, for food systems to become equitable and resilient:

  • To mitigate Covid-19’s impacts on livelihoods and food systems, countries must meet the immediate food and income security needs of their vulnerable rural and urban populations, keep agricultural markets open and trade flowing, and support smallholder farmers and small and medium enterprises to continue to operate.
  • Adaptive social protection measures can build the resilience of both rural and urban households to the impacts of large natural and human-driven shocks, such as pandemics, but structural inequalities must be addressed to ensure these reach the poorest and most vulnerable populations.
  • Particular attention must be paid to women and young people, who are more likely to work in the informal sector, have lower incomes and often play a central role in household reproduction and the care economy.
  • Covid-19 provides an opportunity to rethink policies for ensuring food and nutrition security and economic recovery that are aligned with the commitment of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ‘leave no one behind’.

Opportunity for reform

The concept of ‘building back better’ has already become a well-worn cliché since the start of the pandemic, but these studies show that it is possible to view this crisis as an opportunity for fundamental reform and for creating more just and sustainable food futures.

Key messages from this report will inform the independent dialogue on 9 July. This invite-only event, organised by the IDS-led IDRC CORE KT programme, in collaboration with International Development Research Centre and Australian Centre for Agricultural International Research, will focus on drawing out the lessons and priority actions that need to be taken to respond to food security challenges in a way that addresses informality and gender dynamics, for food systems to become resilient, equitable and sustainable into the next decade.

The dialogue will bring together a range of stakeholders and perspectives on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on food systems and livelihoods, focusing on the evidence and experience generated from the most affected communities in low-income countries to generate ideas for action. It will provide opportunities for researchers and policy actors to talk about some of the key issues arising and produce some recommendations for policymakers attending the UN Food Systems Summit in September.

Vaccination drive at Hippo Valley sugar estate

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

The increase in COVID-19 cases in Zimbabwe has been significant in the weeks since our last blog. This has been matched by an increase in recorded deaths. The government has responded with a new ‘level 4’ lockdown, imposing a curfew, restricting business hours, limiting inter-city transport, requiring movement exemption permits, closing schools and educational institutions and banning all gatherings, except funerals where numbers are again restricted.

The national level data show an increasingly dangerous situation, but why now and how has it affected the rural areas? As we have reported in the past, the incidence has been extremely low in most of our study sites, but this has changed somewhat recently, although few deaths have been recorded. Why this change?

Why is there a surge now, including in the rural areas?

Informants across our study sites point to a number of factors.

  • First it is winter and this is the cold and flu season when respiratory infections spread as people are more frequently inside and interacting in close proximity.
  • Second, it has been marketing season when people have been travelling about, gathering at market places, interacting with itinerant buyers and going to auction floors in the tobacco areas. Indeed, it has been in the tobacco areas that the greatest spikes in infections have been noted, and people have speculated that buyers travelling from hotspots – such as Karoi – have brought new infections into areas.
  • Third, it has been the relaxation in measures, including the day-to-day practices of hygiene that have occurred. Certainly over the last months people had gone back to a (nearly) normal life, and abandoned wearing masks and had attended large gatherings of weddings, funerals and church services. These are now banned, but some churches are dismissive of the regulations and argue that the power of prayer in large gatherings should be recognised as a way of combating the disease, and many are still continuing.
  • Fourth, early foci for infections have been educational institutions, including Bondolfi mission, Morgenster and Great Zimbabwe University. Here students and staff have been infected and later isolated, but in places where there is residential accommodation such as teachers’ colleges and boarding schools, the virus can spread, and those moving to such establishments – as day pupils, as service providers or sometimes as church goers  – can in turn spread the infection to their communities.
  • Fifth, the ease of movement from South Africa through illegal crossings improves in the dry season as the Limpopo has little water and the danger from crocodiles and hippos recedes. This is the period for mass movements, as people go and shop in South Africa and bring back goods. At the Chakwalakwala crossing people move daily in their thousands, even with cars and trucks crossing the sandy river bed. This has a focus for significant importation of disease, as South Africa’s surge is in full swing, increasing earlier than Zimbabwe’s.
  • Sixth, the increase in dry season trade is linked to major markets in the south of the country. These bring people together over wide areas. These Bakosi markets are preferred to going to town as you can buy everything from iron sheets for roofing to a chicken for a meal, and everything else in between. Much comes from South Africa, but local produce is also sold and exchanged. Such large markets are also a focus for social events and much interactions. In the midst of a pandemic, they are clearly foci for infection, and have now been closed.

All these factors have combined in the last couple of months to fuel the pandemic in Zimbabwe, extending it to the rural areas.

Why do death rates remain low, at least for now?

Yet despite this, the number of deaths in our study sites remain low. This remains an anomaly as vaccination rates and existing immunity from earlier infections rates are low.

When we discussed this, the team pointed to the difference between mortalities of those coming from South Africa (and indeed of South Africans and Zimbabweans), pointing to different lifestyles, unhealthy diets of processed foods, co-morbidity factors (including being overweight, having diabetes and so on). Poverty, they argued, has kept us healthy!

In our study areas, burials have been occurring in cases where bodies have been returned home from South Africa. Cemeteries in Bulawayo for example are reported to be being under pressure. This may yet change, but there are some interesting hypotheses about what both results in infection and causes death.

Many informants across our sites point to local remedies as important in managing infection. While more people are getting the disease, its effects though far from pleasant are being addressed by local remedies. Mr Moses Mutoko from Wondedzo Extension in Masvingo district explained:

“In June my whole family was infected by an unknown ‘flu. It was persistent and heavy. We treated ourselves by steaming of a mix of Zumbani (a local herb), eucalyptus leaves and lemon, covering ourselves with a blanket for 15 minutes and sweating hard. We would also drink the mixture morning and night. We would also gargle several times a day with coarse salt and warm water and drink large amounts of water when we wake up and before we go to sleep to clean the body. We all recovered and are fine now. I have shared this prescription with the community, and everyone has taken it up. We hope it will save people from the disease.”

People across our sites urge the government to take local treatments seriously and invest in research as well as promoting seemingly efficacious ones.

Vaccine views

The surge in infections across the country has put the vaccine programme in the spotlight. Earlier reluctance among some has turned to an increasing eagerness to be vaccinated. Currently approximately 6% of the population have had a first dose, but rates have slowed of late due to supply problems. The vaccines being offered remain only the Chinese, Russian and Indian vaccines with an offer via the African Union of Johnson and Johnson vaccines being rejected on the grounds that the infrastructure for delivery was not up to scratch.

Many speculated that this was just politics being played out, with the Zimbabwe government snubbing the West. With the Chinese offering a further 2 million of their Sinovac shots, Zimbabwe may be able to play politics, but it seems a risky strategy right now. This is especially so as delivery is patchy, and the logistics not always streamlined with shortages reported across our sites. Nevertheless, the government’s overall COVID-19 approach has met with approval, both from other countries in Africa, and from the Zimbabwean population according to the Afrobarometer survey.

For a time Zimbabwe had been seen as a potential vaccine tourism destination, with private clinics offering shots for US$70 or more, and South African travel agencies offering pricey vaccination travel packages. However, with current shortages, this has all stopped for now.

Meanwhile, companies such as Tongaat Hullett who run the huge sugar estates are offering shots to workers, as there has been a local peak in infections on the estates, with worker compounds closed down and put into quarantine. Again, this is linked to the season and the greater movement of people associated with cane cutting.  

The discussion in our team and amongst informants across our sites on vaccination continues. Many views are expressed:

  • Some complain that agricultural extension workers are not treated as front-line workers and do not get priority on the vaccination lists like doctors and nurses, yet they have to have face-to-face contact on a regular basis and must travel over wider areas. These individuals are keen to get a shot but have failed so far.
  • Others say that since deaths remain low and that the surge will likely abate after the marketing season and when the weather warms up, then they don’t mind and will wait for an more effective vaccine. They argue that these vaccines are not fully protective like the ones for measles, diphtheria and so on that Zimbabweans are very familiar with and many can name a case where someone vaccinated gets it again.
  • There are some who argue that the situation is nothing like that experienced with AIDS when burials were happening daily and everyone was affected, and yet, they comment, we survived that without a vaccine and through changing behaviours and practices over time.
  • Still others say it’s like any other severe ‘flu and we must learn to live with it, using local remedies. It’s clearly now endemic and it will be part of our winter experience forever.

Just like in discussions across the world, there are plenty of views, each with their own evidence and case studies to share. Complexity, uncertainty and contested interpretations of both science and experience remain the order of the day.

Lockdown responses

The return of a lockdown is creating real concerns. The memories of the suffering from 2020 are fresh. This is especially challenging now as this is the main season for marketing horticultural products. Transporters can only start moving after 6am due to the curfew, meaning fresh, perishable products can only get to market late. And in the evening they want to move their transport out of town before 6pm for fear of getting vehicles impounded. This constrains the marketing day and for farmers reduces income.

In the past weeks, there has been an increase in direct contracting to local supermarkets, as markets have been closed down. This is only available to some and often means lower prices, even if a market is guaranteed. Wider business dependent on agriculture and dependent on farmers buying things are suffering as business hours and movement is restricted once again. It is back to the bad old days of 2020, with businesses laying off people or closing, and farmers suffering.

The importance of real-time reflections

This is the fifteenth contribution to our real-time monitoring and reflection of the pandemic in rural Zimbabwe. It is far from a linear story and there are many contested views and diverse experiences. Without such in-depth, real-time information it is difficult to make an assessment, and so difficult to learn lessons. Lots of studies are emerging right now that offer definitive statements from snapshot and circumscribed surveys, including from rural Africa. What our tracking has shown is that these are inadequate.

A fuller understanding of this pandemic in all its dimensions will only emerge in time, and we will continue our regular reflections, so watch out for the next blog in about a month.

Written by: Loveness Msofi Mgalamadzi

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected lives and livelihoods around the world, and Malawi is no exception. This blog explores the social and food security issues arising from the implementation of COVID-19 preventive measures at household level in the country.


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented impacts that have affected most aspects of people’s lives. As cases rose and the world became increasingly anxious, many countries started implementing measures to prevent the disease, such as border closures. Malawi declared a state of disaster on March 20, 2020. The first case was confirmed on April 2, 2020 and as of 19th March 2021, there were 33,174 confirmed cases with about 4,101 active cases, 27,847 recoveries and 1,092 deaths.

After cases were detected, the country moved to enforce a nationwide lockdown aimed at restricting movement and enforcing adherence to prevention measures. However, the public argued that the country was not prepared for a lockdown, especially among many Malawians who live on “hand-to-mouth” basis, and protests went so far as to obtain a court order stopping the government from enforcing the lockdown. Further, any move to impose a lockdown was perceived to be politically orchestrated, related to impending elections.

Despite the lack of a nationwide lockdown, different measures were implemented at individual, household, community, workplace and national level which came at a cost, and impacted social networks, economic activities and the population’s psychological wellbeing.

Study details

A study commissioned by Young African Researchers in Agriculture under the COVID-19, Food Systems and Rural Livelihood in Africa Programme was aimed at assessing the social and food security issues arising from the implementation of COVID-19 preventive measures. This study was conducted with the understanding that the pandemic not only affected economic activities, but also social networks which are crucial for food security at household level as social capital is one of the assets people use in pursuit of their daily livelihoods. The study also provides a different perspective of the pandemic’s effects as Malawi followed a unique approach to control the virus. The study used qualitative interviews with targeted urban and peri-urban dwellers. A questionnaire was sent out virtually to 114 respondents, with a 71% response rate.

Study findings

Most common COVID-19 preventive measures

Figure 1: Most common COVID-19 measures

The most common measures practiced include wearing a face mask, washing hands frequently, avoiding large group activities, staying at home, working from home and restricting visitors. These measures had several social implications affecting food availability. For example, wearing a face mask has become a precondition for accessing most public places and supermarkets in which individuals must go to purchase food. At the beginning of the pandemic, face masks were expensive, costing about US$1.03, and therefore posed an economic challenge for low-income households. However, prices have since dropped to US$0.23 with hand-made and washable cloth masks also available.

Food market purchases crucial during COVID-19

The study established that the majority of participants access food through purchases at local markets and supermarkets within their locality. However, the pandemic affected the frequency of visits to these markets because, as noted above, people preferred staying at home and avoiding large groups. Before the pandemic, participants could typically make one visit per week to the market, but during the pandemic, they visit the markets just once a month. This, in turn, affected their food availability and choices, as some foods are perishable and because they could not go certain places where specific foods are sold.

Food production is indirectly affected by reduced economic activity

As the majority of participants access food through purchases, rather than producing it themselves, their food production was not directly affected. However, some indicated that reduced economic activities and reduced interaction with parents, as a result of COVID-19 measures, affected their parents’ and relatives’ potential production activities. The majority of participants (63%) indicated they are bread winners for their parents and other relatives.

“Reduced visits to my dependents has affected the frequency of support that I give to them, which is mostly on food and production resources,” said one respondent.

Measures such as staying at home or working from home to avoid large groupings also affected interactions with peers and other relations who were potential sources of food.

Extension services were also affected, as extension workers were unable to visit farmers. This lack of contact between extension workers and farmers can signal lower harvests in the next growing season, which has implications for long-term food security.

Closure of schools meant that children stayed at home for a much longer time, increasing expenditures on food and, among those learning from home through online means, increasing internet costs, hence straining an already reduced budget on food further. This also meant that parents and guardians were spending time helping their children with school work, reducing their economic activities even more.

Social conflicts increasing with COVID-19

Other impacts of COVID-19 reported include incidences of discrimination, as reported by about 72% of respondents. This discrimination is especially towards those wearing masks, coughing, and who have had the disease, as well as returnees from abroad. “Those infected are isolated even after the disease, and are considered infectious by society even after being declared virus free,” one respondent said.

Those discriminated against were unable to go to spaces where they can access food, and their relations were unwilling to come near them for fear of contracting the disease, which deprived them of interactions important for economic activities and food access. Church closures also held challenges, as some participants indicated that they get a lot of help from church colleagues with access to food.


The study aimed to understand social issues arising due to COVID-19 measures such as face masks, washing hands, staying home and avoiding large groupings, and how these social issues impact food security. These measures brought about disruptions in social networking which had consequent impacts on food availability, access and choices. For example, we found that the measures resulted in reduced economic activities which constrained household income and therefore reduced access to food and food choices. Other examples include reduced visits of children to their parents and trips to food markets, and various social impacts such as stigma and discrimination, teenage pregnancies and early marriages, and disruption of religious activities.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 situation looks uncertain, with localised outbreaks and a rise in infections south of the Limpopo in South Africa. On June 11 there were 191 new cases (including 82 that were reported late) and 3 deaths reported, making a cumulative total of 39,688 cases and 1,629 deaths and a current seven-day rolling average new case rate of 77 per day, with a discernible upward trend. Vaccination rates are increasing, but very slowly and somewhat chaotically with 691,251 vaccinated so far.

On June 12, Vice-President and health minister, Constantino Chiwenga, imposed new restrictions, with the banning of gatherings, the limiting of business hours, a stipulation that offices should only be half full and the prevention of moving to and from ‘hotspots’. This is a set-back as things had got largely back to ‘normal’ (whatever that is) in the previous weeks. Across our sites people had got back to work. It’s harvest season and markets have been open, with the selling of grains, tobacco, beans and horticulture happening across all sites. Meanwhile in the sugar estates it’s cane cutting season, with much activity and movement of people to provide temporary labour.

With so many people gathering at marketing points and traders, labourers and transporters, the fear was that these could become sites of infection, hence the recent move. Larger gatherings of churches, farmer field days, training events, funerals and so on were previously allowed if not exceeding 50 people, but are now either banned or have a reduction in permitted numbers. While these regulations were sometimes not kept to, as of last week our team report no major COVID-19 problems in any of our rural sites across the country, although the worry is that this may yet change.

The national pattern currently seems to be small, focused outbreaks that are dealt with by Ministry of Health ‘rapid response teams’ that operate in each of the provinces, coordinated through the district COVID-19 taskforces, which has membership from across sectors. The most recent such outbreak near our sites was at Bondolfi teachers’ college where there were a number of cases reported. Isolation and quarantining seem to have stopped further spread fortunately and all are now recovered.

Currently there are concerns in Kariba where the district taskforce has been targeting ‘houseboat gigs’ and shebeens where many gather to drink and are spreading infection. Last Saturday a lockdown was announced for Hurungwe and Kariba districts due to 40 new cases being identified, with movements in and out of the districts restricted and a process of contact tracing is ongoing. The fear of course is that such hotspots will spread.

Variants and vaccines

Like other parts of the world, the concern is with the potential impact of new variants. So far there has been one outbreak of the Indian-origin delta variant in Kwekwe. Someone returning from India had infected a number of people and a local lockdown has occurred and been extended, again hopefully stopping further spread.

However, borders remain open, although restrictions and requirements for testing have been increased this last weekend. There is some testing, but also lots of reports of fake test certificates, with some in Mpilo hospital arrested, so it is difficult to see how the spread of variants, as elsewhere in the world, will be stopped, even if spread can be slowed.

The vaccination programme has run into difficulties with demand exceeding supply in some places, although the opposite in others. The ministry has admitted problems with distribution and administration. The main vaccines remain the Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac shots (and some Indian ones too). Promises of others from Western aid programmes seem not to have been fulfilled as yet, while the Zimbabwe government has been showing caution around the US/Belgian Johnson and Johnson vaccine, perhaps part of the on-going tussle with Western powers. Meanwhile, as part of the continued frenzied vaccine diplomacy, the president received the first delivery of 25,000 Russian Sputnik V vaccine doses at the end of last week, donated by a diamond mining company. Vaccines clearly have important soft power.

Vaccine hesitancy remains, fuelled by much misinformation through the online media, WhatsApp messages and so on. But the big issue seems to be delivery and the capacity of the over-stretched health service to delivery. The ministry correctly is keeping up with its regular vaccination programmes, and the current polio vaccination drive is occupying staff and taking them away from COVID-19 vaccination.

Our informants noted that they can arrive at a clinic and be turned away as the health staff are busy, even if there are COVID-19 vaccines there. Given the lack of incidence in our study areas, there is little urgency felt and many argue that local remedies – from local herbs and leaves to lemons, garlic and ginger – used for teas and steaming are sufficient. The cost of lemons apparently is soaring, and there are many new businesses packaging teas and juices to combat COVID-19.

Markets are open, business is back

Unlike last year when the harvest season was very difficult, this year there has been much more opportunity. In Mvurwi, tobacco marketing has been in full swing across a number of auction floors, and the trading companies are busy. Transporters are moving crops around and there has been a thriving business in the areas where people gather to market their crops, as prepared food is sold and groceries exchanged through a myriad of traders. As of 12 June, this is now banned as vending in and around tobacco auction floors is prohibited and a maximum of two sellers per delivery is allowed.

Maize and soybean marketing is underway too, but the government buyer – the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) – while offering higher prices has distant depots, pays in local currency (RTGS) and the cost of transportation is high. Instead, informal traders come to the farms, exchanging goods, notably groceries, for maize in particular. This means maize goes for USD 3 per bucket not the equivalent of USD 6.

While farmers complain about being ripped off, the provision of goods locally and the ease of marketing/transport is clearly beneficial. And the growth of informal trade provides jobs and sources of income for a whole range of people, especially women and younger people. 

The cold season is traditionally a focus for horticultural production but some producers, particularly in Chatsworth-Gutu area, have been hit by frost, with large amounts of produce destroyed. In the same way, livestock have been affected be tick diseases this year, due to the plentiful rains. Despite it being the dry season now, this continues to be a problem in some of our sites, and owners are selling off sick cattle before they die and so flooding the market and suppressing prices.

Despite these challenges, the marketing difficulties for farmers of the earlier COVID-19 lockdown periods have declined and all value chains for different crops are re-emerging, with vendors, traders, transporters and others all returning to support agriculture and the marketing of products across our sites.

However, the form, composition and location of these value chains are changing. Agricultural markets are now more localised, involve a greater diversity of people with exchange and barter being important and formal sales to outfits like the GMB on the decline. In time it may be that the more formal connections are re-established with the big players returning to dominate and control the market from farm sales to retail, but for now the COVID-19 shock seems to have reconfigured markets in favour of multiple, local players, with important effects on local economies, with value distributed across agricultural marketing chains.

Small towns are benefiting

This explosion of local economic activity is seen especially in small towns. In the two previous blogs (here and here), and in our paper in the European Journal of Development Research, the implications of land reform on small town growth has been emphasised, based on work in Mvruwi, Chatsworth and Maphisa over the past five years or so. This pattern has been accelerated by the effects of the pandemic.

With transport restricted by lockdowns and curfews and endless rent-seeking by the police on the roads, there has been a move to local marketing arrangements, often small-scale and involving informal, sometimes barter, arrangements. Women and young people without land are especially involved, and their improved spending power is seen in the rise of local retail outlets in small towns offering basic goods and groceries. While lockdowns affected the operation of food outlets and many other businesses, as we have discussed many times in our blogs on COVID-19 impacts since March 2020, there has been a rebounding of activity; although with the recent announcement business hours are again restricted to 8am to 6pm, with all markets closing at 6pm and bottle stores two hours earlier.

Unlike larger businesses with a single operation, many of those involved in trade in small towns operate at a small scale and have other activities in play. Many business people in the small towns we’ve been researching had land reform farm plots and could diversify when their businesses were restricted, but now they’re very much back.

There are health restrictions in place – sanitisation and mask wearing is encouraged and large crowds are banned – but in the absence of cases and with the fear of COVID having receded from earlier periods, there is a much more lax attitude to restrictions in all our sites according to our team. This may not last if the spread of COVID-19 continues in South Africa, but for now small town business is thriving again.

The shortening of value chains and the focus on local economic activity is also reflected in investments by larger agricultural businesses. For example, in Mvurwi, an important centre for tobacco growing, tobacco companies have invested in new floors, with impressive new structures being built.

Since people couldn’t move during lockdown, they had to come nearer to the farmers. And the firms have clearly judged that this situation is permanent, with significant benefits for the efficiency of marketing and access to high quality tobacco leaf. There are now eight trading floors operating in the town, up from one earlier, ranging from the big players (ZLT, MTC, Boka) to newer companies (Boost Africa, Sub Sahara etc.). This move to local investment is reflected in the multiplication of banks in the town too. There are now six banks operating, where there were only three before. This allows farmers to gain finance, pay in sales receipts and manage their income much more easily, with the banks benefiting too.

Even in areas that don’t have such an intensive, cash-oriented commercial agriculture, there are other similar developments towards a localisation of the economy. For example near Wondedzo, because people could not travel to Masvingo, Gweru or Harare to get seedlings for horticultural operations, a number of new business have emerged, based in the rural areas. Near Zimuto Mission, for example, Mrs Z has started producing seedlings, including of rape, cabbage, tomato and so on, with a vibrant local market. The same applies to Mr B’s business in Chatsworth, again supplying seedlings to the local horticultural market, replacing the mainstream suppliers, and making serious money by all accounts. 

Localising economies

We are very far from a post-COVID situation in Zimbabwe, and must await a wider vaccination effort, with help from the world beyond China being essential. However, there are glimpses of what this might look like. The growth of informal markets, the localisation of economic activity, the expansion of rural-based businesses and the continued growth of small towns as centres of exchange and trade in rural settings are all central elements.

These are all features that have dominated Zimbabwe’s rural areas since land reform. Sometimes denigrated and dismissed as not the supposed ideal of what existed before, but maybe this transformation has been the basis for survival during the pandemic, and provides the basis for an on-going shift to a more flourishing, localised economy linked to agriculture into the future. 

Written by Vicentia Quartey

The findings of a recent APRA Ghana research project were shared with a range of stakeholders at a dissemination event on Wednesday, 17 March 2021 in Takoradi, Ghana. This workshop included a discussion of the team’s research and the implications of these findings. The outcome of discussions will be incorporated into subsequent analyses and reports on the APRA project, and contribute to informing policy and practices related to rural development, empowerment of women and girls, and food and nutrition security. This will ensure that this research is used to inform effective and relevant policy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced events that would typically be held in person to move online. While this shift is positive in some regards, it is not without limitations, notably the missed opportunity for networking and the spontaneous exchanges that in-person events afford.

Faced with an expectant stakeholder community of research participants eager to learn about the outcome of the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) project to which they contributed, including smallholder farmers, oil palm companies and policymakers, it was essential that an accessible, timely dissemination event was organised. Challenges such as the smallholder farmers’ rural locations and limited or lack of access to online meeting technologies meant that this event also needed to be held locally, with an extended reach to the wider community. The key objective was to achieve an event that’s accessible – in terms of both language and reach – to our wide-ranging stakeholders at the local and the national level.

Our efforts –  planning an event responsive to the peculiar needs of all stakeholder groups – paid off. The result: a well-attended, COVID-safe, and accessible event that received coverage in regional and national media, providing an appropriate platform to disseminate our project findings.

Lessons learned

Organising a successful in-person event during COVID had its share of challenges, but we learned lessons throughout the process, and can now share advice to others hoping to achieve the same:

Choose a convenient location: To ensure maximum participation of research participants (end users of findings), we made the decision to hold the event in Takoradi, the capital town of the Western Region of Ghana, home to respondent communities. For us, this meant making the long, but totally worthwhile, three to four-hour road trip outside Accra. In Takoradi, we again chose a central location, the Western Regional Library, as it is both well-known and easily accessible.

These efforts not only secured maximum stakeholder attendance (by reducing travel time and effort), it also demonstrated our commitment to the pledge we made to return to respondent communities and share our findings, giving them the opportunity to make their voices heard.  The latter point is especially critical to building sustained stakeholder relationships and minimising incidences of research fatigue among respondent communities.

As many participants noted: “Researchers always approach us with research questionnaires and hardly return with feedback. We are happy that you came back to share findings and engage with us.”

Use accessible language: Aside from summarising results in reasonably non-technical language, we also ensured there was local language translation, volunteered by one of the stakeholders. This, coupled with the generally flexible and relaxed atmosphere of the workshop, allowed us to connect more effectively with participants and vice versa, making for very interactive sessions.

Mr Abass Mohammed, Ag. District Agric Director, provides local language translation support [Credit: Vicentia Quartey]

Involve the media: While we limited in-person participation to selected stakeholders only, as COVID-19 protocols oblige, we made sure to engage media representatives who had the capacity to provide coverage in local as well as national media. We granted interviews and provided additional information needed to facilitate reportage, and ensure that outcomes of the research and discussions are extended to the wider community.

Bringing it all together: Finally, it is advisable to get support. In this case, we engaged logistics and communications support, which saved us lots of time and proved helpful in ensuring a smooth and seamless coordination of the various aspects, players and stages of the event towards successful outcomes.

The research team (l – r): Dr Fred Dzanku, Dr Kofi Asante, and Louis Hodey [Credit: Vicentia Quartey]

See selected online reports, here: Ghana News Agency; My Joy Online

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Half a million people have now been vaccinated in Zimbabwe, but this is still only 3.5% of the population. The Chinese Sinopharm vaccine has now been fully approved by the WHO for emergency use and Zimbabwe’s vaccination drive is in full swing. Even tourists from South Africa are taking advantage of vaccine availability for a fee. However, there have been hitches and hesitancy, and despite widespread adherence to basic hygiene/sanitisation measures, there is a general relaxation on social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention measures after so many months of restrictions.

It is perhaps not surprising that things have relaxed since the peak of the lockdown periods, given that case rates are low and recorded recoveries are high. The total number of cases recorded in Zimbabwe by 7 May was 38,403, while the number of registered deaths was 1,576. Compared to many other countries, this remains very low; although of course these are likely underestimates. And the effects of COVID-19 are very uneven geographically and socially too, with most cases and deaths recorded in Harare and Bulawayo and especially among relative elites. The rural areas where our team live and work remain largely unscathed by the virus.

Relaxed measures, but livelihood challenges remain  

In the rural areas, as our team reported in a conversation last week (this is the twelfth update in our COVID-19 blog series since March 2020), coronavirus is not the major concern. It is a busy time due to harvesting after a good season and, with the seasons changing, many are complaining of colds and ‘flus as the weather becomes colder. Livestock diseases continue to cause problems after the very wet periods, with the lumpy skin outbreak in Matabeleland causing havoc.

While there are fewer restrictions these days and no curfews, there’s still a lockdown and there are notional restrictions of business hours, although many do not observe these. Large gatherings remain banned, but there are plenty of drinking spots where people gather in numbers. Many have returned to normal business, although transport remains limited as private operators remain restricted.

Despite the relaxation, the police are always ready to extract bribes, and moving about remains a hassle. Informal gatherings for beer drinking are regularly raided, but those hosting these often have made advance deals with the police or can pay them off. Movement across borders for trade is especially challenging as there are so many requirements for tests, certificates and loads of paperwork. There is a steady business in forgeries and bribing of officials is apparently commonplace; although there have been some arrests of truck drivers and others for flouting the regulations.

In the rural areas, while the harvest has been good the lack of other sources of income is a challenge. Many have started small agricultural projects – vegetable growing, selling of chickens and so on – and there has been a proliferation of small tuck-shops in everywhere from labour compounds to the smallest village settlement. As one farmer commented, “We used to go to town for shopping, but now there is no need, as everything is here!” With the good harvest and the surplus of agricultural produce in all our sites, farmers’ clubs have been revived to allow for collective selling and helping farmers to source inputs.

Remittances remain important across our sites but have declined, especially from South Africa and Botswana. Many who returned from there during the COVID peak across the border have remained in rural Zimbabwe, unable to return. In our Matobo site in Matabeleland South migrants have become stuck, so have had to find other sources of income as they do not necessarily have their own fields. There has as a result been a massive increase in informal artisanal mining in the area, with many villagers profiting from selling food and renting out blankets for the filtration of sediment. This is mostly taken up by women who are making a steady profit, as apparently 600 Rand can be earned from a careful washing of each blanket rented to miners, retrieving the last bits of gold.   

Schools remain open, but many are working with staggered attendance. This means kids attend only two or three days in the week, with the burden of extra care falling on women. Some have sought out places in boarding schools, as the regimes are stricter and a more complete education can be offered, but in the rural areas this is only possible for those who have got good harvests and income, and this is especially in the tobacco areas.

Vaccine hesitancy and supply challenges

After the high-profile arrival of the Chinese vaccine and the televised inoculation of senior political figures, the rollout has continued across the country. Initially the focus was on ‘front-line’ workers, mostly health workers, and then the elderly were focused on. Now a wider population can get vaccinated, but the take-up is still patchy, a pattern repeated across Africa.

As reported before, many are worried about the vaccine. They have heard of blood clots from vaccines in other parts of the world (mostly the UK), and fear the same will happen to them. This may after all be a plot by foreigners to kill Africans, some argue. People wonder why those who produce so many of these vaccines – such as India and Europe – have been so badly affected. Maybe these vaccines don’t work? And in any case, with so little COVID around, why bother, especially as our local herbs and medicines seem to work well. Some of the religiously inclined argue that the great pestilence of COVID is just a sign that the second coming of Christ is imminent, and we should not worry but celebrate. And of course the rounds of social media rumours reinforce concerns and worries for many.

In our sites there have been no reports of vaccine side-effects but uptake even amongst health workers has been below 50% so far. Of the others, it seems to be mostly women who have been coming forward, along with older people. However, getting a vaccine is not always straightforward. Supplies have been uneven, so clinics may have run out, and a clinic may be 20 kilometres walk away. Many feel that it is not worth the effort of going so far. The idea of mobile delivery like other health outreach was recommended by some, arguing that this will get more to take the vaccine and the vaccines can be kept in cooler boxes for the day.

Across our sites, the availability, delivery and acceptance of vaccines is the highest in Hippo Valley. Here the major hospitals in Hippo Valley and Triangle are run by the sugar company, Tongaat Hullett. Workers on the estates, as well as contract farmers, have taken up the vaccine in droves. In part the supply is better, but some commented that they feared the company discriminating against them if they didn’t have a shot. Either they might lose their job or they might not be able to get access to company services. On the estate, a different set of rules applies.

Across the country, including widely in the rural areas in all our sites, there is on-going promotion of vaccination and other mitigation measures by the government, some churches, NGOs and others, and overall the general understanding of the disease and its prevention is high. Contrary to the politicised narrative from the urban areas about the clampdown on civil society (which certainly has happened), by-and-large people think the government is doing the best it can – a finding echoed in a large survey mostly of urban dwellers in February.

While the official media pumps out health messages, people confront many other sources of information via WhatsApp, Facebook and so on. There are parallel messages, with people often getting confused or anxious, particularly around vaccines.  Vaccine rumours abound, and it is difficult for most to sift fact from fiction. One rumour was set off in our Matobo site that the vaccine also prevented HIV/AIDS and there was a flood of people turning up at clinics until the rumour was dismissed. It is clear that HIV/AIDS still remains a much more live concern for many than COVID-19.

Life continues, but fears on the horizon

The big fear in Zimbabwe as elsewhere is the prospect of new variants. No-one wants to return to a full lockdown and as everywhere people have viewed the scenes from India with horror. The leaky borders, the dodgy certificates, the prospect of flows of refugees from the conflict in northern Mozambique and the opening up of international travel are all sources of concern. But meanwhile, people in our sites must get on with their livelihoods, generating a living in a challenging economy. There is a harvest to bring in and sell, gold to mine, vegetables to sell and livestock to look after. Rural life in Zimbabwe continues, despite the pandemic.

Written by Toendepi Shonhe

In this blog summarising APRA Working Paper 55, Toendepi Shonhe discusses the growing prevalence of informal tobacco aggregators, their impact on farmers’ wealth accumulation potential and the changes in this value chain since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shonhe also assesses how Zimbabwe’s government can address the challenges in the chain.

The financing and marketing channels for tobacco, a crop responsible for over 24% of foreign currency earnings annually in Zimbabwe, are central to its production and circulation in the country. Reports indicate that farmers who are financed through contract farming tend to secure better prices compared to independent growers, and so tobacco financing is reportedly now dominated by this system. For example, by Week 53 of the 2020 marketing season, at least 94% of tobacco purchased was marketed under contract farming. However, our APRA survey administered in Mvurwi farming area in Mazowe (2017–2020), shows that as low as 13.5% of the communal area farmers, 17.5% of A1 farmers and 35.9% of A2 farmers actually grew the crop under the contract farming system.

How can such a significant majority of tobacco be marketed under contract farming, and yet so few farmers report actually growing under this arrangement? What can account for this ‘missing’ tobacco? This discrepancy indicates that many independent growers who self-finance their cropping programmes end up selling their crop through contract merchants, presumably because there are better prices offered. In other words, while they do not finance their activities through the contracting system, their end products are marketed and sold through this system.

The growth of the Makoronyera

An intricate and emergent tobacco marketing practice is distorting the tobacco value chain, creating new winners and losers and negatively affecting financial rewards for farmers. This practice is driven by informal tobacco aggregators – the Makoronyera –who buy tobacco and other crops directly from farmers, and have overtaken formal marketing arrangements.

The Makoronyera buyers disregard the government’s limit on foreign currency payment to farmers, which stipulates that only 60% of the value of the total tobacco sales may be paid in foreign currency, with the remaining balance being paid in Zimbabwean dollars. By offering the full value in foreign currency, albeit often at lower total prices, the Makoronyera lure farmers into selling their crops.

Within the context of COVID-19, farmers are exposed to more risks, which diminish their wealth accumulation potential. Many such risks are exacerbated by movement restrictions which mean that farmers are not present throughout the marketing and auction processes. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • The use of a complex matrix in calculating tobacco pricing enables buyers to manipulate prices. The inability of farmers to monitor the selling prices under COVID-19 exacerbates this.
  • Representatives of the farmers are given an opportunity to assess the sale of tobacco, but since the onset of COVID-19, as little as five minutes is allowed after the process has been concluded. This timeframe is inadequate for an effective assessment to be carried out.
  • Tobacco leaves of poor quality are often mixed with good quality tobacco to lower the prices without the farmers’ knowledge.
  • Disqualification of tobacco bales on the basis of only a few leaves that could instead be removed by the farmers, if they were present. This results in the need to regrade the tobacco and causes unnecessary additional costs or an unexplained
  • loss of weight.
  • Transporters are accused of making changes to tobacco bales during transportation.
  • Delayed payments due to the use of incorrect details, which farmers are unable to immediately correct as they are not present during the sale.
  • Stop order are created for farmers without their consent. This results in deductions being made upon the sale of tobacco without the farmers’ knowledge.
  • Some tobacco bales are getting lost and farmers are losing value due to their inability to effect timely follow-ups.
  • Deliberate exchange of price tags, which results in farmers being paid a lower value for the crop.

As a result of these challenges, the involvement of the Makoronyera has increased in the wake of COVID-19 because their engagement in the process has shifted the burden of transporting the crop to the auction floors away from the farmers. This responsibility is deemed worth the disadvantages of the significantly lower prices they offer and their unclear grading processes by farmers. The APRA survey shows that Makoronyera dominate the purchase of tobacco from farmers, with at least 52.1% of A1 farmers selling to these aggregators compared to 30.3% who sell directly through tobacco merchants. Only 17% now sell through the auction floors.

Finding loopholes

The Makoronyera may well be composed of some registered growers who choose to buy the crop and resell to tobacco merchants under contract farming. Some of them work for the merchants directly, so this crop is not recorded in the auction system, creating a loophole for informal processing and illicit production of cigarettes and well as the sale of the semi-processed produce to Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. Illegal exports are carried out through undesignated crossing points, and therefore Zimbabwe faces losses of export taxes and foreign currency to syndicates.

Studies show that registered tobacco companies are responsible for the bulk of the illegal export of the produce, thus circumventing the payment of export taxes and depriving the country of much needed foreign currency. Millions are lost through mispricing and illegal exports, and so are employment opportunities in local value chains. The government should consider options for increasing the level of retention of foreign currency for growers to curb the incidence of Makoronyera. The disappearing of tobacco, now being exacerbated by COVID-19, undermines the prospects for farmers’ wealth accumulation. The government must prioritise revisiting the marketing framework to avoid exploitation of the producers and thus stop leakages at the national level, as this practice undermines rural and agricultural development in the country-side.

Written by Ntengua S.Y. Mdoe and Glead I. Mlay

This paper presents the political economy of rice commercialisation in Tanzania. It is based on a review of trade policies, regulations, strategies, and programmes implemented since the 1960s to promote rice commercialisation, and the views of key informants. Key findings that emerge from the review of literature and key informant interviews indicate that the performance of the value chain over time has been negatively affected by the combined effects of the policies, regulations, strategies, and programmes implemented concurrently.

Written by Blessings Chinsinga and Mirriam Matita

This paper explores the political economy of the groundnut value chain in Malawi. The paper uses a combination of insights from the theoretical perspectives of political settlement, rents and policymaking to examine this value chain. Fused together, these theoretical perspectives underpin a political economy analysis framework, which entails systematically mapping all key actors in an issue area; identifying their interests and recognising their forms of power (political, economic, social, and ideological); understanding their relationships with each other; and appreciating the issues, narratives, and ideas that shape how and why they interact with each other.

Written by Toendepi Shonhe

This paper analyses the global commodity circuits – value chains – for maize and tobacco in Zimbabwe, in the context of a reconfigured agrarian economy and COVID-19 induced shocks. The study focuses on the political economy dynamics of agricultural commodity circuits to reveal how they can contribute to understanding the drivers and constraints of agricultural commercialisation in Zimbabwe. This paper traces the circuits of maize and tobacco, the two major crops for food security and foreign currency earnings in Zimbabwe.

Written by Kofi Takyi Asante

Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is of strategic importance to the Ghanaian economy. It is the second most important industrial crop after cocoa and is used widely in local food preparation as well as in industrial processing. In spite of its importance, however, oil palm has consistently underperformed since the early twentieth century. This paper conducts a value chain analysis of the crop, foregrounding the political economy factors that shape the performance of the sector. It draws on a combination of in-depth interviews conducted in March 2020 with a variety of value chain actors and a review of the secondary literature. Additionally, between late May and early June 2020, twelve further interviews were conducted as part of a rapid market survey to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the value chain.

Written by, Joseph Kofi Teye and Ebenezer Nikoi.

The cocoa sector has, historically, been the backbone of the Ghanaian economy. Many households depend directly on the cocoa sector for livelihoods, and aspects of the cocoa industry, such as input supplies to farmers and cocoa pricing, have historically featured prominently in national and local politics. This paper examines the basic underlying political economy dynamics of the cocoa value chain, with particular focus on how the interests, powers and interactions of various actors along the value chain have contributed to agricultural commercialisation in Ghana. The paper also explores the challenges affecting the cocoa value chain, social difference within the chain, and how various segments of the cocoa value chain have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in Ghana since March 2020.

By Emmanuel Remi Aiyede

In this blog summarising his research in the newly published in APRA Working Paper 52, APRA researcher Emmanuel Remi Aiyede highlights the challenges facing the rice and cocoa sector in Nigeria. He outlines the findings from the paper, how COVID-19 has impacted the value chains, and provides policy advice on how Nigerian governments can improve the outlook for these two core agricultural crops.

Since the 1980s, Nigeria has sought to diversify its economy away from dependence on oil as a major source of government revenue through agricultural commercialisation. Agriculture has been chosen as a priority sector because of its very high growth potential, and opportunities to provide widespread employment and create export revenue for the government. The cocoa and rice value chains are central to the government’s engagement with agriculture to achieve these objectives.

Cocoa is Nigeria’s major agricultural export, while rice is a major staple for food security. In this study, I investigated the underlying political economy dynamics of the commercialisation of the cocoa and rice value chains in Nigeria. Using the political settlement theory – that is assuming leaders, elites, coalitions, and their followers reach agreements about the political conditions and practices they will observe – I study agricultural commercialisation in terms of (1) smallholder farm households’ shift from semi-subsistence agriculture to production primarily for the market, and (2) predominantly commercial medium- or large-scale farm enterprises complementing or replacing smallholder farm households. While carrying out the study, I examined key secondary sources pertaining to cocoa and rice value chains in Nigeria, as well as recent policies and regulations that govern the value chains. These were complemented with official statistics regarding the structure and performance of the value chains. Additional data was drawn from in- depth interviews with knowledgeable actors, including federal and state government officials, donor agencies, rice and cocoa farmers’ organisations, processors, fertiliser and seedling suppliers, agribusinesses across the rice and cocoa value chains, and academics from the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture.


I found a consensus among policymakers to promote agricultural commercialisation in Nigeria, which can be traced back to the adoption of structural adjustment in the 1986. Pressures to increase the foreign exchange earnings of agricultural products and the need for food security have ensured that a policy of commercialised agriculture has been sustained since the 1980s

The national government has invested its power and resources more in the commercialisation of the rice value chain compared to cocoa. The goal to achieve food security seems to have placed rice above cocoa in terms of government intervention to support primary production in these value chains. Rice is a staple food with a huge gap between domestic production and demand. It is grown more widely than cocoa across Nigeria’s states. Successive governments have sought to make the country self-sufficient by substituting rice imports with domestic production. Thus, commercialisation of the rice value chain is driven by rising urban markets and the government’s goal to substitute imports with local production. Large-scale investors are driving the development of the rice value chain, which is helping to improve the livelihoods of smallholders.  Even so, Nigeria has not been able to close the huge gap between consumption and local supply of rice.

Unlike rice, however, which is a staple, cocoa products cannot command a large market in an economy that has a very large population of poor people. It is therefore difficult for the government to create a local market for cocoa production, since it lacks control over the consumption end of the chain. A few transnational companies such as Barry Callebaut, Cargill, Olam/ADM and Blommer Chocolate Company, continue to dominate the downstream sector of the cocoa value chain. Smallholder farmers face structural poverty, are largely poorly organised, and voiceless in terms of price transmission, power, and influence in chain decision making.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s response have had mixed consequences on the rice and cocoa value chains in Nigeria, and some of these are still unfolding. For rice, the lockdown and fear of the pandemic has been the major challenge, while the increasing demand for food and government desire for palliatives (food) have benefited producers and processors. The cocoa value chain has been affected by the shrinking export market in Europe and other importing countries, which are currently experiencing lockdowns. The lockdown has created modest logistic problems for local input supplies and farm labour. Although governments have provided exceptions to the movement of agricultural produce, enforcement has been difficult.

Policy implications

To improve the performance of the rice value chain, Nigeria needs to address low input farming practices and inadequate, or poor, use of fertilisers and other agro-chemicals to enhance productivity. Nigeria will have to increase paddy production and improve the quality of rice processing to a level that is price competitive globally. The federal government has to sustain partnerships with donors to encourage state governments and large-scale businesses to mechanise and expand local production and processing of rice. The Nigerian governments should provide physical infrastructure and financial incentives to encourage investors to participate in the downstream and midstream segments of the cocoa value chain as a long-term government programme. For cocoa farming to thrive, Nigeria should encourage farmers to discard old production practices and embrace new technology, including drone service, grafting, tissue culture and drying technology. Nigeria should also inspire younger generations into cocoa farming and collaborate with international cocoa organisations to ensure the enforcement of sustainable cocoa initiatives to by transnational companies.

Photo credit: ICARDA

Written by, Emmanuel Remi Aiyede.

Nigeria has sought to diversify its economy away from dependence on oil as a major source of government revenue through agricultural commercialisation. Agriculture has been a priority sector because it has very high growth potential and the greatest potential for employment and export revenue. The cocoa and rice value chains are central to the government’s engagement with agriculture to achieve these objectives. This paper sets out to investigate the underlying political economy dynamics of the commercialisation of the cocoa and rice value chains in Nigeria in terms of smallholder farm households’ shift from semi-subsistence agriculture to production primarily for market, and predominantly commercial medium- and large-scale farm enterprises complementing or replacing smallholder farm households.

Written by, Dawit Alemu and Abebaw Assaye.

The goal of this working paper is to identify the core challenges that have contributed to the poor performance of Ethiopia’s rice sector, and highlight approaches to successfully promote the commercialisation of the rice value chain. The authors achieve this by emphasising the underlying political economy dynamics of the rice value chain in Ethiopia, and how these can offer a better understanding of the drivers and constraints of agricultural commercialisation in the country. The paper also discusses the performance of, and challenges faced by, actors involved in the rice value chain. In addition, it looks at the role of development partners in promoting the rice value chain, the role of rice in the rural labour market, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on the various actors.

Written by, Aida C. Isinika and John Jeckoniah.

This paper looks at the challenges and shortcomings facing the sunflower sub-sector in Tanzania. It showcases the political economy of sunflower based on analyses of the performance of the sector over a 30-year period since the early 1990s, also studying the relations between the importers of edible oil, and the local actors of the sunflower value chain (farmers and processors). In addition, the authors discuss how disparities in accessing resources for production were established across gender, age, wealth status, which led to social differentiation. Following this, they examine how restrictions introduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected activities and relations along the sunflower value chain.

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