Written by, Louis Hodey and Fred Dzanku.

This study seeks to assess the continuing impact of COVID-19 on food systems and livelihoods in south-western Ghana and provides insights obtained from household-level and key informant data in the second of three surveys conducted during October/November 2020. This second round (R2) survey involved 107 households of oil palm farmers (86 male-headed and 21 female-headed) and 5 key local informants in the Mpohor and Ahanta West Districts of the Western Region.

Written by, Abebaw Assaye and Dawit Alemu.

This report presents an assessment of the changes in effects of COVID-19 on agricultural commercialisation, food and nutrition security, labour and employment, and poverty and well-being in rural Ethiopia by comparing the results of a baseline household survey (R1) in late June 2020 with a follow-up survey (R2) in late October 2020. Data was collected from a stratified random sample of 106 smallholder rice farmer households (24 female and 82 male-headed) in five kebeles (villages) in the Fogera Plain
area of Amhara Region. Data was also collected through 25 key informant interviews conducted in the kebeles.

Written by, Adebayo B. Aromolaran and Milu Muyanga.

This study provides insights from a second survey assessing COVID-19 impacts on agricultural commercialisation, food and nutrition security, labour and employment, and well-being in rural Nigeria. Data for round 2 (R2) were collected between September and October 2020, from 109 households that were interviewed in mid-July (R1). Households were drawn from a stratified random sample from three Local Government Areas in Ogun State and two in Kaduna State. This survey data is complemented by insights from seven in-depth key informant interviews. This analysis compares COVID-19 effects in the second quarter and the third quarter of 2020, which corresponds to the first and second 3-month periods after Nigeria’s countrywide lockdown was put in place.

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

2020 has been quite a year in Zimbabwe and across the world. The blog has had two major series of posts, and this wrap-up features both – now with the links all working.

One series has followed the COVID-19 pandemic in Zimbabwe, and particularly the consequences of lockdown in rural areas. The blogs are based on discussions with our team based across the country – from Mwenezi to Matobo to Masvingo to Gutu to Mvurwi. The pandemic measures have radically reshaped the rural economy, with diverse impacts on different people. Heavy-handed clamp-downs have combined with (as ever) plenty of innovation and adaptation as people find ways of surviving. Luckily, despite dismal predictions, Zimbabwe has as yet not been heavily affected by the disease, a pattern seen in many parts of Africa. Why this is will be the focus of continuing discussion in the new year when this series will continue.

2020 has also seen the 20th anniversary of the fast-track land reform. Our surveys across Masvingo province have continued throughout the 20 years, documenting how livelihood changed in this turbulent period in Zimbabwe’s history, where economic collapse, political chaos and continuous sanctions preventing investment by Western development agencies have persisted. The other major blog series this year therefore presents of the results of our longitudinal studies looking at what has happened in A2 medium-scale farms, A1 self-contained, villagised and informal settlements across Masvingo. The story is fascinating yet complex, and the blogs present much data to show how there have been both important successes, but also major challenges.

Links to the two blog series are presented below. Additional themes discussed this year include commentary on the important compensation deal signed between former white commercial farmers, yet another blog on land tenure (given the on-going intransigence of the debate) and one on conservation and development in the Lowveld. A new paper on the history of commercial farming in Mvurwi was also highlighted.

As ever the blog has been widely read across the world, with many thousands of views, multiple subscribers and plenty of reposts, notably in The Zimbabwean and Chronicle newspapers. The blog will return in the new year with more evidence-based research and comment on agriculture and rural development in Zimbabwe and beyond. 

COVID-19 in Zimbabwe: a blog series

Women and young people in Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 economy, Nov 9

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“Know your epidemic”: Reflections from Zimbabwe, Sep 27

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Innovation in the pandemic: an update from ZimbabweSep 7

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Viral politics and economics in ZimbabweJul 27

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COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: ‘we are good at surviving, but things are really tough’Jun 15

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COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: a disaster for farmersApr 27

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Surviving COVID-19 in a fragile state: why social resilience is essentialMar 30

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Twenty years after Zimbabwe’s land reform: a blog series

20 years after Zimbabwe’s land reform: what does the future hold? Jun 29

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (summary and reflection)Jun 22

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A2 areas)Jun 8

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 informal settlements)Jun 1

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 villagised areas)May 25

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 self-contained areas)May 18

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on: Introduction to the blog series,May 11

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All photo credit: Ian Scoones

On Wednesday, December 16, 11.00 – 12:00 GMT, a one hour webinar ‘‘The impact of COVID-19 on food systems and rural livelihoods in Africa’ will feature two presentations by John Thompson (SSRP Deputy Director, IDS Fellow and CEO of the APRA Programme) and Imogen Bellwood-Howard (SSRP Member, IDS Fellow and APRA Researcher).

They will discuss recent APRA work, providing policy-relevant insights into the differential impact of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The presentations will be followed by a question and answer session chaired by Joseph Alcamo, Director of SSRP.

Visit our events page for more information. For more information about this event, please contact ssrp@sussex.ac.uk.

Feature photo credit: World Bank.

Following APRA Tanzania’s recent report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Tanzania in October, the team has presented further evidence of the effects of COVID-19 on agricultural value chains in Africa.

Researchers Aida Isinika, Ntengua Mdoe, Gideon Boniface, Gilead Mlay, Devotha Kilave, Christopher Magomba and John Jeckoniah attended the Agricultural Society of Tanzania (AGREST) 12th Scientific Conference in Dodoma, 2-4 December 2020, with the theme ‘Unleashing the potential of food systems to enhance intra-African agriculture trade.’

Gideon Boniface presents his paper. Credit: APRA Tanzania

On the opening day of the event, Gideon Boniface presented a paper on ‘Effect of COVID19 on agricultural value chains in Tanzania: The case of the rice value chain in Morogoro region’.  Several points were highlighted:

  • The COVID -19 crisis brought rice surplus due to significant reduction of trade from neighbouring countries;
  • Most traders now depend on the local market, which has also shrunk due to reduced income;
  • Farmers’ purchasing power has significantly declined;
  • 58% of the respondents reported a decline in their living standards;
  • Reduced rice paddy production next year;
  • Urgent  measures to be taken to address the liquidity problem facing farmers. 

The paper was also summarised in APRA Tanzania’s recent two part blog series ‘Rice value chain: has life returned to normal after lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in Tanzania?’ (Click here to read the blogs).

Conference in progress. Credit: Calvin Gwabara, SUA media

Ntengua Mdoe then presented a paper on ‘Youth participation in commercial rice farming in Kilombero Valley, Tanzania’.

On the second day of the event, Aida Isinika  presented a paper called ‘Rice exports, an untapped potential in Tanzania: Factors limiting rice commercialisation in Mngeta, Kilombero valley’.

The APRA presentations were amongst 38 scientific research papers presented to over 80 participants from across Tanzania who attended the conference, including academics, researchers, NGO representatives and government officials led by retired Prime Minister, Hon. Mizengo Pinda, who was the guest of honour.

Ntengua Mdoe welcomes retired Prime Minister, Hon. Mizengo Pinda. Credit: Calvin Gwabara, SUA media

Goals of conference

The theme of the conference was “Unleashing the Potential of food systems to enhance Intra-African Agricultural Trade.”  The outbreaks of the COVID-19 pandemic and the responses to the crisis has created deep structural problems in the way our food system works with the shrinkage of the global and local food supply in particular in many countries, which has resulted in a ‘food emergency’ being declared by the UN.

Conference organisers, AGREST, defined the “food emergency” as, first, the difference between rural and urban food prices due to the break in connection between the food supply in rural regions and the food demand in urban areas. Secondly, they highlighted smallholders’ restricted access to inputs, which disrupted preparations for subsequent production season. Thirdly, they underlined that agri-businesses only had a limited capability to cope with severe disruptions such, as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aida Isinika presents a gift to Hon. Pinda. Credit: Calvin Gwabara, SUAMEDIA

To respond to the situation and seek some answers, the following questions were posed in AGREST’s call for papers for presentation and discussion at the conference:

1. How should food systems be transformed to meet the rural and urban demands while ensuring sustainability?

2. What initiatives have been and or are being taken to ensure that food systems transformations contribute to the attainment of SDGs?

3. What kind of policy frameworks are needed to foster sustainable food systems?

4. How can we better nature domestic and intra-African Trade for improved resilience?

Group photo of AGREST conference attendees. Credit: Calvin Gwabara, SUAMEDIA

Other conferences attended by APRA

In what was a very busy week for APRA Tanzania, Ntengua Mdoe also presented two papers based on the APRA Study to the Tanzania Animal Science Association (TSAP) and the Tanzania Society of Agricultural Extension (TSAE), in Dodoma, 2-9 December 2020. The papers were:  “Agropastoralists and rice commercialisation in Kilombero valley, Tanzania”  for TSAP and  “The effects of formal education and agricultural extension on rice productivity in Kilombero valley:  Implications for agro-industrial development in Tanzania. 

Feature photo credit: Calvin Gwabara, SUAMEDIA

In part two of this blog series, APRA Tanzania researchers Ntengua Mdoe, Gilead Mlay and Gideon Boniface use data from follow-up interviews with raw rice traders and the hospitality business in Morogoro and Mbeye regions, before drawing a conclusion on the way forward.

For the first blog on their interviews with farmers, processors and input suppliers, click here.

This blog is linked to APRA Round One and Round Two country reports on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Tanzania.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Ntengua Mdoe, Gilead Mlay and Gideon Boniface

Part two: Experiences from follow up interviews with raw rice traders

Previous COVID-19 blogs have indicated that the Tanzanian Government’s decision to close educational institutions and suspend big social and other gatherings on 17th March 2020 to prevent the spread of the pandemic negatively affected rice businesses.

The decision to remove most of the control measures (listed in part one of this blog series) taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, effective from 29th June 2020, except the enforcement of the WHO health standards was well received by the rice value chain actors, including those who stepped out of the value chain. This blog highlights experiences of the value chain actors on the effect of the government decision on their businesses through follow-up interviews with the same actors interviewed in June 2020 as presented below

Effect on hospitality businesses  

The follow-up interviews conducted by the APRA Tanzania team covered owners of hospitality industry businesses, including hotels, restaurants and other eateries selling rice recipes in Morogoro municipality who were interviewed in June 2020 to determine the effect of COVID-19 control measures on their business. The control measures that affected their businesses included the closure of educational institutions, the ban on big social and other gatherings, restriction of international flights, and the enforcement of the WHO health standards (such as the costs associated with providing washing facilities for clients). 

The removal of the first three measures at the end June 2020 led to recovery of businesses in the hospitality industry. The interviewed businesses highlighted the positive effect of the government decision, as the number of customers has been increasing over time. However, they indicated the recovery is slow because of the following reasons:

  • Fear of the pandemic among potential customers is still prevailing.
  • Low purchasing power of potential customers resulting from low business during period with   COVID-19 control measures.
  • Travel restrictions prevailing in a number of counties with potential visitors to Tanzania especially tourists.
Rice traders in Morogoro waiting for customers. Credit: Gideon Boniface

Effect on domestic traders of raw rice

All categories of the interviewed domestic traders of raw rice reported that, contrary to the negative impact experienced before the removal of the COVID-19 control measures, they have been experiencing a slight increase in rice revenue due to an increase in the number of buyers and a slight increase in rice prices. On average, rice retail prices in Morogoro municipality have increased from TZS 1,300 ($0.56) per kg of grade 1 rice during COVID-19 to TZS 1,600 ($0.69) after the removal most of the COVID-19 control measures. However, prevailing prices of low quality rice grades remain unchanged.

Effect on inter-regional (export) traders

The experience of exporters of rice to neighbouring countries of Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Zambia, Malawi and DRC Congo on the effect of removal of COVID-19 control measures is mixed. Some processors have stopped exporting rice despite the removal of the cross-border physical barriers while others are still exporting, although in lower quantities than the pre-COVID period. The interviewed traders who are exporting rice to Zambia reported that the prevailing charge for a truck transporting rice across the Tanzania-Zambia border is more than twice the charge during the pre-COVID period – from TZS 300,000 ($ 128.21) to the prevailing charge of TZS 700,000 ($ 299.15) per 30 tons-truck.

Besides the high transport charges at the Tanzania borders, rice export trade has been affected by a decline in export demand. Most neighbouring countries are still restricting gatherings and movements that are affecting cross-border trade, implying that domestic traders will largely depend on local demand for rice, estimated at about 6 million tons, which is lower than the estimated current supply of about 8 million tons. Like the processors, they have piles of paddy and milled rice in their warehouses. Some of the exporters with processing facilities are resorting to provision of processing services.

A processor/exporter’s stock of paddy to be processed as rice export trade recovers. Credit: Gideon Boniface


Evidence from the follow-up interviews with the various actors in the rice value chain indicates that the business across the rice value chain is gradually returning back to normal after the government’s decision on 29th June 2020 to remove most of the restrictive measures taken to prevent the spread of the pandemic. However, this gradual revival suggests that a full recovery may take longer, not only due to the COVID19  control measures still existing in neighbouring countries that limit cross border trade, but also due to international travel restrictions in other foreign countries that limit visitors to Tanzania.

This suggests that it is unlikely that most of the businesses will be able to meet their operational costs and meet debt obligations. To sustain the rice business, the actors need liquidity support in terms of accessing and making good use of any government established survival fund for small businesses. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has funds earmarked for bailing out COVID-19 affected businesses. This should be complemented by a revision of the repayment terms of the funds borrowed by the businesses before the COVID-19 pandemic as directed by the Bank of Tanzania.

Regarding facilitation of cross-border trade, a regional committee has been established to coordinate the implementation of guidelines and facilitate the resolution of operational issues at borders during the COVID-19 pandemic. These guidelines include allowing cargo trucks to cross the borders if they submit certificates from the member state that they have been screened and are have no COVID-19 disease. What remains is authorities at the borders to fast track verification of the certificate to avoid delays at the borders.

Feature photo credit: Nkumi Mtimgwa/CIFOR

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

Following his blog on the winners and losers in livestock commercialisation in northern Kenya and the accompanying working paper, researcher, pastoral development and dryland management specialist Guyo Roba examines the impact of COVID-19 market risks, explaining how strengthening their resilience is a key priority.

Access this previous blog, and Working Paper 39, here.

This blog is linked to APRA Round One and Round Two country reports on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Kenya.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Guyo Roba

Livestock represent a marketable asset owned by pastoralists in northern Kenya, as well as other arid and semi-arid southern rangelands. Livestock marketing in these rural communities are highly personal exchanges, emphasised by more familiar relations between traders and pastoralists, particularly at the informal markets where the organisational structure or presence of authorities are minimal, and in a more controlled interactions at the formal markets. The latter offer opportunities for buyers and sellers to congregate in large numbers, and trade in substantial volumes. Although the numbers of market participants are usually very high in relatively vibrant markets that are locally referred to as “hot” markets, the number of both the market participants and animals transacted varies from one market to another.

Typically, transactions in these markets involve lengthy negotiations between buyers and sellers, while deals are usually sealed through closer social interactions that involve a seller and buyer holding hands, raising and releasing mid-way to signify closed deal(s). Since most local markets have actors with common ethnic identity, other kinship discussions also take place.  As such, markets also attract other people interested in dialogues that go beyond price negotiations to other exchanges related to the potential of grazing lands, animal health, and state of security in specific area. However, such ethnic connections cannot cushion pastoralists to deal with multiple risks, such as supply uncertainty, price volatility, high transaction costs, post-harvest losses and other market risks.

Livestock market, Marsabit County, Kenya. Credit: Fredrick Omondi

Common risks in livestock trade

Risks are common and highly unpredictable events that distinguish between success and failure in livestock trade. Risks occur at all stages of the marketing channel, from the purchase, collection stage through the transport to their final sale at a terminal market. Several attributes of livestock trade increase risks and the likelihood of losses, including live transportation, the high volume and value of animals moved, and the credit sales and possible payment default at the terminal markets. These risks applies to all, irrespective of the experience of a market actor, the scale and geographical scope of his/her trade activities or affiliation to a particular ethnic group.

In long-distance livestock trade, the risks increase towards the terminal markets. This include the risk of losing animal during the collection, the danger of the animal catching diseases while being hauled over long-distances, livestock thefts, loss from asphyxiation from poor and frequently overloaded conditions of livestock trucks. Weight loss or mortality is also more likely to occur when trucks are delayed for several hours at the multiple police roadblocks.

Although both pastoralists and local traders have adapted to mitigate common risks through strategies like collaboration on purchase and sales, pooling working capitals and sharing of information, the level of risks are aggravated with the emergence of COVID-19 pandemic, which is already disrupting food supply chains, including along pastoral value chains.

COVID-19 reinforces existing risks

The impacts of COVID-19 pandemic in pastoral areas of northern Kenya, due to transport restrictions and quarantine measures, are likely to impede the access of pastoralists to input and output markets, thereby decreasing their cash flow, profit margins and reinforced already precarious situation of pastoral and agro-pastoral households. Shortages of market labour due to COVID 19 travel restrictions have also widened, which could slow market activities, most notably for labour-intensive activity of collecting livestock prior to transportation to terminal markets.  COVID 19 movement restrictions have also affected the itineraries of traders from outside pastoral areas to visit and purchase animals. This has led to external traders offering relatively better prices to pastoralist.

Similarly, the closure of international transport routes, particularly the sheep and goats export to Middle East countries may also result in reduced incomes for traders, livestock keepers and other actors along the meat export supply chains. So far, Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait have all closed their doors to livestock imports from Kenya and other countries in the region.

The intermittent closure of live animal markets by the government have affected the operations of both formal markets as well as informal market in more remote areas and by extension contributed to liquidity challenges among pastoral households and disrupted their livelihoods. Meanwhile, the retention of some level of restrictions such as night curfews makes it difficult for pastoralists and buyers to travel to markets either for fear of being contaminated or because of the high cost of transport. This limits the number of external traders and buyers in local markets and overall affects price competitiveness, household incomes and household purchasing power.  Together, these weaken households’ food security and preparedness to manage drought related stress.

Way forward

Strengthening resilience of pastoralists and agro-pastoralists facing the negative impacts of the coronavirus pandemic is a priority.  The immediate intervention should aim to maintain productivity and strengthen livelihood and resilience of the vulnerable actors by supporting existing community safety nets. This could entail provision of targeted food support to vulnerable households, short-term credits, subsidies or financial support to assure business continuity for traders, agro-vets, butchers and other actors.

In the long term, strengthening of regional value chains should be a priority to diversify risks and increase resilience to future shocks. ASAL counties should increase investments to fast-track regionalisation of livestock trade, operationalise abattoirs and engage private sector players in bulk meat supply chains. This offers both the alternative trade avenue and ensure seamless connectivity.

Invest in value chain management information systems at national and county levels. The weak information system in livestock trade implied that the social restrictions of COVID-19, led to slump in market activities. As such, investing in appropriate ICT technologies and infrastructures can offer mechanisms to crowdsource market prices to make real-time price information available to buyers and sellers and offer a stronger platform for open purchase and sales orders. Success will result in improved coordination and tighter market linkages that ICT solutions can provide.

Cover photo: Herder drives his goats in Marsabit County. Credit: Credit: Fredrick Omondi

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

Add this event to your calendar

Wednesday 16 December 11:00 until 12:00 on Zoom

Speaker: John Thompson and Imogen Bellwood-Howard
Part of the series: SSRP Webinar Series on the Pandemic and Sustainability

Register to attend this Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) webinar: ‘The impact of COVID-19 on food systems and rural livelihoods in Africa’.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the United Nations reported that more than 250 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa faced severe food insecurity. Incomes for farmers were lower in real terms than anywhere else in the world, and more than 30% of children were stunted, partly due to poverty and poor diets.

Since then, the World Food Programme and other agencies have warned that COVID-19 could cause one of the worst global food crises since World War II and predicted a doubling of the number of people going hungry over the next year – more than half of them in Africa.

The Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC), a partnership of over 100 African and UK researchers working on agricultural policy issues, has been conducting a number of comparative studies to assess how COVID-19 measures and restrictions are affecting local food systems, rural livelihoods and value chains. 

This one hour webinar will feature two presentations by John Thompson (SSRP Deputy Director, IDS Fellow and CEO of the APRA Programme) and Imogen Bellwood-Howard (SSRP Member, IDS Fellow and APRA Researcher) discussing recent APRA work, providing policy-relevant insights into the differential impact of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa. The presentations will be followed by a question and answer session chaired by Joseph Alcamo, Director of SSRP.

Register now to attend this free webinar that will take place on Zoom.

For any enquiries about this event, please contact ssrp@sussex.ac.uk.

About SSRP

The Sussex Sustainability Research Programme (SSRP) is committed to delivering science for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Building on the University of Sussex’s tradition of interdisciplinarity, SSRP provides critical research focused on identifying possible trade-offs and synergies among the SDGs for achieving global goals for humanity and the environment. Read the blogs on SSRP’s forum for the pandemic and sustainability.

About APRA

Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) is a six-year research programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC). APRA aims to identify the most effective pathways to agricultural commercialisation that empower women, reduce rural poverty, and improve food and nutrition security in sub-Saharan Africa. Through in-depth interdisciplinary, comparative research across nine countries, APRA is generating high-quality evidence and policy-relevant insights on more inclusive pathways to agricultural commercialisation. Find out more and read blogs about APRA’s response to COVID-19.

Feature photo credit: World Bank.

In the first of a two part blog series, researchers from APRA Tanzania follow up on their earlier blog series on the COVID-19 coping strategies of rice value chain actors. In this blog, they use data from follow-up interviews with farmers, processors & input suppliers in Morogoro and Mbeya regions to determine what difference there has been since the easing of lockdown in late June.

Part two examines the effect on the raw rice traders and the hospitality industry, and a way forward. Read it, here.

This blog is linked to APRA Round One and Round Two country reports on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Tanzania.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Ntengua Mdoe, Gilead Mlay and Gideon Boniface

Part one: rice farmers,  processors input suppliers and financial service providers

Previous COVID-19 blogs have indicated that the Tanzanian Government’s decision to close educational institutions and suspend big social and other gatherings on 17th March 2020 to prevent the spread of the pandemic negatively affected rice businesses.  The effects include but not limited to:

  • Complete loss in revenue from food services offered to educational institutions;
  • Substantial decline in revenue from provision of food services to seminars and workshops as the measures to control the spread of COVID-19 pandemic limited services to offer to gatherings with a maximum of 15 people;
  • Costs associated with provision of washing facilities to clients in accordance with the World Health Organization (WHO) health standards despite limited number of clients;
  • Compensating laid-off workers  in kind in the form of food items such as rice and beans and;
  • Difficulties in meeting loan repayment obligations due to a decline in cash flow.

The decision to remove most of the control measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, effective from 29th June 2020, except the enforcement of the WHO health standards was well received by the rice value chain actors, including those who stepped out of the value chain. This blog highlights experiences of the value chain actors on the effect of the government decision on their businesses through follow-up interviews with the same actors interviewed in June 2020 as presented below

Effects on rice farmers

Telephone interviews with some farmers in Morogoro and Mbeya regions show that they have been experiencing a slow recovery in paddy business since the government decision to remove most of the COVID-19 control measures. The number of traders buying paddy at the farm level has been increasing since July 2020, resulting into increase in farm-gate prices. In Morogoro region, paddy price declined by about 41% as a result of COVID-19 and then increased by 21% after the removal of the COVID-19 control measures while in Mbeya Region, paddy price declined by about 36% as a result of COVID-19 and then increased by 27% after the removal of the COVID-19 control measures as shown in the table below. However, the prevailing prices in both regions are still below the pre-COVID period prices by 29% in Morogoro and 19% in Mbeya. The interviewed farmers indicated that their purchasing power for rice production inputs has declined significantly as they have to sell more rice to purchase the same amount of inputs such as fertilisers they purchased before the COVID-pandemic. 

Changes in price of rice paddy

Effect on input suppliers and financial service providers

The interviewed suppliers of rice seeds, fertilisers and pesticides in major rice producing regions of Morogoro and Mbeya indicated that the removal of the COVID-19 measures has had little impact on their business because the new rice season is just starting. However, they thought a decline in demand for rice production inputs, due to the prevailing low paddy prices, very likely. However, financial service providers indicated a positive effect from the removal of most COVID-19 control measures, as many actors (farmers, traders and processors) with outstanding loans are gradually meeting their credit obligations.

A rice processing warehouse in Morogoro, Tanzania. Credit: Gideon Boniface.

Effect on rice processors

Like rice farmers, rice processors have been experiencing a slow recovery of their businesses since the end of June 2020, when the government removed most COVID-19 control measures.  All of the interviewed processors were operating under capacity, despite the increase in the quantity of processed rice compared to when the restrictions were active.  However, the current operating capacity is still below the pre-COVID-19 period capacity (before March 2020). Most of the processors have large stocks of paddy in their warehouses awaiting processing when business returns to normal. They indicated that they were facing financial cash flow problems, thus failing to cover operational costs or to pay outstanding loans.

The second blog in this series looks at the effect of the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions on the raw rice traders and the hospitality industry.

Cover photo credit: Malingerist on Flickr

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

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

I had another catch-up with colleagues in Zimbabwe recently, reflecting on the COVID-19 situation and its consequences across our sites in Masvingo, Gutu, Mwenezi, Matobo and Mvurwi. This is now the fifth update since March/April (see summary so far here).

The pandemic has not proceeded as some feared in Zimbabwe, and recorded case numbers (at 8471 on November 6) and deaths (at 250) are still low. There is much speculation about how and why the pandemic took a different course across Africa, and in future blogs we will explore some of these hypotheses in relation to the Zimbabwe setting.

As colleagues mentioned during the call, “We really don’t know any cases where we live, even in the hospitals and clinics. We don’t see people sick with the virus so far”. What is feared is the return of migrants from South Africa plus visitors from Europe and the UK during the holiday season. “We hope the government will be strict. There are requirements for test certificates, but you know they can always be cheated.” The importance of flows of people from outside the country is certainly central to the COVID-19 story in Zimbabwe, as we have discussed in previous blogs.

Zimbabwe is still under partial lockdown, with road blocks and movement restrictions in place, even though curfews and business opening hour regulations have been relaxed. The police are very present, and particularly engaged in checking permits especially of cross-border traffic in towns like Masvingo. With the weather being very hot last week before the rains, it was commented that “many had given up wearing masks, and relied on the heat as a ‘natural sanitiser’”. As one colleague observed, “It’s difficult to continue protecting ourselves when we don’t see the impacts of the virus”.

Diversified livelihoods

This blog focuses on the situation in the period since the last update on September 27, with a particular focus on the livelihood impacts of lockdown on women and young people. The standard approaches to raising funds to support families by women and young people have been insufficient, as COVID-19 restrictions have hit hard. Diversification beyond agriculture is key, offering new livelihood options. Below are some examples of occupations taken up during the pandemic in our sites, especially by women and young people, to support their livelihoods.

Fruit and veg. Diversification of livelihoods has been vital, since traditional occupations for women and young people have been constrained during lockdown. For example, while vending remains important for women, cross-border trade that used to be a mainstay in the border areas such as Mwenezi and Matobo is no longer feasible. Some have diversified, so for example dry season sales of wild fruits has expanded along the roads near Gutu, as women and children harvest matamba and mushuku, both selling for a US dollar for a handful of fruit.

Similarly, gardening continues as a vital source of self-provisioning with major nutritional benefits. As we have reported before, nearly everyone is a gardener now, whether in town or the rural areas, although women and youth are the dominant gardeners it seems. However, the expansion of gardening, combined with restrictions on market (again discussed in earlier blogs) has resulted in local gluts, particularly during the recent dry season – which is the traditional focus for gardening activities. The result is that women in particular have had to innovate, and develop new ways of processing and storing vegetables and fruits to sustain income over a longer period across seasons, and through variable market conditions.

Gold and amethyst. Small-scale mining is an essential activity for young people, mostly men. However, over the past few months a surprising development has been the movement of women into mining activities. Our colleague in Matobo reckons perhaps a fifth of miners are now women. While the mining claim owners of course are by-and-large well-connected older men, who manage the claim through a system of sharing with a group of contractors, women and young people join syndicates and provide labour. Most mining is of gold and in these cases half is shared with the owner, while the rest is divided amongst the group who did the mining.

Gold mining has expanded massively in all sites, including a recent huge expansion around Masvingo town. One young man, RB, relayed his story:

“I had been a driver for three years, but I lost my job because of lockdown. The transport businesses just collapsed. My wife and kids went back to the rural home as I could not support them in town. But in the last six months I have started mining outside town. I work with a group of five and we share the ore, milling it locally. If you work hard you can earn US$1400 per month, even when giving half to the claim owner. I have bought a car and I have plans to buy a stand. My family came back two weeks ago and are with me now. Life is now good!”

In Chikombedzi area in Mwenezi there has been a massive rush to mining sites where purple amethyst deposits have been found. Around a thousand people are living there, with markets developing for food, as well as services including transport, machinery hire and sex work. With amethyst quartz rocks being sold for about R1800 per kg, it has become a lucrative business.

Brick-making and building. With the flood of migrants coming back from South Africa and neighbouring countries, as well as from urban areas across Zimbabwe, during the pandemic due to the loss of jobs, the demand for building in the rural areas has sky-rocketed. These dispersed COVID-19 ‘refugees’ have returned home, but need somewhere to live. This, in turn, has generated a big demand for local ‘farm bricks’, which are cured and sold on to builders. In Wondedzo, a thousand bricks were being sold for around US$25. Brick-making has become an important source of income during this past dry season for both women and youth, who take on different roles between digging, moulding and firing in kilns, with each kiln producing 5-10,000 bricks each time.

Chickens and pigs. Poultry is another area where women and youth have invested considerably in recent months as there has been a growth in demand for local supplies of poultry. In part this is because of the closure of butcheries and the difficulty of getting to town, and in part because local sources of meat have been hit hard by the mass mortalities of cattle due to ‘January disease’ during the past wet season. The abbatoirs are also closed too; indeed one near Masvingo has been converted into a gold milling plant reflecting the switch in livelihood activities.

Mrs C. based in Masvingo explains how she moved from having under 30 chickens to over 300:

“I am a teacher, but my salary doesn’t pay. My husband who used to work on cross-border buses also lost his job due to COVID. I decided to expand my flock, buying up ‘road-runner’ indigenous chickens. I now have three breeds, two from a supplier of day-old chicks in Bulawayo and one from Mr M who supplies from a nearby growth point. I buy these for between 55 and 80 US cents per chick, along with some feed. These breeds though don’t need expensive feed and medicine, so I don’t have to go to town. I now make US$200 per month and am planning to expand further. I have already started a small piggery project to complement.  I am thinking of quitting teaching, as this really pays”.  

Bread and buns. With access to town restricted and movement difficult, baking has become another big cottage industry in rural areas and urban locations, and an important income source for women. In Chatsworth in Gutu for example a government training course encouraged women to take this up, and baking at home of bread and buns has expanded massively since. Across our sites you can buy bread, buns and cakes from people’s homes, as local people have taken on the supply.

Piece-work employment. While conventional jobs are scarce, there have been other sources of employment emerging, even in the dry season when agricultural piece-work options are generally limited. In particular, hiring of labour for digging holes for the Pfumvudza programme (a major government-led initiative with donor support on conservation agriculture – watch out for blogs on the experience of this in the coming weeks) has become important in all our sites.

Young people in particular have been able to benefit, with digging pits in one plot (39m x 16m) being charged at between US$5 at US$20 depending on the soil type and location, with payment in cash or kind (mostly soap and sugar). It is young men in particular who are benefiting from this, as older people often prefer to pay for the labour in order to get the free seeds and fertilisers.

Money matters

Saving and circulating money is a big challenges, as access to towns has reduced. There has therefore been a big growth in various forms of ‘savings clubs’ in the past months across all sites, which particularly involve women. For example in Wondedzo area near Masvingo, 20 women pooled cash and members draw funds to finance projects, paying interest on the amount of around 20%. In Masvingo town meanwhile there are lots of such clubs, some church-based, some just amongst a group of individuals. One group involves six female civil servants, mostly teachers, who save 150 Rand every two weeks, and one member takes out the full amount each fortnight to fund activities.

Money for new activities is crucial; without employment and with banks closed or difficult to get to from rural areas or townships, then new forms of managing money becomes important. New regulations that restrict the amount of phone lines for mobile ecocash money transactions and the electronic transfer tax also dissuades people from using electronic means. Instead very localised systems for saving and circulating cash – all in foreign exchange, either Rands or US dollars depending on the location – is the alternative.

And it’s women in particular who are the key players in this new savings and credit economy, as they in particular need funds for new projects to enhance their livelihoods.

Lockdown challenges

As we have discussed in earlier blogs, lockdown has not all been plain-sailing. Not everyone is able to innovate, earn money and do better than before, as with RM the young miner and Mrs C the poultry producer introduced above.

Our colleagues report in particular the many tensions that have arisen within families. With relatives coming back from South Africa and elsewhere they have to be accommodated and supported. Extra mouths to feed and people to house in a time a crisis. While the COVID-19 migrant-return situation has not been widely reported, as people have dispersed to multiple homes across many locations, the absorption of many thousands of people into a poor, local, mostly rural economy has had a big impact economically and socially.

Those returning, used to working in big cities south of the Limpopo may not be happy with a new rural existence, something they escaped before. Among (mostly male) youth, both returnees and local residents, our colleagues reported a rise in drug taking, drinking and general depression. This has led to arguments and sometimes violence. A rise in pregnancies among young women and teenage marriages have also been reported. Boredom and lack of opportunity, along with an inability to travel, even move to the local town, play into a negative, potentially destructive, social dynamic affecting many young people.

Not all migrants have been able to return, however, and some have been trapped in South Africa, unable to move. In our study areas near the borders – Matobo and Mwenezi – in the past men would move back and forth between often temporary jobs in farms and mines in South Africa, or to Mozambique or Botswana. Today this flexible movement is no longer feasible. Men are locked in South Africa in particular, while women are locked down at home. Adulterous affairs among both men and women have expanded, resulting in arguments, occasional violence and many reported divorces.  

Unlocking opportunities during lockdown

Despite the very clear lockdown challenges, the pattern seen across sites is one of innovative survival, and sometimes more. As one informant from Masvingo explained: “Lockdown has unlocked the entrepreneurial spirit! We can now earn good cash. I am not looking back!”

The transformations precipitated by COVID-19 lockdown have therefore not all been negative. As people have innovated to survive, new options have emerged, focused on new markets – whether building for returning migrants, supplying chickens or vegetables in the rural areas. With a shift to local production, short market/value chains and extending the range of activities – from mining to baking – the rural economy, and its connections to urban areas, has shifted significantly over the past seven months.

There is therefore a new COVID economy – and with this new social relations, with both opportunities and challenges. We will keep an eye on these developments over the coming months as the dry season moves (hopefully) into a rainy agricultural season, exploring whether these changes are temporary – a response to a crisis – or more long-term, shifting the terms, roles and incentives in economic activities over time, with new opportunities, especially for women and young people.

Thanks to the team in Matobo, Mwenezi, Mvurwi, Gutu, Wondedzo and Masvingo for contributing insights to the blog.

Credit for all photos: Ian Scoones.

Three weeks since the Malawian government was brought to task by the national press following an APRA brief on agricultural policy, the APRA Malawi team has featured in The Nation Paper once again.

Appearing under the headline “Covid-19 chokes food Systems, livelihoods” both in the newspaper edition and on their website, the news article highlighted a new APRA report on Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Malawi. Written by APRA Malawi researchers Mirriam Matita and Masautso Chimombo, the report estimates the likely impact of the pandemic on food systems and livelihoods in Malawi.

The two-page report, is based on a random selection of 114 household heads involved in groundnut production in Mchinji and Ntchisi districts and other key informant interviews. The authors indicate that about 60 percent of farmers reported a decline in business activities, which means they could not raise enough income for their livelihoods.

The newspaper article, published on 20 October 2020, highlights from the report that there has been an increase in transport costs  as well as decline in number of traders coming to villages for farm produce purchases affecting incomes.

The article also emphasised that the significant decline in the availability of extension services that was show in the report, with 70 percent of respondents mentioning a lack of credit facilities, which could affect the outcome of the upcoming 2020/21 farming season.

APRA researchers Mirriam Matita (L), Blessings Chinsinga and Masautso Chimombo (R). Credit: Mirriam Matita

Both researchers responded to the media attention:

“… the Nation newspaper has for 5 consecutive years been winning print media house of the year in Malawi. It enjoys massive readership by both ordinary people, policy makers and politicians. It feels good to have our research product covered by them. This means we are building our name as emerging researchers, and this will open up more opportunities for us …”

Masautso Chimombo

‘… I am excited our work is finding space in local media and I hope it reaches those that need to make decisions to ease COVID impacts on small farmers…’ 

Mirriam Matita

The report was released alongside several other short APRA studies on how COVID19 is affecting food systems in different APRA countries. To access these reports, click here.

Access the new APRA COVID Malawi report, here

Cover photo credit: IFPRI

Written by, Vine Mutyasira.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly affected lives and livelihoods across the globe. In Zimbabwe, preliminary indications point to a worsening economic situation in a country already facing macroeconomic challenges, particularly in rural communities where most households depend on agriculture. National lockdown and movement restrictions have affected agricultural activities as well as access to markets and farming inputs.

Written by, Gideon Boniface and C.G. Magomba.

The first case of COVID-19 in Tanzania was confirmed in March 2020. The government immediately imposed restrictions on mass gatherings, suspended international flights and established special medical camps for COVID-19 patients. They also published guidelines and health measures to be followed by citizens and emphasised these through media and physically through local government officials located across the country.

Written by, Mirriam Matita and Masautso Chimombo.

Given the ravaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, this study seeks to estimate its likely impact on food systems and livelihoods in Malawi. This briefing note is based on our stratified random sample of 114 household heads (32 female and 82 male) drawn from an APRA household survey of groundnut producers in Mchinji and Ntchisi districts, Central Region, as well as seven key informant interviews from those areas. The APRA COVID-19 data collection will be carried out over three rounds. This report presents insights obtained from the first round of research conducted during June/July 2020.

Written by, John Olwande.

Kenya confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on 12 March 2020. Since then, the government has been providing daily updates on the number of new COVID-19 infections, recoveries and deaths in the country, as well as implementing several interventions to manage the disease. The cumulative numbers as of 12 August 2020 were 27,425 new infections, 13,867 recoveries and 438 deaths, and rising. The objective of this assessment was to understand the effects of COVID-19 on the food system and the sub-set of the population largely dependent on agriculture. The findings were intended to inform actions to assure protection of rural livelihoods and
the continued supply of adequate and affordable food of acceptable quality to the population.

Written by, Louis Hodey and Fred Dzanku.

Given the ravaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, this study seeks to estimate its likely impact on food systems and livelihoods in south-western Ghana. Our sample consisted of 110 female and male respondents drawn randomly from an APRA household survey of oil palm producers in the Mpohor and Ahanta West Districts in the Western region, as well as a set of five key informant interviews. Data collection for this study will be carried out over three rounds. This report presents insights obtained from the first round conducted during June/July 2020.

Written by, Abebaw Assaye and Dawit Alemu

This report presents an early assessment of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on agricultural commercialisation, food and nutrition security, labour and employment, and poverty and well-being in rural Ethiopia. Data was collected from a stratified random sample of 107 households (23 female- and 84 male-headed). Respondents were drawn from a subset of households interviewed in a 2018 APRA survey of smallholder rice farmers in five kebeles (villages) in the Fogera Plain area of Amhara Region. The COVID-19 household survey data is complemented by data from 23 key informant interviews conducted in the kebeles. The data collection for this COVID-19 study will be carried out over three rounds. This report presents insights obtained from the first round conducted during late June/early July 2020.

Written by, Adebayo B. Aromolaran and Milu Muyanga.

This report presents an early assessment of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on agricultural commercialisation, food and nutrition security, labour and employment, and poverty and well-being in rural Nigeria. Data was collected from a stratified random sample of 110 respondent households drawn from five Local Government Areas (LGAs) in Ogun (Ijebu East, Obafemi Owode, and Imeko Afon) and Kaduna (Chikun and Soba) States. At the time of the survey, these LGAs had reported a small number of COVID-19 cases. The survey data is complemented by insights from five in-depth key informant interviews conducted in the LGAs. The APRA COVID-19 data collection will be carried out over three rounds. This report presents insights obtained from the first round implemented during mid-July 2020.

Written by, Marco Carreras, Amrita Saha and John Thompson

To gain a better understanding of the impact that COVID-19 is having on food systems and rural livelihoods in the region, researchers in the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) Programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) are conducting a rolling series of telephone-based household surveys and key informant interviews in selected study locations across multiple countries. This report presents results from the first round of that research in seven countries – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe – from interviews conducted in June-July 2020.1 APRA will monitor the situation as the pandemic unfolds through further rounds of data collection and analysis in late 2020 and early 2021.

In the second of a two-part blog series, APRA researchers Louis Hodey, Kofi Asante & Fred Dzanku look at the responses of agribusinesses and farm households to the pandemic, how the Ghanaian government has responded, and offer policy recommendations for the way forward.

For part one on the impact on food prices, agribusinesses and household incomes, and food and nutrition security, click here.

This blog is linked to APRA Round One and Round Two country reports on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ghana.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Louis Hodey, Kofi Asante & Fred Dzanku

What has been the response of agribusinesses and farm households?

As expected, decline in sales and general agribusiness activities have had huge implications for employment and the mode of operation of these businesses. According to the Ghana Statistical Service  (GSS), wage cuts, laying off workers, adoption of digital solutions for sales, and the use of mobile money services have been some survival strategies adopted by firms (including agribusinesses) in response to the threats from the COVID-19 pandemic. An APRA-CASA (Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness) rapid market survey conducted in May also found that a few agribusinesses took advantage of the pandemic to boost their incomes by diversifying production. For instance, some artisanal oil palm processors started producing soap to tap into demand which had remained unmet because of the disruption in supply of consumer necessities. However, such opportunities were only available to agribusinesses with sufficient ready capital for a new production line or the technological capabilities for online marketing or sales. These differences in the ability of farmers and agribusinesses to quickly respond to the impact of the pandemic is like to widen inequality in the short to medium term.

According to the Chamber of Agribusiness Ghana (CAG), critical coping strategies adopted by agribusinesses include direct delivery of products and services to customers via courier services, e-commerce platforms, as well as price reductions and discount sales in some cases. For farm households, a key response strategy to the livelihood challenges imposed by the COVID-19 crises has been a reduction in food consumption. According to the GSS, more than a half (52.1%) of households reduced their consumption in order to cope with the effects of COVID-19. Other key coping mechanisms adopted by households (according to the GSS) include reduced non-food consumption, reliance on savings, assistance from family / friends, borrowing from family / friends, credit purchases, engagement in additional income generating activities, delayed payment obligations and sale of assets.   

Palm oil ready for market at Ahountemo in the Western region. Credit: Louis Hodey

What has been government’s response so far?

Government policy is critical to tackle the threats to livelihood caused by the pandemic. In addition to substantial health spending to contain the coronavirus in Ghana, the government has so far implemented key relief programmes to mitigate the severe impact on everyday living. These include electricity subsidies, free water, soft loans for small and medium scale businesses through the Coronavirus Alleviation Programme (CAP), free hot meals for the most vulnerable during the partial lockdown, free hot meals for final year basic school students and their teachers, tax holidays for frontline health workers, among others. It is expected that these policy interventions will cushion households and businesses to mitigate the economic hardships imposed by the COVID-19 crisis. But how much of this is enough and how many citizens can it cover? In fact, according to the GSS, only 3.5%[1] of firms surveyed reported receiving some support from government.

Oil palm bunches ready for milling. Credit: Louis Hodey

What is the way forward?

Given that almost a half (45.6%) of Ghana’s population are multidimensionally poor, the severe economic hardship imposed by the COVID-19 is expected to further worsen this already dire situation. The World Bank estimates that worldwide, about 100 million people are expected to fall into poverty as a direct impact of the COVID-19 crisis. This suggests that the estimated global poverty would jump from 8.23% in 2019 to 9.18% in 2020. Further, according to the World Bank, though the SSA appears to have weathered the health impact of the pandemic fairly well, it is projected to be the region hit hardest in terms of increase in extreme poverty. In Ghana, the nationwide COVID-19 business tracker survey report by the GSS suggests that some firms (including agribusinesses) are laying-off workers while others are offering pay cuts in order to survive the consequences of the pandemic. With a generally weak social protection system in Ghana, this may lead to increasing poverty levels and worse living conditions for the affected households. In addition, the falling income levels and worsening food and nutrition insecurity situation widely associated with the COVID-19 crises is worrying.

It is rather unfortunate that though farm households toil to feed the country’s population, their living incomes are unable to push them out of poverty. It is important that as the pandemic spreads, institutions of state work to ensure a continued functioning of the country’s food supply chains to avert a possible food crisis in the future. This requires sustained coordinated policy responses to support agribusinesses and livelihoods of farm households. To ensure effective and efficient livelihood supports, government’s relief policies should be inclusive and aim at boosting both demand (consumption) and supply (production) sectors of the economy. Though the government have made efforts to alleviate the adverse livelihood impacts of the pandemic, there are concerns about the ability of these interventions to truly assist the most vulnerable. Critically, policies targeted at improving the capacity of agribusinesses and farm households to boost productivity should be core to the government’s policy agenda.

[1] The Government of Ghana later implemented the Coronavirus Alleviation Programme (CAP) which was still in its initial launching stage at the time of the GSS survey, so this figure might have improved after the CAP implementation.

Feature image credit: Louis Hodey

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

In the latest of a series of COVID19-related blogs, APRA Ghana researchers Louis Hodey, Kofi Asante & Fred Dzanku examine the implications of the pandemic on agriculture-based livelihoods in the first of a two-part blog series, including the impact on food prices, the impact on agribusinesses, household incomes, and food and nutrition security.

For part two on the responses of agribusinesses and farm households to the pandemic, how the Ghanaian government has responded, and policy recommendations, click here

This blog is linked to APRA Round One and Round Two country reports on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ghana.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Louis Hodey, Kofi Asante & Fred Dzanku

Background and overview

The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of life in Ghana as in other countries. After confirming its first two positive cases in March 2020, the government quickly introduced measures to contain the virus, including a three-week partial lockdown of Accra and Kumasi (the country’s two major cities which emerged as epicentres for the virus), including:

  • Restrictions on movement;
  • ban on all public gatherings (e.g. political rallies, funerals, schools and religious meetings);
  • closure of schools;
  • closure of borders / travel bans;
  • strict social distancing, contact tracing and mandatory quarantine of all travellers into Ghana and infected persons;
  • compulsory wearing of face masks in public places, and;
  • enforcement of strict hygiene protocols such as regular washing of hands and the use of hand sanitisers.

The economic impact of these restrictions has been devastating. On 27th August 2020, Ghana’s case count stood at 43,841. In spite of these numbers, the government has already eased a lot of restrictions (for instance, partial reopening of schools for final year students, permission of public gatherings under restricted conditions etc.) and is in consultation with stakeholders to ease the restrictions further down the line.

Impact of the COVID-19 on agricultural-based livelihoods in Ghana

Household Incomes

Household incomes in Ghana have been severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence from the Ghana Statistical Service[1] (GSS) suggests that 77.4% of households (approximately 22 million people) in Ghana have experienced declines in income since the COVID-19 restrictions were introduced in March 2020. Given existing high levels of income poverty in Ghana, especially among rural populations dependent on agriculture, these declines in household incomes will further deepen the prevailing precarious living conditions of poor rural farm households. With increasing costs of living associated with the COVID-19, livelihoods of poor households are severely threatened.

Oil palm bunches ready for milling. Credit: Louis Hodey
Food and nutrition security

In Ghana, there are fears of worsening food and nutrition insecurity situation due to rising food prices and declines in household incomes. For instance, a study conducted by the Agriculture Policy Research in Africa (APRA) in south-western Ghana, an area with comparatively better food and nutrition situation, revealed worsening food and nutrition insecurity concerns. More than a half (58.2%) of respondents in the APRA study indicated that cost of living in the area has increased as a result of the COVID-19 crises, thereby imposing substantial food and nutrition insecurity threats. Further evidence provided by the GSS Household and Jobs Tracker survey points to an impending moderate-to-severe food and nutrition insecurities in Ghana as a result of the pandemic. For instance, the household food insecurity experiences reported by the GSS indicates that almost a half (45.4%) of households ate a few kinds of food, 44.6% were worried about not having enough food to eat, 42.8% ate less than they thought they should, 41.4% were unable to eat healthy and nutritious/preferred foods, 39.1 had to skip a meal, 31.3 ran out of food, 26.8% were hungry but did not eat, and 8.9% went without food for a whole day.

Impact on food prices

Food price spikes followed the announcement of a partial lockdown of Accra and Kumasi, Ghana’s two major cities in March 2020. These increased food prices have been sustained over the past six (6) months. Indeed, the country’s average monthly food inflation experienced a sustained increase from 8.4% in March 2020 to 13.7% in July 2020. Evidence form the GSS Household and Jobs Tracker survey suggests that 77.4% of households were severely affected by increases in food prices.

Impact on agribusinesses

Four out of five agribusinesses surveyed by the Chamber of Agribusiness Ghana[2] (CAG) reported having their usual business operations affected by the pandemic. Why? Though Ghana’s COVID-19 movement restrictions exempted food supply, operations of non-food agribusinesses were severely affected. This potentially had a substantial knock-on effect on food supply system. Further, restrictions on key food demand sectors such as restaurants, hotels, public events and educational institutions had significant impacts on the country’s food supply network. Initially, these disruptions resulted in price hikes due to panic buying and food hoarding fuelled uncertainties regarding food availability (as was the case in Accra and Kumasi following the announcement of a partial lockdown.)

The disruptions to the food supply chains is expected to cause increases in business operating costs (due to compliance with COVID-19 protocols), revenue shortfalls, wage cuts, lay-offs, among others.  According to the CAG, the average monthly revenue of agribusiness firms decreased by 61.2%, with small scale agribusinesses reporting average monthly revenue shortfalls amounting to 77.4%. These revenue losses may be due to restrictions on food demand sectors (such as restaurants, hotels and educational institutions) and disruptions in general agribusiness operations due to the COVID-19 crises.

[1] With support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the World Bank, the COVID-19 Households and Jobs Tracker Survey by the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) involves 3,265 households and was conducted over the period June 10–25, 2020. This survey was nationally representative, covering all 16 regions of the country.

[2] The Chamber of Agribusiness Ghana (CAG) conducted a nationwide survey of 110 agribusinesses in Ghana following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Part two of this blog looks at the response of agribusinesses and farm households, the response of government and the way forward.

Feature image credit: Louis Hodey

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

In this blog, APRA researcher Vine Mutyasira examines the impact of lockdown measures on smallholder farmers in Mvurwi and Concession, Zimbabwe. He examines how these restrictions have hit agricultural production and commodity marketing, and gives recommendations on how to combat problems, such as the decline in extension services to farmers.

This blog is linked to APRA Round One and Round Two country reports on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Zimbabwe.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Vine Mutyasira

Several articles have been written about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on global economic systems and the agricultural sector in particular. Clearly, it has caused disruptions in global food supply chains and has taken a significant toll on local food systems and rural livelihoods, especially among rural farming communities where livelihoods are anchored on agricultural production. Agricultural activities in Zimbabwe have been affected by the national lockdown. The policy was first implemented on the 30th of March, slightly eased and then extended indefinitely on the 16th of May. The government has, however, been gradually eased the lockdown restrictions, announcing that supermarkets, restaurants and vegetables markets, among other essential services, were allowed to reopen but only operate from 8am to 3pm daily starting 21st of July.

The lockdown measures generally restricted movement of people across communities and hence access to markets for produce such as vegetables and auction floors for tobacco sales, as well as access to farming inputs. APRA interviewed over 100 households in Mvurwi and Concession, as well as key informants representing community leaders, farmer representatives and extension officers, to get a picture of the effects of the pandemic food systems and livelihoods in rural communities.

Agricultural production and food supply chains have felt the negative impacts of the coronavirus, particularly as a result of the restrictions imposed by the national lockdown. The lockdown restrictions accentuated the availability of labour for farming activities. About 45% of the farmers interviewed reported that they were unable to hire labour services for their farming activities, while 48% said that the cost of hiring day or casual labour had gone up during the COVID-19 crisis. An extension officer reported a situation unfolding at Montgomery Farm in Ward 24 of Concession. The farm produces horticultural crops such as cherry pepper and peas on over 30 hectares of land all year round. However, due to restrictions on the movement of people, they have been having challenges securing the required labour for the farm activities. As a result, they were forced to downsize their operation.

Impact on agricultural markets

Marketing of agricultural produce has also been affected in many ways. First, the lockdown restrictions made it difficult for farmers to access distant and often lucrative markets such as the Mbare Musika in Harare. There are incidences where farmers with a truckload of cabbages would be turned back at police roadblocks while on their way to the market. About 81% of interviewed farmers reported a significant drop in sales through district and regional markets. This was further compounded by the rising cost of transportation, as service providers demanded payment in US dollars. Secondly, lockdown restrictions severely affected the ability of buyers and brokers to visit communities and purchase produce directly from farmers. As a result, farmers reported a significant drop in farmgate sales for agricultural produce. Thirdly, closures of restaurants and other local informal food outlets decimated the local market for agricultural produce, especially horticulture, poultry and dairy products. An extension officer in Mvurwi reported of cases where farmers were forced to slaughter their flocks of layers chickens because of failure to access poultry feeds and also being unable to sell the eggs on the local markets.

Shopping in Bulawayo post- COVID19. Credit: International Labor Organization

Impact on inputs and support services

Detrimental impacts to agriculture have also been felt through disruptions in the supply and availability of critical farm inputs and support services, which potentially affects households’ ability to produce for themselves. Due to general restrictions on inter-city and international travelling, local input suppliers have not been able to restock their inputs and agrochemicals. As a result, local Agro-dealership shops have been running low and some of them have closed shop due to lack of business. As a result, 88% of the farmers we interviewed reported that prices of farm inputs such as seeds, fertilisers, agrochemicals and veterinary drugs had gone up following the COVID-19 crisis. The cost of tillage services has also increased as fewer people were offering the service due to the shortage of fuel. Another crippling factor is the unavailability of extension services. About 70% of the farmers reported that access to essential extension services was reduced during the pandemic, probably as extension officers were reluctant to offer face to face trainings without the necessary personal protective equipment.

Way forward

Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic has created massive disruptions in agricultural production and marketing activities. Across agriculture, impacts have ranged from the disruption in the marketing activities, limited access to hired labour services and production inputs, increasing cost of transportation, as well as availability and cost of tillage services. As a result, the livelihoods and general food security situation of the rural communities have been negatively affected. Measures to strengthen food systems, through increasing the availability farm inputs and technical services, will be crucial especially as the farming season is fast approaching. Interventions such as supporting agro-dealership programs should enable farmers to readily access critical inputs, while adopting innovative extension approaches such as mobile agri-advisory service extension model should help provide timely and relevant advice to farmers.

Feature photo credit: International Labour Organization

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

Although the COVID19 pandemic has not yet affected Nigeria to the same extent as some countries, the Nigerian Government introduced strict lockdown measures across the country to restrict the spread of the virus. In our latest blog, APRA researchers Adebayo B Aromolaran, Fadlulah O Issa and Milu Muyanga examine what the impact has been the food-value chain, and on the general attitude of Nigerians towards the pandemic.

Read more on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Nigeria in the Round One and Round Two APRA country reports.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

By Adebayo B Aromolaran, Fadlulah O Issa and Milu Muyanga


The first case of COVID19 in Nigeria was reported on February 28, 2020. Six months after, only 53477 cases and 1011 deaths related to COVID 19 have been reported, compared to countries such as USA (6,096,235 cases), Brazil (3,812,605 cases), India (3,461,240 cases) and South Africa (620,132 cases). The Nigerian Government implemented several measures to contain the spread of the disease, some of which negatively impacted the livelihoods of many low-income households. This blog makes an early assessment of the impacts of lockdown on the agri-food system and livelihoods in rural and low-income urban Nigeria.

Government response to COVID19

To control the spread of the COVID19 pandemic, the government imposed total or partial lockdowns on human activities from March 25. The nature and intensity of these lockdowns varied by state and over the first three months. Many states had lockdowns for three-four days a week. In some others, the lockdowns restricted of movements at night. Most states also complied with Federal Government directives which included:

  • Imposition of curfew from 8pm (later from 10pm) to 4am;
  • Closure of schools at all levels from primary to tertiary;
  • Suspension of all religious gatherings and meetings;
  • Closure of international and domestic airports;
  • Limitation of any form of gathering including burials, birthday parties and weddings to a maximum of 20 persons;
  • Reduction of market days to a few days in a week;
  • Reduction in public transportation carrying capacity to a maximum of 70%;
  • Closure of  state borders to reduce inter-state transmission and;
  • Reduction in weekly working hours in the public service.

Impact of COVID19 lockdowns on farm labour availability

The restrictions on movement of people reduced availability of hired labour on farms. For example, many hired workers during the planting season in Ogun State (located in southern Nigeria) often came from other states, and the lockdowns were implemented at the start of the planting season in southern Nigeria. Consequently, land preparation activities were severely affected by a shortage of hired labour.  This disruption also resulted in drastic reduction in area cultivated to crops in southern Nigeria.

Impact of COVID19 lockdowns on agro-input availability

The lockdowns have also negatively impacted agro-input and credit accessibility. For example, poultry feed millers in southern Nigeria experienced reduced access to maize, a very important input to poultry feeds, that is sourced from the northern part of the country. In addition, a smaller area cultivated to maize in southern Nigeria due to labour shortage further reduced the availability of maize for poultry feed production. This led to a spike in the price of maize from ₦90/kg in March to ₦172/kg in the middle of August 2020. Consequently, many feed millers had to either shut down their operations or are operating below capacity. Furthermore, reduced working hours, number of customers attended to per day, and selective branch closures by banks negatively impacted credit accessibility. Exceptionally long queues were noticed at bank entrances.  

Market selling cassava in Abuja (pre-lockdown). Credit: IFPRI

Impact of COVID19 lockdowns on marketing of farm produce

Farm gate prices of produce went down because of the market shutdowns, and reduced movements, especially interstate, by traders. For the same reasons, prices of food items in regional markets increased substantially. So, farmers were making reduced profits by selling in local markets while urban consumers were paying higher prices because of low supplies in the regional markets. In Ogun State, a ton of cassava which was ₦10,000 ($26) before the lockdown rose to ₦38,000 ($99) within 3 months. The price hike in regional markets was partly due to hoarding by traders since new supplies were not coming in as expected. This behaviour might require some form of Government intervention if the COVID 19 crisis continues.

Impact of COVID19 lockdowns on food and nutrition

In the short term, reduced income from both farm and off farm activities could negatively impact food intake and nutrition through reduced households’ disposable incomes. In the longer term, this may lead to poorer household food and nutrition by reducing farm input purchasing power and land area cultivated.

Among low income urban households, food and nutrition is negatively impacted by the substantial reduction in income flow due to reduced economic activity levels, resulting from the lockdowns and restrictions. In addition, high prices in urban markets caused by restrictions to the movement of traders to and from the farm gate has further compounded food security concerns among low income urban households.

Attitude of Nigerians to Government response to COVID19

The general feeling among low resource rural and urban Nigerians is that the intensity and duration of the lockdown is unnecessary and has brought about severe hardship in terms of decreased food availability, reduced incomes, as well as increased disease and mortality rates. 

Guests at a marriage ceremony in Ondo State Nigeria in August 2020. Credit: Omotola Ilemobayo

The ordinary Nigerian would choose to go to earn his/her daily living over the fear of getting infected with COVID 19. Many believe that COVID 19 is a disease of the wealthy and privileged class, and that most of the actions by government agencies are efforts by politicians to amass personal wealth. These partly account for why regulations such as social distancing, wearing a mask, and hand sanitising are not taken very seriously by many people. Even though Nigerians do not expect a future increase in COVID 19 cases, this attitude could put the larger population at risk from future outbreaks.

Government sources attribute the low COVID 19 infection and death rates in Nigeria to its proactive lockdown actions, but many Nigerians view their own resilience in terms of natural immunity, God’s protection and the intake of juices form local herbs and medicinal plants as key. Anecdotal evidence shows that many Nigerians who had symptoms like COVID 19 hardly call government agencies to request a test or even go to the hospital to be treated. Rather, they resort to self-medication or visit local chemists.

Feature image: Queue at a bank entrance in Ogun State, Nigeria. Credit: Omotola Ilemobayo.

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

In our latest blog, APRA researchers Ntengua Mdoe, Gilead Mlay and Gideon Boniface examine the negative effect of the pandemic on Liliyan’s Catering Services Enterprise, and how it is bouncing back and coping with the financial hit. The researchers then provide recommendations to policy makers on how they can ensure that small businesses like this can survive the crisis.

Read more on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Tanzania in the Round One and Round Two APRA country reports.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Ntengua Mdoe, Gilead Mlay and Gideon Boniface

Hotels, restaurants and other eateries account for a significant proportion of rice consumption in Tanzania. These businesses have experienced a decline in clients from fear of the COVID-19 pandemic, suspension of international flights, suspension of social and other gatherings in mid-March 2020 when the government announced measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic. This blog highlights the effect of the pandemic on Liliyan’s Catering Services enterprise (LCSE) as one of the providers of food service away from home in Morogoro municipality. 

Background of Liliyan’s catering services enterprise (LCSE)  

LCSE is owned by Ms. Liliyan Munisi, a very experienced small businesses operator with many years of experience:

  • 2002 – started a small business buying ladies’ clothes from Dar-es salaam for sale in Morogoro municipality;
  • 2006 – given a tender of supplying workers uniforms by a tobacco company in Morogoro municipality until 2008;
  • 2009 – opened a small restaurant;
  • 2011 –  LCSE  was established;
  • 2012 – LCSE was officially registered.
LCSE employees at a wedding party. Credit: LCSE

Size of LCSE      

According to International Labour Organization’s definition of SME, LCSE is a small-sized enterprise as it has 16 permanent employees, the majority being young women and men. It is an important outlet of raw rice in Morogoro municipality, purchasing approximately 4.0 tonnes of raw rice per month under normal business environment

Services provided by LCSE      

LCSE provides catering services to educational institutions, social gatherings (weddings, funerals) and other events such as workshops and seminars in Morogoro municipality. Rice is a major component of the foods served by LCSE, and often comprises of plain rice served with meat or beans and/or vegetables or cooked with meat and spices and served with vegetables (Pilau in Swahili).

LCSE employees serving rice with various food items at a wedding party. Credit: LCSE

Effect of COVID-19 on LCSE’s business services

COVID-19 has negatively affected LCSE after the government announcement to close educational institutions and suspend big social and other gatherings on 17th March 2020, including:

  • Complete loss in revenue from food services to educational institutions;
  • Substantial decline in revenue from provision of food services to seminars and workshops as the measures to control the spread of COVID-19 pandemic limited services to offer to gatherings with a maximum of 15 people;
  • Incurred costs associated with provision and washing facilities for clients in accordance with the WHO health standards despite limited number of clients;
  • Compensating laid-off workers  in kind with food items such as rice and beans and;
  • Experiencing difficulties in loan repayment as a result of a decline in cash flow.

Overall LCSE’s estimate of loss in gross revenue over the period of 3.5 months before resumption of the catering services was about TZS 94.5 million ($40,767.9).

Top Star School’s pupils being served plain rice with beans and vegetables. Credit: Top Star School’s Manager

Back to business

Most actors in the rice value chain have continued business after the government’s decision to remove most of the restrictive measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19, effective from 29th June 2020, except the enforcement of the WHO health standards. Two weeks after the government decision, Ms. Liliyan Munisi said that she has been experiencing a slow recovery of catering services to social gatherings such as weddings and funerals because some people still fear that the pandemic is dangerous. Nevertheless, catering services to educational institutions and gatherings such as seminars and workshops have returned to normal. Consequently, the company is gradually recovering the revenue lost during the 3.5 months of business decline and has reinstated all of the employees laid off in March 2020. In addition, the company has resumed orders of raw rice from its suppliers, benefiting various actors higher up the rice value chain such as processors, traders of paddy and rice farmers.

Coping with the negative impact of COVID-19  

The decline in catering business activities and the uncertainty of when catering services would return to normal compelled LCSE to do the following:

  • Lay off some employees: 12 out of the 16 permanent employees were laid off (as mentioned above, these were later re-hired when the situation normalised);
  • Re-investing in livestock production, specifically poultry, dairy and pig production as a long-term coping strategy.

Way forward

Evidence from this case study shows that food outlets have experienced significant loss in revenue as a result of decline in the number of clients since 17 March 2020 following measures announced by the government to control the spread of COVID-19. Although businesses are gradually returning back to normal after the decision to remove most of the control measures from 29th June 2020, it is difficult to predict how long the consumption of food away from home will return to normal, as some consumers believe that the pandemic is still prevailing in urban areas.

To survive the crisis, these business entities need urgent liquidity support in terms of accessing and making good use of any government established survival fund for small businesses. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved debt service relief of US $14.3 million to help Tanzania address social-economic effects of COVID-19. Among other support to COVID-19 affected businesses, the fund can partly be used to support these small businesses.  This should be complemented by revision of the repayment terms of the funds borrowed by the businesses before the COVID-19 pandemic as directed by the Bank of Tanzania.

Owner of LCSE, Ms. Liliyan Munisi, standing close to her business truck. Credit: LCSE

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the #COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected in coming weeks but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

In the final blog of a three-part series, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research researcher Agajie Tesfaye looks ahead and provides seven key recommendations on how the Ethiopian government can lessen the negative impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on day labourers, farmers and rice commercialisation. Look below for the previous blogs:

Part one: Presents preliminary findings and statistical analysis of research assessments.

Part two: Examines the effects of COVID-19 on labour wages, service providers to labourers and rice production.

Read more on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ethiopia in the Round One and Round Two APRA country reports.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Agajie Tesfaye

Looking Ahead

COVID-19 has started impacting the labour markets in the rice plain of Amhara Region. Labour markets have been deserted because of government restrictions to keep physical distancing and prohibition to stop in groups at a specific point. Rice farmers can’t obtain an adequate number of daily labourers for rice weeding and other operations. Some farmers are adopting the following temporary solutions:

  • Mobilising all their working age family members;
  • Using chemical sprays to control weeds, despite its limited effect;
  • Using hired labour from nearby areas.

These temporary solutions may not be helpful when the acute labour demand season commences – and in response to high demand and limited supply – the labour wage has also increased by about 30%. Almost all the rice farmers will be looking for hired labour towards mid-August for second rice weeding and also for harvesting in later season.

Family labour will not meet the demand for weeding and harvesting within critically labour demand periods. Rice production and productivity could be negatively affected if this work is not done on time, indicating the extent to which rice farming was dependent on hired labour.

In response to the surge in COVID-19 and the rise in fatality rates in Ethiopia and government restrictions on movements, the availability of hired labour will continue to be scarce in the coming high labour demand months. Labour dependent economic sectors and farms will be largely hit by the sweeping of the virus. Without the use of supplementary hired labour, rice production and productivity will be compromised substantially. Production decline will in turn affect annual incomes of farmers reducing further investments on rice. Rice processing sector will also be affected because of limited production supplies. If the pandemic continues to persist in the coming seasons, rice farmers have indicated that they will reduce the area allocated to rice by 40 – 50% to the extent it is manageable only by family labour. This all implies that rice commercialisation will be affected in response to prolonged spread of COVID-19 in the country. It is likely to happen unless effective vaccination is discovered and accessible to all the population.

Rice labourers in Fogera region. Credit: Abebaw Assaye

Policy considerations

  • Easing Restrictions: With no social insurance policy (paid unemployment) in Ethiopia and social assistance (cash or in-kind transfers) unavailable in many locations, the government will have to ease restrictions imposed during the state of emergency. Even though lockdowns could help to reduce the spread of the pandemic, it is also negatively impacting on the economy and exacerbating poverty. While easing restrictions, strict measures should be imposed to use PPE while away from home. 
  • Providing adequate information about the pandemic: Awareness creation on the severity of COVID-19 disease and its complicated features need to be promoted for daily labourers and other community members on sustainable basis. Simple approaches such as microphones at market places and across main roads in towns could work. The mass media could also make use of easily understandable people centred approaches, such as local television dramas. The approaches should be renewed and replaced with new ones every time to avoid negligence from the audience. 
  • Mandatory rules and enforcement by local administration: Local government officials should also impose mandatory rules and enforce daily labourers to use face masks and socially distance at labour markets. Employers could be told not to hire any labourer without a mask, and enforce distancing at their workplace.

Local officials should also impose mandatory regulations on local service providers, such as room rental service providers and restaurants. While offering their services, they must enforce physical distancing, and should be forbidden from providing accommodation to groups of labourers. Officials should randomly inspect these premises and inform them that they are accountable for any violation of the rules.  

Rice fields in Fogera, Ethiopia. Credit: Abebaw Assaye
  • Self-equipped Labourers: Employers should only be allowed to hire labourers who bring their own hand tools, such as sickles, to minimise transmission of the virus.
  • Imposing and exercising strict accountability measures: Strict accountability measures, such as fines or temporary detainment, should be enforced for repeated violations of regulations to ensure everyone’s wellbeing, as many informal workers may be at risk of contracting COVID-19. Therefore, protective measures should be strictly implemented and used as per the advice of Ministry of Health and other institutes. 
  • Widespread provision of masks, hand washing stations and sanitisers: Many members of the community cannot afford PPEs, especially in district towns. Efforts should be made to install hand washing stations along with detergents and sanitisers on the road sides and entry points. Masks should be given out for free or with very little cost for poorer members of the community.
  • Switching to agricultural mechanisation: Improvements to weeding, harvesting and others technologies should be demonstrated and promoted to farmers.

It may be too late in the short term as the season has already started, but it should be promoted when the harvesting season begins in four months. Ministry of Agriculture, agricultural research institutes, high learning institutes and other development partners need to provide similar training for farmers on how to operate and access the rice harvester machines.  

In the long run, agricultural research institutes and other organisations need to strengthen and provide due focus in developing small-scale agricultural machines for various operations, such as rice planters, weeders, harvesters and threshers. The government should also strengthen its supports for mechanisation of agriculture sector, such as duty free importation, credit, hard currency and other services.   

References (all three blogs)

Agajie Tesfaye, Abebaw Assaye, Degu Addis, Tilahun Tadesse, Dawit Alemu and John Thompson. 2019. Rice Commercialization and Labour Market Dynamism in Fogera Plain: Trends and Prospects (Unpublished).

Degye Goshu, Tadele Ferede, Getachew Diriba, and Mengistu Ketema. 2020. Economic and Welfare Effects of COVID-19 and Responses in Ethiopia: Initial insight. Policy Working Paper 02/2020. ISBN  978-99944-54-74-7.

Karmen Naidoo. 2020. The Labour Market Challenges of COVID-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa. https://www.africaportal.org/features/labour-market-challenges-covid-19-pandemic-sub-saharan-africa/

Cover photo: Labour market during pandemic. Credit: APRA Ethiopia

Map: Showing Amhara region. Fogera is located on the east side of Lake Tana. Source: Map data @2020 ORIEN-ME, Google.

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the #COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected in coming weeks but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

In the second of a three-part blog series, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research researcher Agajie Tesfaye examines effects of COVID-19 on labour wages, service providers to labourers, rice production and the future implications on rice commercialisation. Check below for the other two blogs of this series:

Part one: Preliminary findings and statistical analysis of research assessments on this topic.
Part three: Seven key recommendations on how the Ethiopian government can lessen the negative impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on day labourers, and rice farmers.

Read more on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ethiopia in the Round One and Round Two APRA country reports.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Agajie Tesfaye

Effect of COVID-19 on labour wages

Some farmers without working age family members depend on hired labourers coming from surrounding areas. These labourers have their own accommodation, and tend not to go to labour markets in towns. Employers look for them in villages, and also source them through networking.

Labourers from nearby villages are not available in adequate numbers and cover no more than 10% of demand. The supply shortage in the face of high demand has pushed their wage rates up. In the last seasons, their daily wage used to be in the range of 80 – 120 Birr ($2.25-3.38) per person per day (Agajie et al, 2019). However, this wage has now increased to 120 – 150 Birr ($3.38-4.23) per day, a rise of 25 – 50%.

In Fogera rice plain, it appears that wage rate was not as such an issue at this critical time of season, but it was the availability which is a serious issue. This was because, farmers could incur massive losses compared to the costs of labour. Even the wages of women labourers – lower in past seasons – has now became equal with their male counterparts.  

Map showing Fogera town. Source: Map data @2020 ORIEN-ME, Google.

Effects of COVID-19 on service providers to labourers

COVID-19 has impacted not only incomes of daily labourers, but also on livelihoods of service providers. Room rent service providers, brewers, local restaurants, bars, pubs and others were largely dependent on daily labourers. They were also established to service the needs daily labourers who came from a distance. 

These services centres were identified as hotspots for the transmission and spread of COVID-19 due to their small spaces. Consequently, District Police Officers have passed orders to suspend service provision until the situation improves. This has caused substantial decline in their incomes and seriously threatens their livelihoods.

Accommodation was a major problem faced by labourers. Before the pandemic, many labourers had been renting rooms in groups with small payments on daily basis. However, the District Police prohibited such rent providers to suspend their services. One of the Police Officers said to these service providers:

“You are only chasing your benefits at the expense of the life of these poor people…you are packing tens of labourers in one room, which is dangerous in spreading Corona. If you have economic problem, the government will support you…Therefore, stop…until the virus recedes”. 

Police officer, in discussion with service providers

In addition to the above restrictions at labour markets, the inability to get accommodation was another key reason why labourers went back to their home villages, an issue present during the early months of COVID-19 in Ethiopia. Households who depend on daily incomes have therefore been largely affected by the pandemic.   

Effects of COVID-19 on rice production

COVID-19 has not yet substantially impacted the rice sector. This is because acute labour demand season is yet to come until mid-August. In response to difficulty obtaining daily labourers, the farmers have taken two corrective measures: Firstly, farmers who previously relied on hired labour are using family labour for the first planting and weeding of rice. This included well-to-do households.

The second measure was the use of weed sprayers on rice fields. However, chemicals killed rice as well as weeds on up-lands with no flooding. Farms in flood plains were less affected due to the chemical mixing with floodwater.  

Farmers are still optimistic that labourers will arrive for the second weeding in mid-August – a critical period rice production. One of the farmers described as follows:

“If we are not still able to get daily labourers at the time of critical needs, there is nothing we can do other than trying all our best using our family labour and leave the rest for weeds to invade the field or shatter out there. You see, we normally used to spend 12,000 – 13,000 Birr ($338-366) per annum to hire daily labourers. You can imagine the extent to which we have been dependent on hired labour”.   

Farmer in Fogera Plain

Farmers planted many rice plots, fully expecting to acquire labour when the demand is high.  Rice production and productivity will be heavily compromised if farmers cannot secure labour in time for the second weeding.

A study in India in the rice-wheat farming systems indicated that reverse migration of agricultural workforce (back home) and social distancing due to COVID-19 revealed that a delay in the transplanting of rice seedlings by two weeks is likely, which will also delay rice harvesting and consequently delay in planting wheat. It was estimated that this will potentially to rice and wheat production loses of 10 – 15%, worth up to USD 1.5 Billion (Emma, 2020). Even though the extent of loss might vary, Fogera farmers will also lose a substantial quantity of rice if labour shortages continue to be a problem in fear of COVID-19 spread. 

Future implications of COVID-19 on rice commercialisation

Ethiopia is still in a state of emergency until August and it is hard to predict how the situation will change. As COVID-19 positive cases and death toll rises, it will continue to impact labour markets and other economic sectors. If farmers do not get labour for critical weeding and harvesting, rice production and marketable supplies will be largely reduced. This in turn will affect the rice processing sector in later months. Discussions with rice processors indicated that the pandemic has not yet impacted the processing sector, but that there will be impacts after the harvesting season.

It was estimated that farmers will reduce the area allocated to rice by 40 – 50% in the coming seasons if labour markets continue to be deserted as a result of COVID-19. This also means that rice production could decrease by a similar amount. The incomes of farmers and further investments on rice will also drop. This all will lead to decline of rice commercialisation in response to prolonged persistence of COVID-19 in the country.

Cover photo credit: Elias Damtew / ILRI.

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the #COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected in coming weeks but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

In the first blog of a three-part series, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research researcher Agajie Tesfaye presents the preliminary findings and statistical analysis of research assessments that were conducted to examine the impact of COVID-19 on the labour supply of rice farm workers and rice commercialisation in Fogera plain, Ethiopia. Check out the other two blogs of this series:

Part two: Examines the effects of COVID-19 on labour wages, service providers to labourers and rice production.
Part three: Gives seven key recommendations on how the Ethiopian government can lessen the negative impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on day labourers, and rice farmers.

Read more on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ethiopia in the Round One and Round Two APRA country reports.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Agajie Tesfaye

Since COVID-19 was first diagnosed in Ethiopia in Mid-March 2020, the government has taken various preventive, control and mitigation measures, including state of emergency which will last for nearly half a year. These measures have negatively impacted economic gains, livelihoods and social values. As the surge continues, it will largely drain the already limited government resources and exacerbate food insecurity of poor households.

A report released by Degye et al. (2020) outlines that prolonged existence of the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to “disease driven poverty-trap” in Ethiopia. It emphasises that it is not the number of COVID-19 positive cases that matters, but the level of disruptions to economic activities which in turn aggravates the level of health risks.

Many farms are affected by a shortage of hired labour because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A preliminary APRA assessment in Fogera District of Amhara Region highlighted most of the farming families depend on hired labour for rice production because of the labour intensive nature of the crop.

Our first assessment was conducted during the outbreak of the pandemic in mid-March, while the second was during first weeding of rice (mid-July). The third will be made towards mid-August, the critical labour demand season for second rice weeding. These assessments will illustrate the changes on extents of COVID-19 effects on labour market and rice commercialisation.

Effects of COVID-19 on Labour Supply 

Following the national state of emergency, regional governments (including Amhara Region), declared restrictions on some locations where the pandemic had been reported, such as a ban on public transport, grain, and labour markets for two weeks.

In Fogera rice plain, more than 90% of the daily labourers travel to look for work. During lockdown measures, Fogera District Police has been forcing daily labourers to spread-apart at labour markets, making finding jobs very difficult. Employers were even asked not to hire labourers. Employers described what the Police Commander said to them:

“Why do you hire a labourer whose address is not known and you don’t know even with whom he has been in contact. He could have contracted the virus and you are putting your family at risk”.   

Commander of District Police – as told by employers  

This caused employers to go home and work on their farms using members of their family. In spite of demand, many labourers were forced to go back to their villages.

The police confirmed that they are creating awareness for public in different ways including daily labourers. According to the police, they are facing challenges from the public while taking actions to minimise the spread of the pandemic as per the regulations of the government:

“Even though we are chasing daily labourers from labour markets to spread apart, they do not have other options for daily food. The same is true with service providers who rent their rooms to groups of labourers on daily basis. These…are the poorest-of-the poor and their livelihood is based on daily earning. Labourers and service providers often express ‘it is better we die of Corona after working and getting food than die of hunger’.”   

Commander of District Police

Some respondents noted that many are not using PPE or social distancing:

“We are aware that using a mask is helpful, but it is almost not practiced in our villages. We depend on prayers and God’s blessings… we have stopped hugging newcomers.”     


Farmers have planted rice as usual, expecting the situation to improve and the daily labourers, who are often very flexible, to be available. They don’t know what will happen when the demand for daily labourers is acute, but are prepared to do as much as they can do. 

Analysing the statistics

53% of the labour force in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is employed in agriculture (Karmen, 2020) and that labour in the agriculture sector will still be in demand during lockdown. The same is also happening in Fogera plain. The agriculture sector has been encouraged by the government to operate as usual even in the lockdown period, therefore should not be too badly affected. Degye et al. (2020) have also reported that agriculture is the least affected sector from job loss because of COVID-19. The agriculture sector (see table 1) will only lose a maximum of 10% of labour under a severe scenario if COVID-19 lasts for three months, compared to 57% for service and 37% for manufacturing and construction sectors. If it continues for six months, the magnitude of job loss in agriculture sector is still the least (12%) compared to other sectors.

The case for rice sector might be different because of the fact that rice farming is largely dependent on hired labour. According to Agajie et al (2019), hired labour is highly demanded for rice mainly for weeding and harvesting operations. As illustrated in Table 2, weeding and harvesting are critical operations which require services of hired labour as reported by 87 and 65% of respondents, respectively. However, hired labour is not widely available because of of COVID-19 measures taken by local governments. 

Table 1. Job loss scenarios under COVID-19. Source: Degye et al. (2020)

Table 2. Rice production activities which required services of daily labourers. Source: Agajie et al. (2019)

In the rice sector, the demand for daily labour is highly increasing over time. The proportion of labourers (see fig. 1) joining labour market shows an increasing trend in the last two decades. According to the respondents, 17% joined labour markets before the last ten years while 83% joined in the last decade. The proportion of labourers who jointed labour markets was only 5% before 15 years. A recent increase in the unemployment rate is thought to be a driving factor why evicted youths and those from lower income households find work in labour markets. This means that incidence of COVID-19 will largely affect these categories of the community. Rice farmers will also be affected from a lack of daily labourers, and their incomes will decline substantially. 

Figure 1. Number of years since labourers joined labour markets. Source: Agajie et al (2019)

The study conducted on labour profiles in Fogera rice plain indicated that daily labourers were drawn from the poorest economic groups. 65% of the labourers (table 3) were landless and even 32% owned small plots of land, either one ha or less, which is not adequate to support themselves and their families. Moreover, 53% of the labourers did not own any of the domestic animals (Agajie et al, 2019). The pandemic has exacerbated their poverty and worsened the livelihoods of these categories of the community.  

Table 3. Land ownership status of daily labourers. Source: Agajie et al (2019)

Table 1:
1 Mild scenario assumes that the adverse effects of the virus will be mitigated through rapid response mechanisms with minimal loses and mild economic problems.

2 Severe scenario assumes that COVID-19 situation will get worse adversely impacting on the economic and social sectors.

Cover photo: Labour market in Fogera prior to COVID19 lockdown mesures. Credit: Agajie Tesfaye/APRA Ethiopia

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the #COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected in coming weeks but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

This blog was written by Amrita Saha and Opeyemi Abebe. It was first published by the Commonwealth Secretariat.

In Africa, micro, small and medium-size enterprises (MSMEs) in the informal economy are particularly vulnerable to economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Consumers are demanding and spending less, leading to decreasing revenues, liquidity problems, reduced output and layoffs.

These small businesses are usually engaged in agriculture, retail trade, transportation or construction. An average of 86 per cent of Africans employed are in the informal economy, with women constituting a large part of these numbers. Safeguarding firms and workers in the informal sector will require a mix of swift context-specific short-term and more medium to longer-term measures that focus on building resilience and capabilities.

A new report commissioned by the Commonwealth Secretariat proposes five recommendations on how governments can help ensure their survival:

1. Health and safety guidelines and support schemes for informal workers

Informal sector workers are highly vulnerable to getting infected as they mostly live and work in congested spaces and lack adequate access to water and clean sanitation. Hygiene and sanitation are critical.

As a short-term strategy, African governments can immediately put in place health guidelines for informal traders, as has been done in South Africa. In the medium to long-term, health insurance schemes that afford significant protection for workers in the informal sector, such as Ghana’s National Health Insurance Scheme, can provide better prenatal care, preventive health check-ups and attention from trained health professionals.

2. Adequate short-term welfare support with coverage from public works programs

To reduce the risk of extreme poverty and food insecurity, governments are announcing online payments, in-kind transfers (food distribution) and social grants. However, access to these measures can be complex and more effective and targeted social safety nets for the informal sector are needed.

Cash transfers can be particularly effective as macro-economic stabilizers, since they can take effect with less delay than other discretionary fiscal measures. However, in the medium to long-term, generating employment through paid work opportunities and public works programmes will be important.

3. Maintaining liquidity for firms and re-thinking operating models

To survive the crisis, small businesses in the informal sector need urgent liquidity support. As of May 2020, fiscal policy stimulus vary greatly across countries, ranging from 0.1 to 4 per cent of GDP.

Such short-term increase in the liquidity of MSMEs and should go through the channels that entrepreneurs already know and trust. This means community-based financial and microfinance institutions should be considered essential services during the crisis, and provided emergency liquidity, if within regulation.

The crisis will force a fundamental rethinking of business and operating models that will transform the small business sector for years to come. Short-term measures may provide immediate support, but do little to build long-term sustainability. This requires a structural reduction the finance gap for MSMEs by extending microfinance systems and including other services such insurance, technical assistance in accessing loans and business trainings.

4. Adjusting to supply chain disruptions plus private sector development interventions

Value chain disruptions have huge impacts, as MSMEs in the informal sector rely on day-to-day sales for survival. To avoid insolvencies in the short-term, these businesses will increasingly rely on stimulus measures that lower operational costs and waive existing debts.

Expanding business links is also possible, whereby large, formal businesses can work with small, informal businesses as their outlets or distributors of essential goods to people’s doorsteps. Stimulus packages should improve working spaces and infrastructure of the informal economy, such as communal markets, in a way that promotes social distancing. This would allow them to become operational in the short-term.

In the long-term, business performance and competitiveness could be enhanced through more comprehensive private sector development interventions. These should combine access to finance, consulting and business training with industry-specific networking, regulations, standards, innovation and linkage programmes.

5. Structural policies for resilience

Resilience will depend on structural policies that support training and resources, provide information and invest in building capabilities. In the short-term, these should help MSMEs adopt new working modes and digital technologies that respond to the new reality of Covid-19, such as teleworking, online retail or home delivery.

However, this requires some basic infrastructure in place (such as internet connection) and familiarity with digital platforms, along with consumer demand for such services. Less than 30 per cent of the African population has access to the internet, compared to 90 per cent in advanced countries and 60 per cent in other developing countries. At the same time, mobile money services are on the rise amongst African small businesses, increasing productivity, turnover and revenues, and credibility.

Medium to long-term digital transformation can help ensure MSMEs can bounce back strongly. Simple digital solutions and training that do not require large upfront capital outlay will make it easier to adapt.

In conclusion, policymakers will have to assess the situation and be innovative and adaptive in responding to gaps in their proposed measures. Overall, short-term measures to help the informal MSME sector should be linked with longer-term resilience programmes for more sustainable post-Covid-19 recovery.

Opeyemi Abebe is an Adviser and Head of Trade Competitiveness Section at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Cover photo credit: World Bank / Sambrian Mbaabu on Flickr.

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

COVID-19 has taken hold in Zimbabwe with a significant growth in community transmission observed in the past weeks. On July 24th, the total reported cases were 2296, with 32 deaths. This is likely the tip of a much bigger iceberg given under-reporting and limiting testing. President Mnangagwa has re-imposed a strict lockdown in response, including a dawn to dusk curfew, further limits on movements and restrictions on transport and business.

The relative easing of COVID-19 measures over the past weeks was clearly premature given the huge flow of infections from South Africa via returnees coming home. In the last blog on the pandemic in Zimbabwe we discussed this mass migration of those who had lost their jobs or had become ill in what is now one of the major foci of COVID-19 in the world. Zimbabwe’s close proximity to South Africa is proving highly risky.

This is the third update from our field sites across the country, each focusing on how COVID-19 is affecting rural areas (see previous blogs here from 27 April and here from 15 June). Reports from all sites were relayed to me in a long phone conversation over the weekend. As the effects of lockdown have combined with an already deteriorating economy, the situation in Zimbabwe is bad. To survive people are resorting to a range of informal and sometimes illegal activities. The common view is that it’s better to risk COVID-19 in the future than die of hunger now.

The smuggling economy

Our colleagues in Mwenezi, Chiredzi and Matabeleland South in particular highlighted the massive growth in smuggling of goods, cash and people across the border from South Africa, and the implications for the spread of the virus. With restrictions on border crossing and the banning of private transport, the demand for goods has heightened and with this there have been massive hikes in prices.

A widespread network of smugglers, sometimes with the direct involvement of security forces and customs officials on both sides of the border, has emerged. Links are made to shop owners in Musina in South Africa who transport goods to the border, and link up with traders and transporters who move them throughout Zimbabwe. Paying off officials adds to the cost, but the result is that a range of goods – groceries, clothes, agri-chemicals and more – are supplied throughout Zimbabwe.

With some shops closed and others operating with shorter business hours and less stock, suppliers sell on to mobile shops that move around rural areas and locations/townships in urban areas. Much activity happens at night to avoid the authorities who restrict vending or may impose arbitrary fines. These are elaborate value chains, with many connections, and with people at every stage demanding a cut. The consumer inevitably suffers as prices go up and up, inflated further by the collapsing value of the local currency. Government and local councils also lose out as the taxes, customs duties and rates that are normally paid are lost. This huge trade is largely illegal, and many cross at secret points in the highly porous border.

This massive informalisation of the economy extends to how the supply of cash is dealt with. In the past, remittances from relatives in South Africa and elsewhere were usually paid through standard agents – like Mukuru, Western Union and so on – based in towns and cities. While still mostly operating, they no longer can be reached by many due to restrictions on access to town centres. This has become worse with the limitation of opening hours for businesses and the recent curfew.

This means that the lifeline of remittance cash in the absence of jobs has to be sought through new routes. Here the traders who illegally transport goods across the border also assist. Zimbabweans with South African bank accounts can receive and then withdraw large amounts of cash and send it via traders, lorry drivers and others to relatives on the other side of the border. Those moving the cash take a proportion for the service – up to 30% – but ensure that relatives’ money reaches their kin in Zimbabwe to keep them alive.

Mass migrations of people and viruses

The movement of people from South Africa (as well as the UK, Botswana and other neighbouring countries) resulted in the establishment of the virus in Zimbabwe. A month back nearly all cases were imported, but now community transmission exceeds these in the reported statistics. The migration of people with the virus across a region that has long relied on labour migration is one of the major stories of the pandemic in southern Africa.

When the pandemic first struck, the South African government built a massive (and very expensive) new fence along the border with Zimbabwe, notionally aimed at stopping Zimbabweans flooding into South Africa as the economy collapsed further, and so spreading the virus. But it was movement in the other direction that has driven the pandemic, with many Zimbabweans in South Africa losing jobs and fleeing poverty to be with their families back home. Excluded from social security measures, the migrant populations in South Africa not only suffer xenophobic attacks but now viral infection.

Those who return with the virus are often smuggled across the border with goods in lorries and trucks, hiding from the authorities. Illegal crossings are used to dodge the requirements to go to quarantine centres that have become notorious places, rumoured to spread disease through unsanitary conditions. Alongside normal returnees have been criminals who have been deported back to Zimbabwe, often returning to crime in the process. Returnees who arrive back in rural villages across Zimbabwe are often hidden from authorities and neighbours, and are sometimes protected by local officials and traditional leaders if well connected. It is no surprise that the pandemic has established itself in Zimbabwe.

Volatile markets: challenges for agricultural producers

As discussed in previous blogs, agricultural producers have been hit hard by the pandemic, notably through the restriction of movement and constrained access to markets. As the economy continues to implode, demand also drops. The horticultural producers from our research sites that surround Masvingo for example have cut their production by 40% and shifted to local drying and processing of vegetables as contracts with supermarkets and other traders have ceased. This has affected all household economies, as especially in the dry season (which it is now) income from horticultural production is vital.

Farmers are much better off than their counterparts living in the town, however. As our team reports, in all parts of the country those without land and some form of agricultural production are suffering badly. Hunger is really stalking the townships in all parts of the country. Farmers who have reduced production have had to diversify livelihood activities, switching to trading in particular; as our colleagues point out, nearly every household has someone trading in the informal COVID economy.

Due to the loss of value of the Zimbabwe dollar, now trading against the US dollar on the black market at over Z$120 per US dollar, many have adopted barter trade arrangements, informalising exchange yet further. This operates across international borders as well as within the country.

In rural areas, for example, farmers exchange grain, groundnuts, nyimo and other products for groceries supplied by mobile traders. In the sugar-growing areas, workers for the estates or A2 farmers who are able to buy 20kg of sugar per month at a reduced rate as part of their employment package, trade this for a range of goods. Sugar is an especially valuable currency as it holds its value well and is in constant demand. For farmers, agricultural products are fast replacing cash as a medium for exchange in the informalised COVID economy.

It is tobacco marketing season in our site in Mvurwi at the moment, and this is a rare focus of vibrant economic activity. Mvurwi town is a hive of activity with five auction floors now competing for trade. Payments are made half in US dollars and half in local currency, and although not as profitable as in the past, the tobacco sales are providing much-needed income in the area.

However, as our colleague in Mvurwi notes, the crowded scenes in the marketing areas and in the transport hubs do not result in public health compliance. Tobacco marketing, like the increasingly large church gatherings and major funerals, are feared as foci for infection. The police intervene and occasionally arrest people (sometimes in large numbers) for contraventions, but the next day things look much the same. Maintaining public health while continuing with economic activity is a tough balance.

Pandemic politics in a failing state

Zimbabwe in many respects has followed the WHO global recommendations on COVID-19 very assiduously. Interventions were early, movements have been restricted, masks are compulsory in public places and on transport, advice is to wash hands regularly and stay at home and so on. But these regulations just cannot work when people are starving, in desperate need of income. They cannot work either when the health services on which such measures rely are woefully inadequate or when health workers are hugely underpaid. Today nurses are on strike demanding better conditions, and in hospitals it is trainee nurses who are on the frontline, many now contracting the virus.

Without a functioning state that can provide security – through safety nets and support for livelihoods – and pay health workers and guarantee their safety, public health measures are quickly abandoned. Add to this the growing distrust of the state, and the likelihood of people following government edicts declines yet further.

At the beginning of the outbreak, when it seemed that this was a problem for others elsewhere, there was a sense of joint commitment: coming together to address something threatening and unknown. With the virus spreading fast and with the lockdown measures having decimated livelihoods this collective sense of purpose has gone.

Our colleagues report that, across the country, opportunistic crime has risen, along with gender-based violence. In all our sites, there is a palpable sense of frustration and tension; a sense of being left alone, abandoned by the state.

Trust in authority has been undermined too, and this has been massively exacerbated by the way the government and ruling party have acted. The scandal over corrupt procurement of PPE and other COVID-related materials that saw the Health Minister fired, charged (and then given bail) has enraged many. The heavy-handed tactics of the security forces – both the army and police – has generated resentments, as the informal trade that is the Zimbabwean economy has to pay off security officials at every turn, with bribes just adding to costs of an already expensive life. That the state is clamping down on opposition activists and journalists who are exposing corruption and restricting protests against the state is just further justification for a growing disquiet.

Rather than the sense of national collective effort in the face of crisis, it seems that everyone is on their own in the struggle to survive the virus.

What next?

The next weeks will be crucial ones in Zimbabwe. Will the virus continue to spread resulting in the scale of death and suffering now being seen in South Africa? Or will the measures being imposed now contain it? Will the resentments that have built up over the failure of the state – alongside scandals of corruption – result in strikes and protests that some have called for? Or will most Zimbabweans just continue to suffer; just about surviving and innovating continuously in response to the fast-changing economic, political and epidemiological conditions?

Our team will continue to listen to stories from the field and monitor what is happening, so watch out for the next update in a few weeks’ time.

Many thanks to all the research team from across Zimbabwe for continuing interviews and collecting local information on the COVID-19 situation (and for the photos from different sites).

All photo credit: Ian Scoones

In the second of a two-part mini-series, APRA researchers Ntengua Mdoe, Gilead Mlay and Gideon Boniface examine how actors in the rice value chain in Tanzania have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures that were introduced to contain it. Part two focuses on rice processors, farmers, input suppliers and service providers in Morogoro and Mbeye. Read part one for the impact on farmers and consumers, here.

Read more on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Tanzania in the Round One and Round Two APRA country reports.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Prepared and written by Ntengua Mdoe, Gilead Mlay and Gideon Boniface

Part two: Effects on processors, farmers, input suppliers and service providers

Effect on rice processors

Rice processing has been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Interviewed processors reported that they operate below the capacity of their processing facilities owing to the decline in domestic and export trade of milled rice. However, processing facilities owned by exporters of rice to Malawi, DRC Congo and Zambia have been the most affected following closure of borders and restriction of vehicle movement across their borders.

Warehouse owned by large-scale processor/trader stocked with bags of paddy. Credit: APRA Tanzania

Effects on rice farmers

Telephone interviews with some farmers in Morogoro and Mbeya regions show that the effect of COVID-19 varies across rice growing areas different rainy seasons. Measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic were instituted in March 2020, after positive cases were reported in the country. They were implemented when rice in many growing areas was at an advanced growing stage that required limited external inputs (except locally sourced labour) for weeding, bird scaring, harvesting, threshing and sorting.  

In areas where rice required external inputs farmers were apparently affected in two ways:

  1. Rising input prices due to limited availability because some rural input dealers were hesitant to travel to urban areas to purchase inputs because of fear of the pandemic;
  2. Farm-gate prices declined in response to a lower retail rice price in urban areas and limited number of rice buyers travelling from urban to rural areas.

On average farmers in Morogoro reported that farm-gate price declined from TZS 1,500 ($0.65) per kg before COVID-19 to TZS 1,100 ($0.47) per kg after COVID-19 while farmers in Mbeya reported a decline from TZS 1,250 ($0.54) before to TZS 800 ($0.34) after. This has depressed farmers’ income from rice by almost 27 percent and 36 percent in Morogoro and Mbeya respectively.  

Farmer in Kilombero, Morogoro clearing weeds on their rice fields. Credit: APRA Tanzania

Effect on input suppliers 

We interviewed suppliers of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides in major rice producing regions of Morogoro and Mbeya.  Despite the variation across these regions, most of them indicated that the COVID-19 crisis has had little impact on their business because the pandemic was announced in mid-March 2020 when most of them had already planted rice and the rice was already at growing stage that required limited inputs. However, they were sceptical about serious negative impacts if the pandemic persists to October-December 2020 because some rice inputs, such as fertiliser and herbicides, are imported. This will affect rice productivity in the next farming season and, consequently, low rice output and income from rice production which will undermine food and nutrition security.

Effect on service providers 

We interviewed providers of financial services to traders and processors of rice in the Morogoro region. All interviewees indicated negative impact of the COVID-19 crisis on borrowing and repayment of loans in terms of decline in the number of businesses borrowing and repaying loans. However, microfinance institutions with limited operating capital were the most affected.

Medium-scale rice processor/trader. Credit: APRA Tanzania

Coping with the effect of COVID-19 

Actors and service providers have found creative ways of coping with the negative effect of the COVID-19 pandemic including but not limited to the following:

  • Some large-scale processors/traders taking advantage of low farm-gate paddy prices to buy and stock large quantities of paddy, anticipating to mill and sell at better prices after the pandemic;
  • Some small-scale processors deciding to provide milling services to farmers and traders instead of being involved in the business purchasing paddy and mill it for sale;
  • Some small rice traders stepping out of the rice value chain to alternative income generating activities. For example some urban traders that we  interviewed have moved from rice to selling face masks and sanitisers, which are currently in high demand;
  • Smallholder farmers selling their stocks of paddy in piecemeal to meet cash needs, instead of selling all of it during the pandemic as they anticipate a  price rise after the pandemic;
  • Suppliers of inputs such as fertilisers changing from trading 50 kg to 25kg bags which are affordable to  farmers.


Evidence from actors in the rice value chain indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted rice value in Tanzania, affecting all actors in the value chain to a variable degree. Overall, small-scale operators such as traders and farmers were more affected than large-scale operators. Export traders were more affected than domestic traders, particularly exporters of rice to Malawi, DRC Congo and Zambia. Small-scale traders were more affected than medium and large-scale traders. In fact some of the small-scale traders were compelled to step out of the rice trading business. Likewise, small-scale farmers, small-scale input suppliers and services were more affected than their medium-scale and large-scale counterparts.

The rice business across the chain is gradually returning back to normal after the government’s decision to remove most restrictive measures taken to prevent spread of the pandemic effective 29th June 2020 as a result of decline in the COVID-19 pandemic.  This gradual recovery suggests that full recovery may take a long time as there are still COVID-19 control measures that restrict cross border trade with neighbouring countries.

Feature image: Farmers in Morogoro clearing weeds on their rice fields. Credit: APRA Tanzania.

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the #COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

Actors in the rice value chain in Tanzania have been hit hard by COVID-19 pandemic and the measures implemented by the government to contain it. In the first of a two blog mini-series, APRA researchers Ntengua Mdoe, Gilead Mlay and Gideon Boniface look at the measures in closer detail, and examine how badly consumers and traders in Morogoro and Mbeye have been affected.

Part Two: Effects on processors, farmers, input suppliers and service providers

Read more on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Tanzania in the Round One and Round Two APRA country reports.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written & prepared by Ntengua Mdoe, Gilead Mlay and Gideon Boniface

Part one: Effects on consumers and traders

Lockdown measures

Tanzania has not closed its borders or restricted movements, largely because landlocked neighbours import their goods through the Dar es Salaam port. However, it took the following measures which were announced by the Prime Minister on 17th March 2020:

  • Suspended all international flights;
  • Mandatory quarantine for all travellers coming to Tanzania;
  • Closed all educational institutions;
  • Suspended social and other gatherings such as seminars and workshops;
  • Enforced WHO health standards mentioned above.

The closure of borders, and restriction of movements across borders have disrupted trade in eastern and southern and Africa. In the context of the rice value chain in Tanzania, it has limited formal and informal cross-border trade of rice from Tanzania. Most of the exporters of rice to Zambia, Malawi and DRC Congo have ceased rice export as a result of the closure of borders and restriction of movements across the borders with these countries. Exports of rice to Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan have been declining due to significant delays in crossing the borders. Overall the COVID-pandemic has had a significant effect on export trade of rice such that Tanzania has surplus rice to the extent of depressing rice prices along the value chain.

Effect on consumers

Consumers of rice, especially in urban areas, have been negatively affected by the pandemic through reduction in purchasing power as a result of the following:

  1. Loss in wage income among employees of private educational institutions following temporary suspension of employees after the government’s announcement to close  academic institutions;
  2. Loss in wage income of workers laid off as a result of decline in business experienced by hotels, restaurants and other eateries in urban areas caused by the suspension of international flights, social and other gatherings and fear of the COVID 19 pandemic .

The loss in wage income has reduced purchasing power and led to a decline in household rice consumption. The decline in business experienced by hotels, restaurants and other eateries has not only affected rice consumption through reduction in the purchasing power of the laid off workers but also a decline in rice consumption away from home. Rice is a major component of foods retailed in hotels, restaurants, cafes and other eateries normally located in busy streets or other public places (markets, bus stations). Rice can be cooked as plain rice and served with meat or beans and/or vegetables or cooked with meat and spices and served with vegetables (Pilau in Swahili).  Operators of hotels, restaurants, cafes and food stalls reported a decline of about 20 to 100 percent in the number of customers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Owners of food stalls located in busy streets, majority of them being women, are the most affected due to fear of the pandemic among customers.

Woman vendor in Morogoro cooking and serving different forms of rice. Credit: APRA Tanzania

Effect on raw rice traders

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all categories of raw rice traders but the magnitude of the effect varies between different categories of traders. It differs between domestic and inter-regional (export) traders.  

Effect on domestic traders

There are a multitude of small, medium and large traders operating in Tanzania who are involved in retail and/or wholesale rice business. Retailing of raw rice takes place in open markets and small local shops throughout the country as well as supermarkets in urban areas.  In open markets, retailing of rice is normally done by small traders. Large scale traders are normally involved in wholesale business while medium scale traders are involved in both wholesale and retail business. 

Local shop in Morogoro selling raw rice as one of the items traded. Credit: APRA Tanzania

Medium and large scale traders obtain rice supplies from farmers and/or rural assemblers in the form of milled rice or paddy (unmilled rice). Some of the medium and large scale traders own rice mills for processing own paddy or providing milling services.  The large scale traders have several outlets of milled rice such as medium scale traders, retailers, educational institutions, hotels and restaurants. In addition to their involvement in the retail business, medium scale traders supply rice to some of the outlets supplied by large scale traders.

All categories of domestic traders of rice interviewed reported to be negatively impacted by the pandemic in terms of decline in selling price of rice leading to decline in revenue earned from rice sales. On average, retail prices of rice in Morogoro municipality declined from TZS 2,000 ($0.86) per kg before COVID-19 to TZS 1,450 ($0.63) after COVID-19 and from TZS 1,400 ($0.60) per kg before COVID-19 to TZS 1,000 ($0.43) per kg after COVID-19 in Mbeya. Consequently, income earned by retailers from rice has declined by approximately 28 percent and 29 percent in Morogoro and Mbeya respectively.

Effect on inter-regional (export) traders

As pointed out above, Tanzania exports rice to Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Zambia, Malawi and DRC Congo.  Rice export to these countries has been increasing since the removal of export bans in 2012. However, the recent COVID-19 crisis has negatively affected the rice exports.  Our interviews with exporters to Malawi, DRC Congo and Zambia indicate that export of rice to these countries has stopped as a result of the closure of borders and restriction of movements across the borders while exporters to Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan (through Uganda) indicated slowdown in rice exports owing to significant delays in crossing the borders. In terms of revenue, exporters to Malawi, DRC Congo reported total loss in export revenue while exporters to Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan estimated loss in export revenue of between 40 and 60 percent per month as a result of COVID-19.

Feature image: Medium scale trader/processor who supplies raw rice to retailers, hotels and educational institutions in Morogoro. Credit: APRA Tanzania

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the #COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

In our second in a series of blogs of the impact of COVID-19 in Ethiopia, APRA researchers Dawit Alemu and Abewaw Assaye examine the reaction of rice farmers and processors on the Fogera Plain to the lockdown measures, and whether they adapted to new circumstances.

Read more on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ethiopia in the Round One and Round Two APRA country reports.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Dawit Alemu and Abebaw Assaye

The first confirmation of a COVID 19 case in Ethiopia was on 13th of March 2020 and with the increase of cases, the government declared state of emergency (SoE) on 10th of April 2020. The SoE and its implementation directive determined the different measures and restrictions applied nationally. The key measures and restrictions that are relevant for rice value chain were:

  • Mobility restriction and increased cost of transportation for both human and goods.
  • Establishment of command posts (taskforces) at different administration levels for follow up and control of movement of goods and pricing as per the directives of the implementation of SoE.
  • Reduced extent of public services that have association with rice production, processing, and marketing.

Reaction to lockdown measures

Due to the reported COVID 19 case in Bahir Dar city, there was a two-week lockdown restriction that affected the mobility and operation of rice market actors, including operation of rice processors. The period from January to May is the major marketing season for both paddy and milled rice, therefore we assessed how the COVID 19 incident and the different public measures (listed above) taken in the Fogera Plain affected the paddy and milled rice market, with focus on the responses of the value chain actors.  Rice processors, who previously informed us about their businesses and operations, refrained from providing required and trustworthy information. This led us to strategise the approach to collecting information. Accordingly, we followed the movements of paddy and milled rice starting from farmers to the processors and to other actors (wholesalers, retailers and transporters).

Paddy rice transportation from rural area to Wereta. Credit: Abebaw Assaye

Rice farmers traveling to Wereta town indicated that farmers in rural areas are not willing to sell their paddy to processors, even though unit prices were higher during the lockdown. This suggested that processors also changed their commercial behaviour and expected similar increases in prices. We learned from local retailers/wholesalers that processors reduced production and bought paddy to stockpile them at private storehouses. Paddy rice can be stored for a longer period without pest damage compared to milled rice. The processing is planned to be made in a piecemeal approach by considering price trends, and they currently process in small volumes to demonstrate to authorities that they continue to operate. Before COVID 19, rice was processed for free with an arrangement of price setting per unit of volume of milled rice, where the leftovers (broken rice, bran and husk) used to be considered as compensation for the processing services (see this APRA brief for detail).

We later realised that the limited willingness of processors to provide information was associated with the fear that a local command post (a taskforce comprising of experts from different public offices to detect rule-breaking) established to manage and control food grain marketing would be aware of their hoarding. Hoarding for the intention of manipulating markets is one of the prohibited behaviours in the COVID 19 state of emergency measure, including any price manipulations.

Though measures are put in place along with mechanisms to implement them, the reality is that unit price of paddy and milled rice are increasing substantially in the Fogera plain and both farmers and processors are engaged in the hoarding of paddy, increasing the price in local markets, as controlling such market behaviour without market incentives to benefit current or future income is very difficult.

Paddy rice negotiation at process facility. Credit: Abebaw Assaye

2019 vs 2020 price comparison

The price data indicates that rice farmers are enjoying higher price that has increased on average by 5.67% every month from January to May 2020 and by 14.72% compared to the five-month average price compared to 2019. Similarly, the price of milled rice has shown increasing trend with average monthly price increase of 14.63% from January to May 2020.

Table 1: Monthly average price trends of paddy and milled rice (2019 vs 2020)
Source: Wereta city administration, office of trade and market development

Looking ahead

The impact of COVID 19 on smallholder rice farmers will be clearer in the next production season (June – Dec, 2020), where it is expected to be shortage of hired labour due to labour mobility restrictions and/or expected increased daily wages, and limitation in the provision of adequate extension services. Those rice farmers engaged in vegetable production during the off-season that are not consumed locally (such as cucumber, tomato, cabbage and watermelons) are highly affected due lack of market as the main customers mainly hotels, restaurants and institutional purchasers (universities and colleges) have stopped purchasing. This in turn will seriously affect the production diversification trends observed in the Fogera plain along with increased investment in irrigation.

Cover photo: Paddy rice at a rice processor. Credit: Abewaw Assaye.

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the #COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected in coming weeks but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

The COVID-19 pandemic is leaving a huge economic and social burden in Ethiopia, where there is already a large number of vulnerable people dependent on social support. In the first of a series of two blogs on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Ethiopia, independent consultant and social science researcher Amdissa Teshome examines the current state of the social protection system in Ethiopia and determines whether it is fit for purpose.

Read more on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Ethiopia in the Round One and Round Two APRA country reports.

Read the full APRA synthesis report on the Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa, here.

Written by Amdissa Teshome

Ethiopia has had numerous pandemics in its history, some of which have coincided with global pandemics. In more recent times, HIV/AIDS has left over 800,000 children orphaned. COVID-19 has become a serious threat to lives and livelihoods. The first case was announced on March 13, 2020 and as of June 18th there are 3954 cases and 65 deaths. These numbers are small by global and African standards but Ethiopia Health Care Data highlighting the geographic coverage, age distribution, and rate of increase over a short period of time is still alarming. The country is clearly in a community transmission phase and could be in a pandemic situation for longer than most countries.

The Government of Ethiopia and humanitarian partners estimate that 16.5 million people will need food and non-food assistance in 2020 of which 9.8 million are COVID-19 affected. With a further 15 million who rely on safety net and relief assistance, this accounts for almost 30% of the population. Independent analysts estimate that the country’s GDP could contract by 2% to 10% if the current partial lockdown continues for three-six months. The IMF also estimates the GDP will grow at 3.2%. Some agricultural products, such as fruit and vegetables, are already suffering from a decline in output price, increase in input price and labour shortages. It is against this background that the Prime Minister reported to parliament, the economy will grow by 6% (down from initial estimate of 9%).

What are the features of a social protection system?

A social protection system consists of individual projects or programs working in an integrated, coordinated and synergetic manner, and can be triggered with minimum bureaucratic hurdles that often come with fragmented programs. Ethiopia has a social protection policy[i] developed as a common framework for all programs but is yet to be put into practice. The policy is inclusive, proposes a single registry system that all programs can use, and commits the government to reduce dependency on external finance.

Resourceful but fragmented social protection

There are numerous schemes, programs, and projects that are benefiting vulnerable people. The Ministry of Agriculture’s rural safety net, covers eight million rural people and is financed by eleven donors[ii] and costs about $600m a year (the government contributes 14%).

The urban safety net, run by the Ministry of Urban Development and Construction, assists 600,000 out of a potential 4.5 million urban poor. It is financed by the World Bank at a cost of about $450 million over five years.

Ethiopia introduced public sector contributory pension in 1963 and extended it to the private sector in 2011. These are managed by separate agencies and cover around 2.8 million pensioners of which about 850,000 draw a minimum of ETB744 ($27.4) per month. Domestic workers, informal sector workers, seasonal workers, and employees of non-profit civil society organisations are not included.[iii]

Persons with disabilities, elders, and children benefit from various programs supported by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. Community health insurance is managed by the Ministry of Health and covers over 20 million urban and rural poor. The school feeding program under the Ministry of Education benefits about one million children out of over 30 million attending school. Extended families and community groups also play important roles. It is estimated that over 90% of Ethiopians belong to one or more traditional support groups.

How is the COVID-19 response financed?

Health related responses (medical supplies, testing, quarantine, and treatment centres) go beyond the scope of a social protection system and need to be mobilised from external as well as domestic sources. Ethiopia has acquired medical supplies, and private hotels, large meeting halls, and newly constructed commercial centres have been converted to quarantine or treatment centres.

However, a social protection system should be able to respond to livelihoods crises that stemmed from limited economic activities imposed to curb the virus. These programs enable millions to cope with the pandemic in one way or another but they are limited in coverage. Therefore, the government resorted to mobilising resources (see Tweet below) to mitigate hunger among the most vulnerable. Youth and women volunteers have also collected cash and food and distributed door-to-door to the elderly, chronically ill and people living on the street.


After nearly sixty years of contributory social security and implementing numerous programs, Ethiopia has not consolidated these efforts into a social protection system. The major safety net programs are donor financed, which makes the transition to domestic financing very unlikely in the foreseeable future. Finally, a social protection system should not be mistaken for a ‘centralised system’. It can have multiple programs guided by a common social protection framework as defined in the policy.

[i] MoLSA (2014) National Social Protection Policy, Addis Ababa.

[ii] These include DFID, EU, Global Affairs Canada, Irish Aid, the Netherlands, SIDA, UNICEF, USAID, WFP, and World Bank.

[iii] The scheme is open to CSOs but they opted for the provident funds managed by employers.

Cover photo credit: UNICEP Ethiopia on Flickr (this photo has been cropped for the purposes of this blog).

Please note: During this time of uncertainty caused by the #COVID19 pandemic, as for many at this time, some of our APRA work may well be affected in coming weeks but we aim to continue to post regular blogs and news updates on agricultural policy and research.

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

On the 13th June I had a follow up conversation on how people are coping with the COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe. As with the previous discussion on April 23rd it was based on a compilation of insights and reflections from across our rural field sites – from Chikombedzi, to Masvingo district, Gutu, Matobo and Mvurwi. It was a long and fascinating call, and this blog offers only some highlights.

Compared to when we first talked, there are now more recorded cases in Zimbabwe (currently 356), although no more deaths (still at four recorded). The country is in ‘indefinite’ lockdown, but in Level 2 mode, which allows some more flexibility. However, things remain tough for all those in our study areas. Below are some themes that emerged from the discussion:

Restricted movement

Movement restrictions are very strict. You have to get a permit to travel, and it can take days for these to be issued. The police are everywhere, and the army. They will stop you at roadblocks and turn you back if you don’t have the paperwork. It’s a real challenge as farmers need to get to town to sell things or buy inputs. It’s really impossible. Shops are now open longer, but if you cannot travel, what can you do? It’s even difficult to get to hospital or the clinic. Those with conditions like HIV/AIDS or TB are suffering as they are not getting the medicines on time. If there’s a complication with a pregnancy there’s nothing you can do. You have to rely on local herbalists and others. The same is for livestock – they are dying of diseases as we can’t travel to town to get the dip chemicals or treatments. Movement is essential for life. People will always find a way though. They have to in order to survive. We have had 20 or more years of practice of living under hardship, we are good at surviving, but things are really tough.

We rely on the truckers

For supplies, we now rely on the truckers. Traders are not allowed to go to South Africa anymore (although some sneak through unregulated border crossings), and the buses that used to bring things from down South are not moving. So the truckers who are allowed to move bring things. It’s illegal, but there is a well-established network these days. And those who used to buy and sell from South Africa have set up tuck-shops in the locations (high density suburbs in town) and in the rural areas, and things are supplied. You can buy agri-inputs, groceries, phone credit, and much more. But it’s expensive. They are buying in Rand, and the Zimbabwe dollar is fast losing strength. The black market rate is three times the official rate, so buying goods these days is seriously expensive.

Remittances are no longer coming

People used to rely a lot on remittances. Either in kind – usually sent by bus from South Africa – or in cash – through transfer services like Mukuru, World Remit or Western Union. But relatives outside the country – even in the UK – have lost their jobs. They no longer send remittances. This is a big problem as these funds used to pay for labour or for agricultural inputs, or for fees or groceries. It’s a big gap. For example, the tobacco harvest in Mvurwi is being delayed as there’s no money to pay for labour.

We are all vendors now

To survive, everyone must become a vendor. It seems something is being sold from every house in the location, and even in the rural areas too. People stock some small things and sell. Some deal in groceries, others sell farm or garden produce (vegetables, peanut butter etc.), others do sewing and repairs, others sell clothes. There are so many shebeens (informal drinking places), and beer brewing is a massive business particularly in the locations. There are hair and beauty salons – all informal – in people’s houses, along with electrical repair shops, tailors – you name it, you can find it. It’s all illegal and the police can always close things down, so people wait until they knock off. It’s the evenings when there is so much activity. Some sell from their cars, as they can quickly move if the police come. Others use wheelbarrows, push carts, large dishes. Markets are everywhere, despite the older ones being closed. The government has destroyed the old informal markets and is building new ones, but these are not complete, so people must improvise. Some have even started online trading, but this is only feasible in the towns, given the cost of (phone) bundles. The action is all in the locations, and farmers must link with relatives and others there. In town, some buildings are registered for trade, and people can then set up tables there, but they will pay the tax. The government doesn’t like the informal traders and is trying to formalise everything. Although they are building new hygienic structures for people to trade from, much of this is just to control people and collect taxes. Right now, we need to live.

Everyone is a gardener

Gardening is essential too. Every bit of ground near people’s houses is now a garden. It’s vital to stay alive, and with the markets closed it’s difficult to buy things. You have to grow your own. It’s good as people stay healthy, and some can also sell as part of vending from their homes. In an area you know who has what. Wider markets are coming back too, as schools, universities and other institutions begin to open. The demand is not as it was, but there is business to be done if you are a farmer or gardener.

Restrictions on agricultural markets persist

Moving produce to markets is difficult. The police will stop you, ask for permits. It’s a total hassle. So some farmers will move early in the morning, offloading produce in the locations where others sell. Others move in the evening and sell from their pick-up trucks. There’s always a way, even if it’s more difficult. For more formal marketing there are so many regulations. For example in Mvurwi, people can come together and sell at a single point to a company representative who comes to the area. A farmer representative can travel with the crop to the auction floors, but the selling is not transparent. You cannot see how it’s weighed and graded because of the coronavirus restrictions, so farmers are easily ripped off. This is disastrous as these days payments are only in part in forex, so you don’t get much for your crop. Alternatively, you can take your tobacco to the auction floors yourself if you’ve got a truck, but you may have to queue for days, and they will not let you on the floor because of the virus. So there is always cheating, and you get a bad deal. Marketing for farmers is a big challenge due to COVID-19.

It’s better in the rural areas

There is massive urban to rural migration right now. Many people in town are really suffering. They have lost jobs, there’s no food, rents are getting hiked and there is huge inflation on everything. Some say it’s 700 percent! Many have come home to the rural areas. This is particularly those who were relying on informal activities, including vendors, sex workers and other informal jobs in town. The rural areas are now full of those coming back to their rural homes. Here rent is free, and you can grow food, even if only a small garden. And relatives know them, and will help out. It’s a much better situation. Some are wondering if they will ever go back to town.

Returnees from South Africa are feared and stigmatised

There are thousands coming back from other countries – mostly from South Africa, but also other countries in the region, such as Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania and so on. And also from the UK, Australia, parts of Asia. There are so many. People are saying why did you leave if you come back when things are tough out there? They left because of Zimbabwe’s problems, but now they’re running away from hunger and disease in South Africa. The rise in reported cases has almost all been from returnees from South Africa and other countries. They have lost jobs and have no means of survival, as the ‘social protection’ measures in those places do not cover migrants, especially if you don’t have the right papers. When they cross the border into Zimbabwe, they are supposed to be put in a quarantine centre, but some may escape. These places are not good, and if you don’t have the virus you might catch it there! People are complaining seriously about these centres, as they are not well run. If you escape the police can chase you, and now they are confiscating passports and ID cards. If you don’t have the virus after eight days you can be transferred to an isolation centre, which are better. Less like prison. You can even pay for something better, as hotels are being used. Or you are sometimes allowed to self-isolate at a rural home under the supervision of a kraalhead. Those returnees from South Africa are seen as diseased and dangerous in the villages. People run away from them. There is so much stigma and fear. Those who dodged the quarantine camps, perhaps coming over an illegal crossing, are sometimes smoked out by locals, and reported. People really fear the returnees. We see this unknown virus in them.

Community relations are getting strained

COVID-19 is really straining relations. Social gatherings are restricted, and you have to get a permit. You can have up to 50 people for a church service or a funeral for example. But people cannot travel far to weddings, funerals and so on, so families are not keeping in touch at these important moments. With returnees coming back, they may be hidden from others for fear of them being exposed. This is causing problems within villages, where everyone knows everyone. But there are ways of bringing people together too. There has been a big rise in savings clubs to assist with people buying groceries. People now realise that saving is important so as to cushion you from a shock like this that just comes from nowhere. There’s also been a growth of burial societies, as the main funeral companies are no longer working. So people do help each other out in the villages particularly, making the rural a better place to stay right now. There are also quite a few projects and forms of assistance, which seems to be more common in the rural areas. This can come from government – including the First Lady’s projects – or through churches, NGOs, even companies. But the lockdown is certainly causing many frustrations for sure. You can see this especially in the locations but also in the rural areas. People want to socialise; they want to go for a drink and meet people. So you see lots of people hanging around in the urban and rural townships, especially where there are illegal bottle stores and shebeens. Drugs are a problem too, and this is causing conflicts between people, and sometimes the outbreak of fights. The police will round people up, hand out fines, but people will not obey; they are frustrated with lockdown life.

Sharing information and countering fake news

There’s so much fake news circulating about COVID-19, especially on social media, WhatsApp groups and so on. Some are now saying that after so many months it doesn’t kill Africans. Some say that there is a cure already found. Others argue that it is all a plot by foreigners. Some of us look at the international media and know that these things are not true, but gossip and rumour travel fast, and it’s amazing what people believe! The government is publishing official information. They’ve printed booklets in all 16 local languages, and they also use radio, TV and the state newspapers. There are phone and text messages from the government too. And they publish the data by province each day, so you can find out how things are changing. The rise in cases from returnees especially from South Africa is certainly worrying people, and adding to the stigmatisation of those who come back. So yes people know it’s dangerous. They see it next door in South Africa. Relatives tell them how bad it is in the UK and Europe too. Although we haven’t seen deaths, we realise that controlling it is important, so overall people still back the government, as we don’t want it here like it is in South Africa.

Political tensions

We hear that there are some in power who are benefiting from tenders due to COVID-19. We know the chefs are corrupt. There are others profiting too, but that’s not bad. For example, there are business people who are making and selling PPE and sanitisers. There are lots of small COVID businesses around. Farmers are even buying this stuff, including face masks and sanitiser so they can move around and trade safely. Some shop owners are even buying temperature testing kits costing US$100 or more. Emergencies always provide opportunities for some. However, some of the police and security forces are taking advantage. There were rumours of mass mobilisation by the opposition recently, and then the road blocks became harsher. Some were targeted, and there was reportedly some violence in some places. We heard the news of the shocking attacks on MDC people too. We don’t know how bad things are elsewhere, as where we stay in the rural areas there is less conflict. This seems to be in Harare and places like that. But we can see the tensions and we see the results in the movement restrictions and the massive presence of security people everywhere. But the police were more heavy-handed in the earlier lockdown period, and it’s eased a bit now, although if you are found in the wrong place at the wrong time, you will be in big trouble. It is lockdown with force, but people must violate the rules because they are starving. They see the rationale for the lockdown, but they just cannot always comply.

Many thanks to all the research team from across Zimbabwe for continuing interviews and collecting local information on the COVID-19 situation (and for the photos from Mucheke). In a few weeks we will have a further update on this blog. In the next two weeks the blog series looking at what happened 20 years after land reform will conclude, wrapping up the five previous blog with two summary/synthesis pieces.

All photo credit: Ian Scoones and his team.

Written by Steve Wiggins.

What lessons can be drawn from previous health crises to inform responses to COVID-19 in rural Africa? We reviewed seven previous health crises, plus a couple of economic crises, to think about to counter the effects of COVID-19 and its controls on agriculture, food systems, food security and rural livelihoods in the developing world.

Potential impacts of COVID-19 in rural Africa

COVID-19 is expected to lead to large economic losses in Africa, with UNECA expecting economies to shrink by 2.6% in 2020. Lockdowns to prevent disease transmission can take a heavy toll on urban economies, especially, closing down most services, including tourism, and much informal activity.

The size and duration of economic loss are uncertain, depending on how the disease develops, and the measures taken to control it. Even less clear is how rural areas will be affected. Medically, distance from urban centres of infection and dispersed rural populations may slow transmission. The relative youth of rural populations may mean that few infections progress to serious disease and death. On the other hand, migrants returning from urban areas after losing their jobs may spread disease. Because some of the rural population are already in poor health, and have immune systems compromised by HIV, or are malnourished, COVID-19 may lead to more serious disease and deaths. Curative health facilities, moreover, are generally lacking in rural areas.

That said, effects on agriculture and rural economies from disease alone may be quite modest: labour may be lost to sickness and caring, but for most infections, the illness may last no longer than a week or two. Farming is already adapted to such contingencies: illness in farming households is quite frequent, labour needed at peak seasons is typically replaced by extended family, collective self-help and hired labour.

Of greater concern are restrictions on movement and gatherings. They can lead to rural markets closing, to less public transport, thereby disrupting the marketing of crops, reducing demand for farm surpluses, and increasing food prices in urban areas.

The travails of urban economies will affect rural economies as well. Layoffs of workers in the cities will stem the flow of remittances which, in some villages, contribute significantly to rural incomes. Closure of urban restaurants, food markets and losses of urban income will reduce demand for agricultural produce, especially high-value and perishable produce.

Restrictions on international travel may mean less capacity to carry export crops as air freight; while increased vigilance at borders may impede agricultural trade.

Five main changes are probable:

Agricultural output will fall, owing mainly to reduced demand for high-value perishables and export crops, especially air-freighted exports. For other crops, effects may be quite small, so long as disruptions to rural markets and supply chains are not severe. If farm input supply or finance that pays for it is interrupted, then farms that depend significantly on external inputs — not the case, however, for many smallholder farms — may experience further declines.

Women will probably face additional work in caring for the sick, on top of their often already heavy workloads. Their daughters may be taken out of school to help them;

Rural household incomes will fall, particularly for households that rely on high-value perishables and air-freighted export crops, on rural non-farm business and employment, and remittances from migrants;

Some supply chain businesses — transporters, processors, traders, etc. — will reduce operations or close if they deal with produce for which demand has fallen, or transport is disrupted, or they are closed down by disease controls. At worst, businesses will go bust — although some, probably small and informal, enterprises with few capital costs and overheads may survive if they can switch labour to other activities;

Food insecurity may rise, as incomes fall and agricultural prices rise owing to disrupted supply chains. If markets are closed, some households may lose access to food, or have to buy from more distant centres at a higher cost. Households on a low income may well switch to less nutritious food.

Such impacts will be highly uneven. Socially, infections and disease hit some hard, while others remain untouched. Economically, some households have resources to cope with the loss of labour and income, while others cannot. Geographically, impacts will vary by farming systems — the type of crops and livestock produced, their dependence on labour and purchased inputs, and by the supply chains that link them to markets.

Lessons from previous crises in responding to the effects of COVID-19

Shocks, by their very nature, are unexpected. The challenges involved are novel, especially so with a disease, where every pandemic has its characteristic transmission and disease. Decisions have to be made when much is uncertain about the disease and how to control it, and about its economic and social effects.

It is not surprising, then, that three mistakes are commonly made in early reactions. One, early responses can be wrong-headed: at best ineffective, at worst counter-productive. For example, pretending that HIV could only infect drug users and homosexuals, covering up the outbreak of SARS, deflating Asian economies when the financial crisis of 1997 broke, ignoring the views of rural communities and imposing impossible restrictions on them when Ebola struck in the Mano River countries and later in DR Congo — all of these were counter-productive. Only when such policies were either abandoned or outflanked by more effective measures, was the tide turned.

Two, when epidemics hit, medical responses get priority, humanitarian relief comes next, while considerations of livelihoods tend to lag behind. Informal economic activity typically gets very little attention at all, yet this includes much smallholder farming, trading, and the interactions of rural and urban economies. This is particularly costly since most people vulnerable to crises — those on low incomes, who lack assets, who may have precarious health — work informally.

Three, decision-making is not helped when some people, above all those in government, overreact to shocks. Feedback-loops that exacerbate the initial problem can be strong. For example, fear of disease can lead to myths about its origins and causes, so people neither report disease nor cooperate with medical responses. Fear that food will not be available in markets can lead to panic buying and hoarding — by individuals, companies and state agencies — that drives up prices, thereby fuelling further overreactions.

Public agencies can only do so much to respond to crises. Faced by visible distress and often fearing that further impacts will be worse, governments, aid partners, and NGOs feel they have to react comprehensively. In reality, however, their options are limited. To respond, administrative structures, procedures and staff have to be in place. Experience defines both the range of options most likely to be considered and those that can reasonably be implemented within the short to medium term. This applies especially to interventions in the field, for example, to safety nets.

Silver linings, however, can be seen. Recovery from a crisis can be faster and stronger than expected. Medical controls or treatments for pandemics can rapidly end them. Recovery from previous epidemics has been largely complete within one year; while much recovery can be seen from previous economic crises within five years of the initial shock.

Recovery did not depend, either, on profound reforms to economies or societies. In part that may be because the shocks were not primarily the consequence of deep-seated malaise, but were caused by specific perturbations; for example, the emergence of potent viruses, the volatility of international capital markets (Asian currency crisis), and a perfect storm of low stocks, demands for biofuels, harvest failures and export bans that led to a spike in food prices. Much productive capital survived these crises, allowing recovery.

Public measures to support recovery were often quite straightforward and well-known: injections of capital, variously through bank credit, small business grants, community funds, micro-finance, distribution of farm inputs; social safety nets to allow coping without loss of productive capital; redoubled commitment to the provision of public goods and services in rural areas, etc.

These succeed because partly it was not just government, aid partners and NGOs who responded, but also those most affected by the shock – rural people themselves. Indeed, in crisis after crisis, what made the difference for most individuals affected and their households was their ability to cope — or not — drawing on the means of the household, extended family, friends, local community organisations and local economy.

What’s needed to deal with COVID-19 in rural Africa?

In terms of what to do, three priorities stand out:

One, sustain rural livelihoods as far as possible. Allow rural markets to operate with modest restrictions and precautions. Ensure farmers can farm, which may mean guaranteeing supplies of fertiliser, seed, and fuel, and in some cases, allowing seasonal labour to move for harvests and the like. Remittances will probably fall, but for those still flowing, facilitate transmission from urban to rural areas.

Two, maintain food systems. Set up green channels for agricultural inputs, processing and marketing: minimise restrictions, give these activities and transport priority.  Find ways to keep enterprises in food supply chains running, or if they must close or operate at reduced capacity, provide bridging loans so they can return to operation when the crisis passes.

Three, protect those most affected. Scale-up existing safety nets to reach more people and if necessary, increase payments. Where such nets do not exist, institute emergency cash transfers. Target broadly to prevent exclusion errors: worry less about inclusion errors. Prioritise rural women when extending safety nets or increasing payments. If rural girls are withdrawn from school, encourage them to return after the crisis — for example, with cash bonuses.

As for how to do it, four key lessons can be seen. One, manage responses adaptively. Take prompt action but be prepared to revise responses in the light of incoming information. Engaging with communities — which needs time and resources if it is not to be mere co-opting — not only generates critical information but can also generate practical responses that work locally, that outsiders may not see.

Two, to allow adaptive management, invest in understanding what is happening. Rapid data gathering and analysis — on changes to livelihoods, food supply chains, rural markets and food security — is needed.

Three, responses to previous crises have been under-evaluated: knowledge of what works, and how, is vested largely in the heads of those who previously responded. Hence find and employ those with experience of previous crises. Include specialists from across the board: avoid privileging the views of any group of specialists.

Four, recognise capacity limits, acknowledge what is feasible. Options that are feasible may seem insufficient to deal with the crisis. They may be modest rather than radical. As stated, however, experience shows they can make a difference, if only because in part, those most affected are often making great efforts to resolve the difficulties they face. External support that works with local responses can make a difference.

This blog is based on the Rapid Evidence Review: Policy interventions to mitigate negative effects on poverty, agriculture and food security from disease outbreaks and other crises, which was led by Steve Wiggins and colleagues at ODI and was conducted jointly with support from the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) and the new, DFID-funded, ‘Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises’ (SPARC) programme.

Image credit: World Bank, Social distancing in the market. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Written by, Steve Wiggins, Roger Calow, Joe Feyertag, Simon Levine & Alexandra Löwe.

This review was commissioned by DFID to draw lessons from previous shocks (e.g. Ebola outbreak, MERS, SARS, the food price crisis of 2008/09) that may be relevant to dealing with the consequences of COVID-19 in developing countries and especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The review addresses two questions:

  • What may be the consequences of disease, and responses to it, on agriculture, rural livelihoods, food systems and food security?
  • What lessons on dealing with those consequences may be drawn from previous crises?

The assessment has been led by Steve Wiggins and colleagues at ODI and was conducted jointly with support from the Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA) programme of the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) and the new, DFID-funded, ‘Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises’ (SPARC) programme.

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) commissioned an in-depth review to draw lessons from previous disease outbreaks and other crises that may be relevant to formulating a coherent policy response in developing countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Rapid Evidence Review: Policy interventions to mitigate negative effects on poverty, agriculture and food security from disease outbreaks and other crises was led by Steve Wiggins and colleagues at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and conducted with joint support from the APRA programme and the new, DFID-funded, ‘Supporting Pastoralism and Agriculture in Recurrent and Protracted Crises’ (SPARC) programme.

The review addresses two key questions:

  1. What may be the consequences of disease, and responses to it, on agriculture, rural livelihoods, food systems and food security?
  2. What lessons on dealing with those consequences may be drawn from previous crises?

The review finds that COVID-19 is unlike many other crises, and hence caution should be applied to use previous policy responses are a blueprint. There is a large gap on systematic evaluation of policy responses to previous crises, a severe lack and underfunding of rapid data collection on food security and food prices (hence a lot of unknowns!), and policy responses were often found to be ineffective, not adaptive and not taking institutional capacity limits into account.

The research team made the following recommendations for a coherent COVID-19 policy response to protect food security, markets and livelihoods of the most vulnerable:

  1. Livelihoods need to be maintained as far as possible. To protect livelihoods and maintain food systems, provide the means to farmers to expand their production at the next planting season. Allow rural markets to operate with modest restrictions and precautions. Find ways to keep enterprises in food supply chains running, or if they have to close or operate at reduced capacity to ensure they survive the crisis. Furthermore, ensure the flow of remittances remains unblocked at both ends of the urban-rural pipeline. Finally, provide green channels for agricultural inputs, processing and marketing.
  2. Agricultural output can be boosted very considerably over a season or two. In general, economic recovery from crises can be stronger and faster than some fear at the height of the crisis. That’s partly because crises do not greatly damage capitals; partly because recovery commonly mobilises extra effort from actors of all kinds.
  3. Impacts of health crises are uneven and socially unequal, often putting more strain on women and girls. To protect those who are hard hit by the crisis, scale up existing safety nets to reach more people and if necessary, increase payments. Target vulnerable populations broadly to prevent exclusion errors and prioritise rural women when extending safety nets or increasing payments. Ensure that if rural girls are withdrawn from secondary school, there are clear mechanisms in place to encourage them to return after the crisis is over.
  4. Invest in understanding what is happening. Rapid data gathering and analysis including on food security, food prices and informal livelihoods, is essential. Existing data economies can help predict and project impacts of shocks, including COVID-19, where real-time data are lacking.

To complement this Evidence Review, APRA is launching a Rapid Assessment of the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Systems and Rural Livelihoods in Africa. The assessment is seeking to obtain real-time insights into how the crisis is unfolding in different parts of the region and how local people, governments and food systems are responding. Starting in June, APRA researchers will carry out a rolling telephone survey and key informant interviews to gather primary data on the COVID-19 situation in the APRA focal countries of Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The survey will also be conducted by partner organisations in Kenya (Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development) and Zambia, by the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS). Approximately 800 households will be interviewed in total (both female- and male-headed households). Once this cohort is in place and the baseline has been established, the informants can be contacted on at least two additional occasions (every 6-8 weeks) to gather updates on local conditions and experiences related to their health status, responses to the threat of Covid-19, agricultural production and marketing, labour and employment, availability of agricultural services, food and nutrition security, and other vital details. Thus, APRA will be able to continue to monitor the evolving situation on the ground to build up a picture of how people are being affected over time.

Lastly, APRA researchers are leading a new set of Case Studies of the Impact of Covid-19 on Agricultural Value Chains in Africa, which builds on its ongoing analysis of the political economy and social difference dimensions of those chains. These case studies are now underway in the APRA focal countries and cover a range of value chains (staple crops – maize, rice; oil crops – groundnuts, oil palm, sunflower; commodity crops – cocoa, tobacco). A COVID-19 component has been added to the research to examine how different actors along those chains are being affected by the policy response to the crisis. For example, many countries have since announced a ‘state of (public health) emergency’, which is disrupting farming practices, the movement of goods and people, etc. Questions that will be asked during the research in the next few months will include: How are different actors in the APRA value chains responding to these changes? Are some able to cope better than others? What effect is this having on farmgate and market prices? Are producers, traders and other private actors finding creative ways around these restrictions – or is the lockdown ‘total’? What kind of decisions have been made, what legislation has been introduced, and how has this affected different actors in the chains? The second element of this work involves implementing a ‘Rapid Market Survey on the Impact of COVID-19 on Agribusinesses for Investors’, which is seeking to examine the effects of Covid-19 on small and medium-scale agri-businesses that are sourcing produce from smallholder farmers in the APRA value chains. The market survey involves targeted interviews with agri-SMEs and is being implemented by APRA in partnership with the DFID-funded ‘Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness’ (CASA) Programme.

Rapid Evidence Review: Policy interventions to mitigate negative effects on poverty, agriculture and food security from disease outbreaks and other crises

Steve Wiggins Rapid Response blog

Image credit: World Bank, Market Place (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nigeria’s Government strategies to safeguard the population against COVID-19 and minimise its spread have, so far, been largely effective. But what impact is the country’s strict lockdown having on public food access and fresh produce supply to agribusinesses? Emmanuel Maduka, managing director of a processing company for indigenous crops, outlines the challenges he – and other small enterprises – are facing.

Written by Emmanuel Maduka. This blog first appeared on the WRENmedia website.

On Friday 28 February, the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, leading governments all over the world to take precautionary measures to strengthen its containment. Nigeria, like many other countries, implemented a complete lockdown, restricting movement in all states for a period of two weeks to curtail the spread of the virus. As of 18 May, this strict measure seems to have been effective; out of a population of over 206 million people, the country has confirmed 5,959 cases and 182 deaths.

On the other hand, the lockdown has resulted in other, economic costs to the nation, as supply chain and logistical disruptions have taken their toll across sectors, especially the agricultural sector. Many businesses started to struggle before the measure came into force as a result of numerous Chinese factories already being closed to contain the virus, and thus, no longer producing and shipping essential product components for Nigerian companies. The full-blown economic impacts, however, only became evident at the national level in mid-March. It is now clear that the disruption to millions of livelihoods is having disparate impacts on households, with low-income families and individuals the hardest hit, and especially those who receive their wages on a daily basis.

A crisis for food and market access

While the government and national organisations like foodclique have led a food relief effort in the country, many families remain hungry, and food prices have risen significantly. Local food markets are the backbone of the agricultural economy and supply the majority of Nigeria’s population. While supermarkets have become more prominent in some cities, it is these local markets that dominate by providing opportunities to barter prices and buy food products in bulk, whilst still catering for individuals who can only afford to buy small quantities of food. The downside to these markets is their limited potential for enforcing social distancing, and as a result, they have been closed under the new restrictions. This has created challenges – not just for food traders, but for many families whose only option now is to access food from the formal retail outlets where prices are often above what they can afford.

In Nigeria, like other African nations, the pandemic has greatly limited agricultural production, processing, and transportation between farmers, industries and markets. While many companies involved in these processes have been classified as essential businesses – and are therefore still able to operate – labour and supply shortages exist across the value chain as a result of compliance with the lockdown directives, and reduced consumer demand. Companies like mine have had to scale back production as access to raw material has become more challenging.

The business need

Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Nigeria make up 84% of the workforce but, due to the pandemic, the activity of these businesses has greatly reduced, with revenues falling by up to 90%. One such company is Nuli, a small and growing restaurant that delivers fresh, ready-to-eat meals and juices in Lagos, which was founded by Ada Osakwe in 2015 and operates 10 outlets. Due to national safety restrictions, Osakwe has had to temporarily close nine outlets, leaving just one to cater for online requests and home deliveries. Osakwe’s situation mirrors that of many SMEs facing reduced revenues and, without adequate government compensation, the inability to address mounting costs, including for staff salaries.

In response to this problem, the federal government has announced a ₦50 billion (over £103 million) fiscal stimulus, which will be provided through the Central Bank of Nigeria as an intervention loan for SMEs. However, many businesses don’t feel this is enough and have signed an online petition requesting that the government go further, calling for amounts as much as 260% higher than the current proposal – part of which is suggested to be provided in the form of grants to provide immediate relief.

What are the lessons?

What we can learn from this situation is that SMEs, and especially agricultural SMEs, are extremely vulnerable to business disruption as they have limited credit reserves and little access to risk finance tools, insurance, recovery lending, extension grants and other tools that could improve their resilience. Development actors therefore need to work with private sector partners to create, execute and enact measures that help SMEs keep afloat during times of crises.

There is also the need for government to install necessary supply chain infrastructure, such as a strategic rural-urban rail network, to reduce widespread disruption within transport, aggregation and retail systems when businesses have to close. Similarly, farmers need to be provided with protective equipment to safely continue production and enable a steady flow of food products to avoid price hikes for consumers, and reduce the possibility of civil unrest due to food inaccessibility and unaffordability.

Finally, local markets need to be restructured in a way that retains their unique benefits but, at the same time, addresses public safety concerns. A financial social safety net for citizens should also be created, especially for farmers who play such a key role in these perilous times.

Cover photo: © Alamy

Written by Ian Scoones. This blog first appeared on the STEPS website.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a rare event in its scale and spread. But in responding to it, people have been looking at lessons from other outbreaks of infectious disease. What are the patterns in the ways that governments and people respond, and why have some widely-known lessons been ignored again and again?

One source of insight is the global outbreak of avian influenza (H5N1) in 2004-2006. In 2007, Paul Forster and I, with support from the FAO/DFID and the ESRC STEPS Centre, set out to explore the implications of that outbreak. We were joined by Sophal Ear, Rachel Safman and Tuong Vu, and together we looked at the national responses in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, alongside the array of global initiatives.

In 2009, in the midst of another global pandemic – this time of swine flu (H1N1) – we wrote it all up as a book, Avian Influenza: Science, Policy and Politics, aiming to draw lessons for the future. Many saw the avian and then swine influenza as the ‘dress rehearsal’ for the major pandemic that everyone knew would come sometime. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are now at that point. I re-read the book recently in preparation for an IDS Between the Lines podcast. The parallels with today are striking.

Back then, thankfully, the avian flu outbreaks did not turn out to be the long-expected ‘big one’, and in the end only a few hundred deaths were recorded. But, as the H5N1 virus began to spread between people in 2004, people’s minds turned to the spectre of the 1918 flu pandemic – as they are doing today. During the avian influenza outbreak, dire warnings were spelled out of the potential death tolls: up to 150 million people, according to one estimate from WHO. The interventions to stop spread, particularly through poultry populations, were extreme, combined with major movement restrictions on animals and people.

Avian flu was highly virulent among poultry and wild bird populations, but it did not catch hold in the human population. Although it spread further, the later H1N1 swine flu virus similarly failed to take hold among people. But, as biologists reminded us, we were only one genetic reassortment away from the lethal, fast-spreading flu virus. Today we are confronting a different virus – a coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 – which has just these qualities. This virus comes from a different source, with different epidemiological dynamics, but also causes respiratory disease.

The final sentence of the 2010 avian influenza book is telling. We urged the world to “waste no time” in learning the lessons. In the intervening decade since the book was published, did the world take heed? The short answer is, no. In the closing chapter, we outline the important challenges for policy and practice. Of course every epidemic is distinct, with different contests over science, different policies and different politics, as the country cases in the book show. But there were some striking common themes that emerged from across our studies.

Lessons from the past

Five lessons are startlingly relevant to what also needs to happen after COVID-19, and they are summarised here.

1) Go beyond a focus on outbreaks to address changing disease ecologies

We only wake up to disease threats when there is a big outbreak. Most recently for influenza, this was in 1968, 1976 in the US, 1997 in Hong Kong, and then 2004-6 and 2009 for avian and swine flu respectively. During these periods, funds are mobilised (usually late), experts are consulted (usually selectively) and governments invest (if they can afford it). The international machinery grinds slowly into action, and encourages global action. Then, when it’s over, things stop and go back to normal.

But it’s the intervening years between outbreaks that are actually the important ones. This is the period when viruses that might jump from wild animal populations are circulating. Most diseases that become epidemic (subject to outbreaks) start out as endemic (just part of the normal disease environment). Unless we know more about disease ecologies, by tracking viruses, examining their genetics and phylogenies and exploring vectors and hosts, we will not be able to spot pending outbreaks.

Over the past three decades or so, over 30 new human pathogens have been detected, three-quarters of which have originated in animals. This means zoonotic spillover is very common, and sometimes the consequences are serious for human populations. Just as with influenza viruses, coronaviruses can cause human disease – SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was one and COVID-19 is another. But there are plenty more, and viruses change fast under selection pressure, so there are always possibilities of new ones.

As environments alter – through climate change, intensification of agriculture or rapid urbanisation, for example – we need to be on top of the game. For COVID-19, we weren’t; just as we weren’t for avian and swine flu.

2) Address the political economy and ecology of food systems

Most transfers from wild populations to humans occur in the context of agriculture and food production. For avian influenza, it was most likely due to the rapid industrialisation of poultry production in parts of southeast Asia and China, spurred by the growing demand for meat. Poultry products were increasingly being supplied by medium-scale industrial units, frequently with poor biosecurity. For swine flu, it was pig farms in the southern US and Mexico owned by large corporates that were the source of outbreaks. For COVID-19, the initial transfer seems to have been traced to a so-called ‘wet market’ in Wuhan that sold wild animal products.

In each case, however, there is a wider story of changing agri-food systems behind the outbreak.

As Rob Wallace argues, big farms create big flu and the increasing concentration of animal production, and the role of powerful corporate players in the food chain, is important. For COVID-19 the story is a bit different. Many are now blaming Chinese ‘wet markets’, but simply banning them will simply drive markets underground, with even less biosecurity and greater risk, and would be a ‘terrible mistake’.

In exploring the disease history of COVID-19, we have to look at the wider political ecology of production, and how wild animals are increasingly harvested further and further into still-remaining forest areas. Here, viruses circulating in wild populations may come into contact with humans for the first time, causing infections. So it is disturbance of the wider ecosystem and its consequences for agri-food systems that is important; not just the market where – following a long chain – the outbreak started.

3) Take livelihoods, equity and access seriously

Very often, measures to stop a disease can be highly damaging to vulnerable populations. In the avian influenza outbreak, control efforts focused on so-called ‘backyard chicken’ producers, and their poultry was slaughtered compulsorily in huge numbers. This caused devastating impacts on livelihoods across southeast Asia, with governments insisting that producers ‘upgrade’ to biosecure facilities. This was of course out of reach of many people, and the opportunity of the disaster was captured by those with capital and political influence.

Just as with the quarantine measures for COVID-19, it was poor and marginal groups that were the worst hit by disease control efforts. These were the same groups who had least access to healthcare support if they got the disease. While viruses can affect everyone, their impacts – both of the disease and the control measures that follow an outbreak – are unevenly felt across diverse and unequal societies.

The rhetoric that ‘we are all in this together’ in a global outbreak forgets issues of equity, and the ‘structural violence’ that diseases deliver. In the avian influenza case, the focus on ‘at source’ extermination of poultry flocks to protect ‘global’ business and western populations illustrated the uneven nature of what was portrayed as a unified international response.

4) Embrace uncertainty and surprise and rethink approaches to policy advice

Despite the experience of previous major influenza outbreaks, the spread of avian influenza from 2004 took the world by surprise. It did again in 2009 with H1N1, and it has today with COVID-19. We will never know when a new disease will emerge, and how it will spread, but it will certainly happen.

After the avian influenza outbreaks, much effort was focused on poultry in southeast Asia, but the next outbreak came from the Americas and was in pigs. Despite the vast investment in pandemic preparedness and epidemiological disease modelling, we can never predict what will happen and when. Even when an outbreak occurs, there are so many uncertain parameters in any model that predictions of what will happen is simply guesswork, even if well-informed.

The warning that perhaps 150 million could die from H5N1 in the mid-2000s was thankfully way off the mark. The influential models published in Nature and Science in 2005 – including by modellers now heavily engaged with the COVID-19 response – were subsequently found wanting. They tried to offer certainty where there was none, and misled policy-makers by giving a false sense of predictive security.

As we argued in the 2010 book (and many times since), embracing uncertainty and surprise requires a different approach: a more plural perspective on modelling and sources of knowledge, including linking to local understandings and experiences. The COVID-19 experience shows a similarly dangerous reliance on necessarily imperfect models, and thus an unhealthy reliance in science-policy circles on inevitably limited epidemiological information, without this being complemented by other sources of more diverse and locally-rooted expertise.

5) Develop institutions and organisations that foster adaptation, innovation and reliability

In our reflections on avian influenza, we concluded that the existing institutional and organisational architecture, constructed after the Second World War through the United Nations system, was not fit-for-purpose. It was top-down, cumbersome, lacked flexibility and was organised in disciplinary/sectoral siloes. This remains the case today.

The avian influenza episode prompted useful debate about a ‘One Health’ approach, which encouraged cross-working between medics, vets and ecologists, together (sometimes) with social scientists. But the incentives, funding flows and capacities to institutionalise this were absent, despite the flurry of interest. Subsequent work highlighted just how segmented networks of expertise were, and how challenging a One Health approach is for current systems in the UN and beyond.

To generate reliability in the face of uncertainty and ignorance and to offset damaging surprises, a totally different set of skills, capacities and organisational arrangements are required.

Where is the capacity in large organisations to learn from the ground, share innovations and shift course? Frequently missing. Where are the reliability professionals in health systems who can track between local contexts and wider scenarios, and facilitate real-time responses? Largely absent, or at least not recognised. Where is the built-in redundancy, system flexibility and adaptive capacity for facing times of crisis? Again, not evident – too often these are the first elements in any organisation to be cut due to ‘efficiency’ measures under austerity financing.

In top-down, crisis and emergency planning, such flexibility is usually eliminated, and people are left to innovate on their own, embedding their own practical knowledges into cultural repertoires and forms of collective action. This is what happened amongst poultry farmers in southeast Asia in the 2000s, as it is across the world in response to COVID-19. As we learned from Ebola in West Africa, it is these culturally- and socially-embedded responses that are key to ‘flattening the curve’ in any outbreak, but are only rarely incorporated into wider responses.

* * * *

These five lessons summarise what we learned from the avian influenza outbreaks in the mid-2000s. As you can see, they are all relevant to what we are facing now. Once the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is over, let’s hope that the lessons – adapted to the particular conditions of different places – will be learned this time, and the same mistakes will not be made in the future. COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic to confront humanity.

Find out more

COVID-19: Resources and research on epidemics and pandemics
Compilation of 13 years of work on epidemics and disease under the ESRC STEPS Centre, and its links to COVID-19.

Book on epidemics and One Health

You can buy the book on the avian influenza response and two companion volumes from the publisher, Routledge, at a 50% reduction using the code IDS50 until the end of May 2020.

Podcast: the social dynamics of pandemics

Melissa Leach, Hayley MacGregor, Annie Wilkinson and Ian Scoones discuss how we should learn from past epidemics and outbreaks and the need to understand social dynamics in order to respond to Covid-19.


The ESRC STEPS (Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability) Centre carries out interdisciplinary global research that unites development studies with science and technology studies.

Cover photo: Villagers in Makamie, Sierra Leone. Credit: Corporal Paul Shaw/MOD on Flickr.

Written by Ian Scoones

Over the last few weeks we have been tracking what’s been happening in our rural study sites in Zimbabwe as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown (see the earlier blog too). Last week, I caught up with a colleague in Masvingo who had been recently in touch with others in our team in Chatsworth, Chikombedzi, Hippo Valley, Matobo, Mvurwi and Wondedzo. This blog is a report on current conditions, summarising a long phone conversation.

The lockdown was first announced by the President Mnangagwa on 30 March, and was subsequently extended on 19 April for a further 14 days. As of April 26 there were 31 reported cases and 4 deaths, spread unevenly across the country. But of course the fear is that the disease will spread and strike hard. The lockdown measures have been heavily enforced and have caused massive hardship, particularly in the poorer urban areas, where informal traders in particular have been targeted. Farmers have suffered too due to movement restrictions and the collapse of markets.

As my conversation last week revealed, Zimbabwe’s experience, like elsewhere in Africa, raises questions as to the costs of a heavy-handed lockdown, particularly on the poor and marginalised, and whether there are alternative approaches both to confront the virus now and for different approaches to society and economy in the future.

How have movement restrictions affected people’s lives in the rural areas?

Massively. Although you can go to the local shops (between 9am and 3pm) and move about your area, you cannot move further without a permit, and have to prove that travel is essential. Security people can stop you at any moment. You can get a permit from Agritex (extension service) locally for agriculture-related movement, or from the councillor or police. But if you have to move further you have to go to the provincial level. It can take days. You can try your luck and negotiate at the road-blocks, but you will likely be turned back. There are so many police out – they’re everywhere! There is no public transport these days. If you travel in your private vehicle, you can only have two people. All the private Kombis and buses are grounded. ZUPCO (a government-owned company) operate buses, which are disinfected after each trip, but there are very few. This has had a disastrous effect on business, and farmers cannot get crops to market. Right now people need workers to help with the harvest, and although this is allowed as agriculture is essential, you can easily be stopped, and it makes getting help on the farm more difficult than before.

So what about agricultural produce markets?

It’s a disaster. All the main ones have been shut down. There was an outcry and they opened them again for a bit, but people crowded there. It was chaos, so they shut them again. This means for horticultural farmers in our study areas things are tough. Vegetables, especially cabbages and tomatoes, are rotting at their farms. In the south, huge number of melons have gone to waste. For some, vegetable-drying is possible, and people are creating ‘mufushwa’ in large quantities. But overall it’s a disaster. Some are selling individually, travelling to the ‘locations’ (high density suburbs) and selling from their pick-ups. Some can sell to the supermarkets if they have contracts, but demand has gone down. You can’t move from the location to town in Masvingo without permission, and so people just buy locally, informally. Other markets have also dried up. The boarding schools are closed, so are the universities, along with all hotels, restaurants and so on. These all used to be so important for horticulture markets, as well as for poultry. Income from these sources has ceased. Same too with the massive church gatherings, attended by thousands. In some of our sites, people had been growing for the Easter gatherings, but now they have had to dispose of the produce. It’s a disaster for farmers.

What about businesses more generally?

Most of these are closed. It means that as a farmer you can’t get your pump repaired, or a car fixed. You can’t go and buy key bits of equipment. Even if the shop opens for a short time, which some are allowed to, getting a permit to travel from you rural farm and ensuring you are there at the right time is impossible. A big problem is cash. This has been a problem for a time. The electronic RTGS Zim dollar is worth less than the Zimbabwe bond notes, but people are not keen to use cash notes as it might transfer the virus. Even if you have money in the bank, you cannot get it. They’ve opened banks only for forex, and for short periods, to allow remittances from the diaspora to be paid. This is vital for many of us, including farmers.

How are people surviving?

The rural people are on their own. There is a big chain reaction – without markets, producers, transporters, and all others suffer. And then there is no cash to buy food or other inputs. For example, there is a big theileriosis disease outbreak among cattle currently, but people have not been able to buy spray dip chemicals and cattle are dying in numbers. They cannot be driven to other places to avoid the ticks, so they just die. Of course people in the rural areas are in some way better off. It’s the beginning of the main harvest season and, although the season was bad, people at least have something. It’s much tougher in town. There’s subsidised mealie-meal, but a packet of 10kg that should be Z$70 it’s being sold for Z$90. Traders are exploiting the situation. Some are illegally doing business. In one study site the grinding mills open at night to allow people to get food. The money changers operate under cover and there is a growth of private business, from people’s homes, including brewing beer, baking and selling food. In the south, some are even risking crossing the border to get supplies for resale in South Africa. The danger is that they can smuggle the virus too.

What are some of the social issues emerging?

Certainly there are reports of increased domestic violence. People cannot go out, and tensions rise. Some are consuming illegal brews – including spirits made at home. This can be dangerous, just like we are seeing increased drug use among the youth. Normal life is disrupted. You cannot even bury the dead – you again need a permit, and a health worker has to be present to supervise the burial, and a maximum of 50 can attend, but following social distancing rules. Travelling to funerals is impossible if outside your area. Family relations – and life in general – are being challenged by this virus.

What about health services?

Yes the clinics and hospitals are open. The problem is that you have to get a permit to move. And then the nurses at a clinic may not see you. They don’t always have the full personal protective equipment (PPE) and are really scared. Even though there are no cases in Masvingo as yet, people may be dying of malaria or childbirth complications or whatever, because of the lockdown. It’s killing people. The government is investing seriously in the health service, even employing more health workers. They are creating emergency beds, even in the rural areas, but it may not be enough. We have seen what has happened in Europe and the US on the news.

What are people’s attitudes to COVID-19?

People ask, what disease is this? Where has it come from? It is such a shock! There are so many rumours. People say it’s God’s revenge; they blame the superpowers; they say it has been manufactured to kill us. But mostly people are just scared. They have seen the news. We know pandemics, we had HIV/AIDS, but this is worse. It’s the number 1 disease. With AIDS people died over a long time, but this is sudden. With HIV you knew how it was transmitted, and people changed their behaviour. It could be avoided. This is just meeting someone – it’s so contagious. Even thought he’s allowed, one of our colleagues who works with Agritex was moving around and was told in one village to go home – to ‘keep to your place’!

Who are the main people involved in the response?

There are so many. The government actually has organised quite well, it is doing something. Before they’d forgotten the health system – there was a freeze on health posts, people were paid badly and the hospitals and clinics were in a terrible state. Now they see the importance. This crisis has at last awakened the administration. For years we haven’t had an effective health service, but now something at least is happening. In each area there are COVID-19 task-forces – and mines, business people, well-off individuals and others are contributing resources. The universities and some business are making things – sanitiser, masks, PPE materials and so on. It’s a joint effort with government. The chiefs are involved too, and so are the spirit mediums who are seeking spiritual help to get through the crisis. The churches are doing the same; although they are not meeting, the church leaders, prophets and others are mobilising. Everyone is praying! There are WhatsApp groups giving advice on what to do, including some ideas for remedies. There seems to be a unified approach, and all the political parties are involved.

What next?

So far we haven’t suffered from the disease, only the lockdown. We have a few cases only. We accept that this lockdown period is for building the capacity of the health system to cope. Let’s hope that’s possible. It’s a Catch 22. We see what has happened in the UK, US and even South Africa. We don’t want this to happen here. But with lockdown most people are surviving hand-to-mouth. Life has become very, very difficult. There is mass suffering, and so far in Masvingo we haven’t had a single case recorded. Is it worth it? I don’t know, but everyone is very scared. Maybe there can be a process where kids can go to school, markets can open and we can move around because we cannot go on like this for long. There must be ways to make the places where lots of people gather safe – schools, transport hubs, markets, shops, religious gatherings and so on. Surely we can think of ways. Good hygiene, distancing and so on. Once the health service is adequate and built up things will be better; maybe there will be some anti-viral medicines too, like we have for HIV. Hopefully we can then live with the virus, and still survive.

What lessons can we draw from the experience so far?

We know that health services are important, and the government needs to invest. We know that farmers are essential and contribute to combatting a crisis, especially getting food to urban areas. We also know that lockdowns are really impossible – and they can kill. They may be worse than the virus! We also know that we can do things ourselves. Good diets bring immunity. There are traditional remedies that may help. And hygiene in the home and at work is always important. In the past we used to be self-reliant, making and selling things locally. There were often big crises, such as droughts, but our parents had granaries to tide them over. In future, we have to be prepared, we have to use our own resources. In the past we used to make things ourselves, not go to the shop to buy. Why are we importing so many things like face-masks? We can make them. We produce huge amounts of ethanol from sugar, so we can make sanitisers. We have forgotten self-reliance. We have been taught a very big lesson by this virus. We should not rely on the outside, and individuals and households have to take the responsibility ourselves.

This blog first appeared on Zimbabweland. It is a summary of a recorded conversation on 23 April 2020. Thanks to the whole team form across Zimbabwe for their contributions. Future posts will offer more updates and detailed cases from our field sites in Masvingo, Matabeleland South and Mashonaland Central provinces of Zimbabwe.

By Phillan Zamchiya, Clemente Ntauazi and Boaventura Monjane. This blog first appeared on the PLAAS website.

In order to guard against the spread of Covid-19, Mozambique declared a state of emergency for 30 days with effect from 1 April 2020. The government announced several regulations meant to limit the movement of people and goods in a decree. This was bound to affect different sectors of the economy and agriculture has not been an exception. Within the agrarian sector, some studies indicate that the peasantry constitutes 80% of the economically active population, producing 90% of food available in the country. How have the interventions affected this ‘invisible’ group in the marginal areas? This is in a context where peasant farmers are currently harvesting crops such as maize, peanuts and beans and are preparing for the second farming season.

Based on recent conversations with farmers and our field experience, we observed four immediate impacts.

First, the farmers are selling their products way below the market price as the supply chain has broken down. Due to restrictions on movement, most of the candongueiros (informal traders) who usually buy the products from the farmers are no longer able to go into the communities. To make matters worse, agricultural trade markets in rural areas have been stopped. As a result, there is a drop in the demand for products. The farmers have no option but to sell their products to the few available buyers for a song in order to meet their day-to-day needs. For example, in Lioma village (a sub-division under Gurué district), farmers sold beans at MZN 20 (7 ZAR) per kg but since the announcement of the state of emergency the price has decreased to MZN 14 (4 ZAR) per kg. Maize was MZN10 (3,55 ZAR) per kg and it has dropped to MZN 6 (2 ZAR) per kg. Peasants who might want to go and sell their own products to get fairer prices face transport constraints. The price of transport has increased. For instance, from Ruace (a highly productive zone) to Gurué, transport fare has increased from MZN 80 (28 ZAR) to MZN 100 (35 ZAR). While in Nacala (a cassava production region) transport has increased from MZN 250 (89 ZAR) to MZN 400 (141 ZAR).

Secondlypeasants are struggling to buy basic commodities due to reduced income from crop sales. While the peasants have been forced to reduce prices, local businesses have increased prices of products such as oil, milk, soap, salt, sugar and other items for household consumption. A survey of shops in Gurué shows that the prices of most products have increased by 50%. On the other hand, some small shops are closing as they fail to restock due to transportation problems. However, the problem extends to peri-urban and urban consumers. The candongueiros who are able to beat the regulations have increased prices for urban consumers. For example, a 50kg bag of cassava, which was at the price of MZN 50 (18 ZAR) before the pandemic, now sells at MZN 150 (53 ZAR). The intermediaries cite the increase in transport costs, but others have found an opportunity to make exorbitant profit. After all, they already buy at low prices from the vulnerable farmers. This has serious implications on food accessibility.

Thirdlythe regulations have affected the supply of agrarian labour in the rural areas. Farmers are finding it difficult to mobilise labour based on traditional kinship and social ties. This practise of mobilising labour is known as the Namuri system. In a normal situation a group of people—who could be relatives or neighbours—would assign particular days to work on each other’s field. Due to the pandemic, some families are now reluctant to gather in groups, and this is affecting the labour supply critical for the second planting season. The ganho-ganho system (hired labour) is also affected as mobility is constrained. With these dynamics, farmers have to rely on family labour for cultivating their plots. Relying on family labour may affect crop outputs as labour force is reduced. Costa Estevão, a peasant farmer in Nampula province, failed to hire labour as people thought it was risky to work on his field due to the pandemic. As a result, he is relying on his wife and two children.  It now takes the family more time to complete field tasks.

Fourth, the peasant associations are under pressure from the government to adopt genetically modified seeds in order to increase yields under the current crisis. This is more pronounced in areas where the last farming season was bad. For example, there were excessive rains in Gurué last year, which affected crop yields. Th government projects that most families in that area are going to run out of food by January 2021. The farmers’ hope was on maximising production during the second farming season. Now faced with the double burden of coronavirus, some government officials are arguing that the only way to maximise food production and avert a disaster is to immediately adopt genetically modified seeds. However, a civil society alliance coordinating Covid-19 responses in Mozambique has criticised the idea of introducing the genetically modified seeds under the pretext of mitigating the effects of natural disasters worsened by Covid-19. They argue that this will pose serious threats to biodiversity, food and economic sovereignty long after the crises.

Given these four impacts, the state, civil society and international donor agencies must forge an alliance and step in so that the peasant supply chain is not disrupted during this state of emergency. These three actors should support peasant communities at a district level with appropriate technologies to work the farmland at a time when traditional labour regimes are affected by social distancing regulations. For example, a tractor can be assigned for tilling the land in each of the districts that are engaged in production for the second agricultural season. In addition, the three actors should ensure availability and transportation of organic seeds and fertilizer to the rural areas during the emergency to rescue the second farming season. This is critical for future local and national food supplies. There is no need to use the pandemic outbreak as an excuse to secretly liberalise genetically modified seeds under the pretext of addressing productivity during the crisis. As for transportation and price inflation, the state should lead to ensure movement of food products from the rural communities to the market centres and to reign in swindlers. The peasants generate the bulk of their income from their harvests, and they need fair prices to sustain their livelihoods. Since smallholder farmers have already made losses, a disaster relief fund that captures the lowest caste is strongly recommended. However, to ensure compliance with important health safety regulations, the three actors must ensure provision of protective gear, sanitisers and promote social distancing along the supply chain. Such tailor-made interventions will assist in mitigating the negative impacts of regulations on the poor peasants, and at the same time help in curbing the spread of Covid-19.

Cover photo credit: Jeffrey Barbee/Thomson Reuters Foundation on Flickr.

The Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness programme (CASA) programme  is utilising its Evidence and Learning Component to run an e-series on “Rethinking agribusiness investments through the pandemic”. The first of the four sessions will begin at 12 noon BST on Thursday Apr 30th and will draw on inputs from food retailers, international institutes, fellow donors, and the China Agricultural University. Speakers and panelists for the Apr 30th session include:

  • Mike Coupe CEO, Sainsburys plc;
  • Dr Shenggen Fan Chair professor, China Agricultural University and former Director-General of IFPRI;
  • Dr Bettina Prato Senior Coordinator, Smallholder and Agri-SME Finance and Investment Network (SAFIN), at IFAD;
  • Aviva Kutnick Division Chief for Markets and Finance at USAID’s Bureau for Resilience and Food Security. 

It will cover:

  • What we know about how the crisis is affecting global food and crop systems;
  • The impact observed on agri-business in developing countries thus far;
  • The effects being observed on farming, food prices, food supply and agricultural livelihoods.

Subsequent sessions will cover: how agri-businesses and agri-business investors are adapting to survive and agri-business investment scenarios once the pandemic is contained.

Each one will be formed of a live session with speakers on a Thursday, a gap of 4 days to enable participants in different time-zones to access the recording and comment, and a wrap-up session the following Tuesday.

Overview of sessions

The series of virtual convenings is designed for investors, investment support stakeholders and commentators in agribusiness to share thinking and efforts to consolidate, innovate and adapt in light of the global pandemic. The virtual events are not expected to provide definitive answers but instead to provide a platform for structured sharing and reflection, in response to the issues exercising the investor community and agribusiness sector.

The e-conference series aims to:

  1. Identify the needs of SMEs ;
  2. Showcase tools and approaches to supporting agribusiness during the pandemic developed by various stakeholders;
  3. Identify evidence gaps and information needs for the CASA programme to support investors through and after the pandemic;
  4. Outline possible investment opportunities.

There will be four thematic ‘platforms’: 

  • Impact Platform: What is the current reality of the impact? (This will draw on data and analysis from the on-farm and off-farm enterprises across the food and crop systems to emerging issues and dynamics shaping performance.
  • Support Platform: How do we support businesses? (This will cover two dimensions: first, securing supply chains and cash flows through the crisis and second how to reconfigure business models to respond in the short term).
  • Sustainability Platform: How to manage the climate and health risks associated with ecological biodiversity loss for agri-business? (This will cover adaption of environmental sustainability standards for SMEs and investors to reduce the risk of human-animal interaction and mitigate similar crises. We will also look to opportunities this may present).
  • Futures Platform: What happens after the curve is flattened and the economy is rejuvenated (exploring scenarios and investment opportunities for post-COVID-19 in light of a potential global recession)?

Click here to register.

Click here for the session schedule.

Cover photo: Kenyan smallholders grow nutritious crops. Credit: USAID on Flickr.

By Phillan Zamchiya, Dewa Mavhinga, Thando Gwinji, Arnold Chamunogwa and Claris Madhuku

The Covid-19 global pandemic poses serious challenges to fragile countries such as Zimbabwe, which have weak health systems and constrained social assistance programmes. Such countries must formulate and implement measures to tackle the unfolding public health crisis without plunging millions of people into starvation. This is the challenge which Zimbabwe faces today – how can the country curb the spread of Covid-19 without disrupting food supply for its citizens, especially the vulnerable?

On March 30, 2020, Zimbabwe, like many countries, ordered a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown confined millions of people to their home; people who are dependent on informal economic activities. The government did not provide meaningful social assistance programmes to provide for their survival needs. A national lockdown is effective if it is enforced, not only through the law, but also through ensuring that the government discharges its obligation to provide food, water and health services to the vulnerable members of its community. Lockdown templates used by developed countries with formal food supply systems, and with the capacity to expand social assistance programmes are bound to be problematic if they are adopted by poorer countries, like Zimbabwe, without being adapted to local contexts.

Zimbabwe has the largest informal economy in Africa as a percentage to its economy, which, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is 60.6 percent. This makes it the second largest informal economy in the world after Bolivia. This might as well be defined as the new economy. Nothing suggests this is reversible in the next ten years or so. How can the government lockdown the informal sector without destroying the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on it?

Government statistics show that 76.9 percent of the rural households are poor. Within that context, extreme household poverty in rural areas increased from 22.9 percent in 2012 to 31.9 percent of households in 2017, well before the coronavirus outbreak. Again, nothing shows a reversal of this trend. In addition, Zimbabwe is facing a severe hunger crisis in 2020. According to the United Nations, 7.7 million people (60 percent of the population) are food insecure. Around 5.5 million of these people live in the rural areas and 2.2 million in urban areas. These people needed assistance even before the Covid-19 pandemic, and the national lockdown will likely worsen their food insecurity situation.

The lockdown will have far-reaching impacts on the farming sector in Zimbabwe. The restrictions on the movement of goods, people and services will likely affect food supply systems in significant ways. The family farm sector, dominated by women, produces 70 percent of staple foods, but it is highly vulnerable to external shocks such as the lockdown measures. The farmers do not produce in isolation. They rely on kin and social relationships to mobilise labour, inputs, among other things. Of importance is that most of these family farmers in the countryside source their food from subsistence farming. Therefore, they are critical to household food security. Not only that, they occasionally sell surplus food. They sell by the homestead veranda, under a tree, or by the roadside. In the farming areas, along the highway one can see farmers selling tomatoes, cabbages, onions, carrots, honey, milk, green maize, beans and a variety of fruits depending on the season. If one stops a car, they flock with dishes of fresh and organic vegetables. The prices are cheaper compared to big supermarkets. The carbon footprint is almost zero. Given their critical role in providing the rural population and urban areas with food, the government cannot simply lock them down.

The family farm sector, dominated by women, produces 70 percent of staple foods, but it is highly vulnerable to external shocks such as the lockdown measures.

The more affluent family farmers are connected in the loose urban value chains through informal agreements of exchange with supermarkets like Spar and OK Zimbabwe and other indigenous supermarkets in urban areas and growth points. Those supermarkets are certified to remain open during the lockdown. They also feed the urban population through informal markets and street vending. As early as 03:00 in the morning, the Mbare Musika market in Harare is buzzing with farmers from Chihota, Mutoko, Mrehwa, Goromonzi and surrounding farming communities.

Other farmers sell to the informal traders who own and control the markets at Mbare Musika. The same applies to many cities. The products are packaged in different sizes to fit different needs for different households. These supplies work for the urban poor who live from hand to mouth. They hustle in the day to buy a meal for the night. Unlike the rich, they cannot stock food supplies to last 21 days. Here, one can buy a cup of mealie meal, one piece of chicken, a teaspoon of salt, a small cup of cooking oil and make a meal for the day. Our trip to Epworth, a peri-urban informal settlement south east of Harare, showed that they called these small packages an emergency ‘katsaona’, or emergency relief. However, ‘katsaona’ is no longer an emergency but a way of life for many. To lock down the informal food traders is to let poor households die in the margins of the city.

The heavy-handed enforcement of the lockdown by the police and army raises questions on whether the government is fully aware of the adverse impacts of its Covid-19 response on food security. For instance, three days into the lockdown, the police raided the informal food traders at Sakubva Musika market in Mutare city, in the east of the country. Despite the majority struggling with access to food, the police confiscated and destroyed tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables. There is little hope for the majority facing starvation. People talk of death. Either from hunger or from the coronavirus.

Despite the majority struggling with access to food, the police confiscated and destroyed tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Debrah Mukasa, an informal trader (a member of Bulawayo Vendors and Traders Association), told us that in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city, many informal traders living from hand-to-mouth were caught unprepared when the lockdown was announced amid severe maize-meal shortages. In the early days of the shutdown most informal traders in Bulawayo opened vending stalls at home placing them at risk of police brutality and getting the coronavirus. Though the government promised small and medium enterprises a grant to cushion them during the lockdown, the process has been very slow; halfway through the shutdown informal traders in Bulawayo still have not received any funds.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government should ensure that their Covid-19 responses are respecting rights, and guarantee access to basic necessities for the vulnerable. He has said that all the farmers and traders should continue to operate without disturbances. But he did not say how this can be done during these difficult times. We submit five recommendations:

  1. The government, with support from the private sector and international donors, should ensure that the smallholder farmers and informal food traders (including street food vendors) have protective equipment and sanitisers as recommended by medical experts so that they can safely continue to produce, distribute and sell food. Civil society can help in distribution.
  2. The state, private institutions and supermarkets should prioritise buying food from smallholder producers. They should relax the regulations that exclude the smallholder producers. Supermarkets can go an extra mile to guarantee shelf-space for their smallholder suppliers.
  3. The government should assist with transport for smallholder farmers to ferry their produce to markets. Public transport is hardly available during the lockdown. In each district, farmers can organise to ferry their products to a central place where the government provides transport to different designated markets within a reasonable distance. The transport logistics and delivery should ensure social distancing.
  4. Local authorities should set up new markets to prevent informal food traders over-crowding and ensure social distancing in traditional marketplaces like Mbare and Sakubva. Community halls and sports fields that are near residential areas can be used as food markets. Those urban poor who live hand to mouth need to gain access to food in nearby spaces. One can see a similar recommendation in South Africa by PLAAS (2020).
  5. The government needs to speedily compensate farmers and informal traders whose produce was confiscated and destroyed by the state during the lockdown. This will enable the farmers to rebuild their livelihoods, feed families and other citizens. On the other hand, the municipalities should waiver tax for the registered informal food traders during the lockdown period.

Our recommendations are a foundation to inspire national debate about how the government of Zimbabwe can help ensure access to food for all people during the Covid-19 lockdown. This becomes more important in a context where most countries have closed their borders making it difficult for the poor to import food. Zimbabwe should consider and implement measures to mitigate the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on the poor. Solutions to combat the coronavirus should be calibrated to ensure that all citizens always have access to food as a fundamental human right, and are able to maintain a healthy and coronavirus-free active life.

Authors: Phillan Zamchiya (PLAAS), Dewa Mavhinga (Human Rights Watch), Thando Gwinji (Youth for Innovation Trust), Arnold Chamunogwa (Oxfam) and Claris Madhuku (Platform for Youth and Community Development).

The views in the article are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the organisations they are associated with.

Cover photo: Women grow vegetables in a communal nutrition garden as part of the Caritas Hwange Integrated Community Development Program in Zimbabwe. Credit: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Flickr.

Written by PASTRES project lead Ian Scoones and core researcher Michele Nori

Moments of surprise can expose deep uncertainties and even ignorance. They also uncover issues of contested politics, unequal social relations and the capacities of states and citizens. The unfolding coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is one such moment.

We don’t know what will happen where and when; our normal ways of doing things are massively disrupted, so we must adapt rapidly and radically. This is now life with the coronavirus. For those of us used to predictability and stability, with systems that function continuously and reliably, this sort of uncertainty – now being experienced the world over – is unsettling, provoking anxiety, stress, dislocation and sometimes panic.

But for many people, living in highly variable environments, where shocks of drought, flood, snowfall locust swarms or human and animal disease are regular occurrences, uncertainties are always part of everyday life. Indeed, uncertainties are not only lived with, but lived off, as variability, mobility, flexibility are a central part of livelihood systems.

A question we have been asking in our European Research Council-funded PASTRES programme (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Lessons from the Margins) is: Can we learn about how to address uncertainties within wider society – including around disease pandemics – from pastoralists who live with and from uncertainty? What are the logics, practices, strategies and social and political arrangements that allow for adaptive, flexible responses in the face of uncertainty, generating reliability in turbulent times?

Of course, the spread of a global pandemic virus of massively lethal potential is very different to the regular problems faced by pastoralists, whether in mountainous Tibet, lowland Ethiopia or the hills of Sardinia, but there are some themes that emerge from our research that offer pointers. Here we outline four of them.

1. Multiple Knowledges

In navigating uncertainties, pastoralists must engage with multiple sources of knowledge, triangulating between them.

This may involve engaging with expert, scientific knowledge, derived from, say, weather reports; or expert advice on pasture condition or animal disease. It may involve referring to local, embedded traditional knowledges, consulting local experts such as traditional healers, prophets and soothsayers — involving, for example, predictions around the seasons from signs in nature or messages from the spirit world. And it may involve informally-shared updates and locally-rooted practical knowledge from friends, neighbours, relatives and others – these days often via mobile phone through Facebook or WhatsApp groups. These may include information on the state of grazing, the availability of water in a well or the source and quality of forage, for example.

All these sources – formal, informal, real-time, predictive – are combined, reflected upon and, in turn, feed into action. No one source is relied upon alone. This sometimes frustrates development experts who spend huge amounts of money providing sophisticated forecasting systems or satellite monitoring, with user-friendly online mobile interfaces, such as those used in climate/weather forecasting, drought early warning or market information systems. Why is it that these are not used as expected?

It is the same with disease response systems: again, huge efforts are made to predict and prepare, and communicate expert advice. But this must be incorporated into local-embedded knowledges in order to become part of regular practice. Yes, we know that hand-washing and ‘social-distancing’ are important, but such changes only happen when other sources of knowledge and advice combine. Just relying on formal models and accredited expertise (‘the science’) is not enough, in the context of deep uncertainties. Reducing everything to directive risk management is insufficient, and is in fact misleading, as uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance must be embraced.  

Pastoralists know this when they hear a climate forecast and an early warning message from the government. Local experience and assessment is an essential complement to the official message. Only when such a message is fully trusted will it be accepted. Today, publics everywhere are grappling with how to respond to public health messages about the risks of COVID-19, along with orders to isolate and quarantine. In these situations, people’s personal, experienced, embodied uncertainties have to be addressed too. Accepting the existence of plural knowledges, even some that may be regarded as ‘unscientific’, is essential when navigating uncertainty and ignorance.

2. How Time is Experienced

Very often external interventions – whether around disease or drought – are constructed around the notion of an ‘event’ and a timeline around which a staged series of risk management measures are deployed.

Forecasts that assess the probabilities of something happening assume that, based on past experience or modelled futures, we can predict and manage people and things. So, whether it is the varying level of ‘early warning’ alert around a drought or the stages of a response in an unfolding epidemic, the planning system imagines time in a linear, ordered, managed way. The result is the sequential deployment of interventions, managed by emergency teams and ‘rapid response’ facilities.

But this isn’t the way most people experience time. The ordered, hierarchical administrative time of crisis and emergency management has to articulate with the more complex flows of lived-with time in everyday life.  Whether this is people responding to a pandemic disease in their family or neighbourhood, or a group of pastoralists managing highly variable grazing over far-flung territories with mobile herds, the experience of time may be quite different to those of preparedness planners and early warning system administrators.

How the present, the future and the past are experienced may vary dramatically. Memories of past droughts or disease outbreaks loom large, while expectations of the future are affected by current conditions, as well as deeper cosmologies. Futures are not just simply a linear extension of the present, as in the liberal modernist view, but are deeply intertwined with memories, experiences and histories. These will differ across class, gender, age and race, affecting how different people anticipate and respond. Everyday, unfolding time is therefore a flow, not an event.

For people responding to a disease, or managing mobility and seeking out pasture, time may therefore not be so obviously punctuated with distinct events, and responses may not appear in neat sequences. Instead, a host of other considerations apply – people’s lives, livelihoods, spiritual need, or mental states. All of these can affect what is done when, and by whom.

3. Reliable Systems

Uncertainties provide major challenges to standardised systems that assume stability. Following Emery Roe, we can understand pastoral systems as ‘critical infrastructures’, with the objective of reliably delivering desired outputs (milk, meat, hides, services and overall wellbeing) in the context of multiple uncertainties. Just as an energy supply system aims to keep the lights on, and a health system aims to provide effective healthcare, pastoralists also must generate reliability through a range of practices. And they seem to be quite good at it.

What are the features of this? Reliability emerges from an understanding of the wider system and its vulnerabilities, as well as insights into local contexts. Horizon scanning must combine with the day-to-day practices that allow rapid, adaptive responses. Herders and market traders must do this all the time, regularly checking on grass, water, prices and so on, while having a good sense of the overall system. They will not rely on an ‘expert decision system’ from outside, but they must build reliability through their own networks, among individuals, kin, age-groups and communities. Communication and deliberation is central, facilitated these days by mobile communications. When a disaster strikes, knowledge, resources and labour can be mobilised rapidly, and animals can be moved, fodder purchased or water supplied.

Most standard, engineered systems designed for stable conditions are poor at generating reliability under such variable conditions. A health system relies on a regular flow of patients with a standard set of ailments requiring a prescribed array of treatments. This is fine under ‘normal’ conditions, but when a disease outbreak occurs, such systems quickly become overwhelmed, and there is a need to think differently.

Part of this is basic capacity, particularly in systems that are under-funded, but it also relates to the capacities of the professionals involved. Very often it is the frontline workers – doctors, nurses, pharmacists – who are left to innovate, to create reliability on the move. Managing an intensive care unit in a hospital may be more similar than we think to the embedded skills, aptitudes and practices of pastoralists, who must make agile, sometimes difficult, choices when facing variability.

4. Collective Solidarities

If states cannot provide, businesses struggle and experts are overwhelmed, then what can we turn to?

Because externally-defined, top-down risk management based on predictive science is always insufficient under radical uncertainty and ignorance, we must also rely on ourselves – on community action and forms of solidarity and mutuality. Such initiatives are emerging during the coronavirus pandemic, including the explosion of locally-organised ‘mutual aid’ groups helping those in self-isolation and quarantine. Across Europe, a new, re-discovered moral economy is confronting the crisis.

How such arrangements work will, of course, depend on the setting and the challenge, but in pastoral areas, collective approaches to herd and flock management have always been vital in responding to variability. For example, a common tactic is to split a herd between young and vulnerable calves and milk cows who remain at home with additional fodder, and those that must migrate to distant pastures for the dry season. Mobility, flexibility and modular approaches to managing livestock and territory are the watchwords.  These responses only work if they can mobilise labour, and this requires reciprocal relationships across kin and age groups and across communities.

In the past, east African pastoralism was characterised by extensive redistributive practices, as livestock were shared, loaned and redistributed across multiple ownership arrangements, facilitated by segmentary lineage structures and age-groups with specific responsibilities. This allowed for horizontal redistribution, friendship alliances across territories and marriage contracts that allocated stock. While such arrangements have declined, due to the individualisation and commoditisation of pastoral production, the cultural values and embedded practices still remain, and are often remobilised in times of severe crisis.

The revival of community and neighbourhood solidarities around COVID-19 are an example of how such social relationships are crucial in responding to uncertainty. Even in the commercialised, individualised West, they can still re-emerge around a re-defined sense of collective responsibility. In tackling a pandemic, working across nations, individual and collective actions must combine, public and private interests must converge, and centralised and local decision-making must interact.


COVID-19 is changing everything: how we live, how we relate, how we engage with expertise and how states and citizens interact. Deep uncertainties and extensive ignorance, as well as contested ambiguities, necessarily reshape society and politics.

In Western countries, we are learning to adapt fast. In the future – for this will not be the first or last time such a shock emerges – perhaps we can learn from others, including pastoralists, who have long embraced uncertainty as part of life.  

Photo Credit: Kmojo Caravani

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The article below appeared on African Arguments’ Debating Ideas blog last Friday. As of 1 April there were 8 cases, and no further deaths. But there is little doubt that the impending situation in Zimbabwe is serious, and the government is unable to respond. The tragic death of Zororo Makamba was an early warning of what may be in store. While support from corporate philanthropists, such as Jack Ma and Strive Masiyiwa, is welcome, everyone needs to take action.  So don’t just read the blog, please do donate to the Citizens’ Initiative organised by Freeman Chari and others. It’s a legit outfit and gets money where it’s needed.

Zimbabwe had three confirmed cases and one recorded death of COVID-19 (coronavirus) as of 26 March, and a national disaster has been declared. So far suspected cases have been limited, but once the virus spreads through the population, it could be devastating.

In thinking about COVID-19 in Zimbabwe, and in Africa more broadly, three dimensions are important – fragility, resilience and inequality. It may be that obvious fragilities are counteracted to some extent by capacities to adapt and be resilient, but this depends on who you are and where you live.


The conditions for rapid spread of COVID-19, certainly in townships in urban centres, are all there – crowded housing, poor sanitation, lack of water, immune-compromised populations due to HIV and lack of services. For pandemic preparedness planners, this is a recipe for a major disaster.

As people get sick, the ability of the health services to respond is seriously limited. The one infectious disease hospital (Wilkins in Harare) has limited capacity, and apparently no intensive-care ventilation facilities. There are supposedly only 16 ventilator machines in the country.

The medical profession is disillusioned and under-paid, and has recently been on a long strike, unheard of among committed doctors. Yesterday, nurses and some doctors walked out complaining of a lack of basic protective equipment. Many well-qualified doctors have left the country; even Cuban doctors, who have come to Zimbabwe’s aid in the past, may be fewer this time.

State neglect of the health service has been long-running, ever since the imposition of structural adjustment policies from 1991. In the past years it has got worse, and the public system has nearly collapsed. Private providers offer good services to the rich who can pay, but this is limited. And they are not geared up for a public health emergency.

The government’s response has been patchy so far. After ignoring warnings, an emergency declaration was made banning public gatherings and encouraging social distancing, but the President still proceeded with a rally the next day. Meanwhile, the defence minister caused an international sensation, and much opprobrium, by declaring that coronavirus had come from God to punish the West for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe. The government distanced itself, but it rather highlights the dismal calibre of some at the highest level.

This current regime clearly doesn’t garner much trust. The political settlement has fallen apart. The state seems simply not to care. As Simukai Chigudu describes for the 2008 cholera outbreak a mixture of disdain and callous contempt is shown by the state. With the economy continuing to free-fall, Zimbabwe, by any indicator, is a ‘fragile state’ – and so one of the least able to respond to a pandemic.


Yet, indicators of fragility tend to focus on the functioning of the state, assuming that states must replicate those in the West or China. In a crisis, however, well-ordered, functioning states are often unable to cope. They are not used to responding to surprise, high variability, random shocks and an inability to plan and predict. They do not have systems of reliability at their core.

While the Zimbabwean state is clearly highly fragile, given years of neglect and a serious lack of resources, there are other aspects of the Zimbabwe setting that give hope. Resilience – the ability to respond to and bounce back from shocks, even transforming the situation along the way – is built by people in networks, embedded in social relations, with values and commitments that go beyond narrow individualism. We see a lot of these characteristics in Zimbabwe; and people have had to learn these skills and practices the hard way.

Over twenty years of economic and political chaos has ensured that food is supplied through informal means, across multiple social networks, even as food emergencies are declared at a central level. The informalisation of life – the sense of getting by and living with uncertainty (débrouillardise in the Congolese rendition) – has affected all relations. If there is nothing in the shops or no fuel at the pumps, then look elsewhere, ring someone up, find an alternative. Something will happen, always. It is these capacities that are essential for surviving in a pandemic, and that those in the West are learning fast, as shops empty, people panic buy and services cease.

The painful lessons of the HIV/AIDS pandemic are imprinted on Zimbabwe’s consciousness: first it was a blame game – gays, foreigners, sex workers, truck drivers; and then everyone realised this was affecting everyone, and many friends and family were dying. Leadership from Timothy Stamps, the health minister, the commitment of front-line health workers and community changes in behaviour (along with the supply of cheap anti-retrovirals) turned the tide, and Zimbabwe was one of the first in the region to show declines in the disease. These lessons will be important now; just as in West Africa where the lessons from Ebola will be vital. Pointing the finger elsewhere doesn’t stop a virus, and everyone has to be committed to a collective response.

So now will be an important moment for rebuilding solidarities and forms of mutualism and moral economy that are at the heart of social resilience. With the UK Premier League cancelled, the WhatsApp groups dedicated to following Chelsea or Arsenal can be repurposed to helping each other, while churches will take on new meanings amongst congregations, even if not gathering physically. International connections are important too, although South Africa’s plan to build a fence on the Zimbabwe border to prevent illegal, ‘diseased’ migrants entering sends out a dismal signal. Networks of kin across the world, connected though remittances flows and Western Union, will be vital, just as messages (and good Zimbabwean jokes and memes) via social media will be important.

Even in the UK, so subsumed in an individualistic culture for generations, the importance of community, connection and solidarity are being rediscovered through ‘mutual aid’ groups. This will be much easier in Zimbabwe and, in the absent of a caring or competent state, will be essential.


While at one level it’s true that viruses respect no borders and affect all people, the consequences are very unevenly felt. While we are all in it together, some are more exposed. Who is most likely to catch the disease? Who is most likely to become ill? Who is most likely to suffer from the failure of health services?

Some of this is to do with biology – it is the elderly, for example, who seem to get the worst symptoms – but a lot is to do with deep structural inequalities. The colonial shape of cities is one aspect: crowded townships (for black African workers), distant from places of work and the suburbs originally reserved for whites, require daily travel on crowded transport networks. This is the perfect setting for contagion.

Add to this the crowded nature of such ‘high-density’ townships (yes it’s in the name – blacks were not deemed to need space), and the decline in services, mean that ‘social-distancing’ is impossible. This was ruled out in the colonial era, and has been made worse by economic decline, where travelling for precarious work and endless queuing are part of daily life.

Meanwhile, the edicts of ‘hand-washing’, good hygiene and healthy food are impossible to follow if tap water doesn’t run, people share boreholes and poverty restricts what food can be bought. This is what Paul Farmer refers to as ‘structural violence’ – the violence of deep inequality that causes vulnerability and disease.

By contrast, those living in the low- or medium-density suburbs, and with resources, can distance themselves, and have resources to buy alternatives – privately pumped water, insurance for health care, money to buy things at inflated prices, or they’re even able skip the country if needs be.

Workers from the townships who service the city and offer labour in businesses and factories are those who are the most vulnerable to economic shutdown. They have experience of this, and many have already lost their formal jobs as the economy collapsed. They travel in to take up precarious, informal work, which can cease at a stroke without recompense.

Knee-jerk reactions by the state, in shallow attempts at asserting control, are often directed at the most vulnerable. Informal markets are closed because of notional hygiene concerns, for example. Those operating in recognised trading sites are taxed exorbitantly, even though this restricts access to toilets and washing facilities, especially for women. Extreme quarantine measures, in the context of a fragile state, may end up doing more harm than good, undermining social resilience.

It’s probably those in the rural areas who are the most resilient in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Having food to eat or sell, and solid local networks to draw on, with limited expectations of the state anyway, many have successfully ridden out the roller-coaster ride that has been the Zimbabwean economy. Forms of collective action that can regrade roads in rural areas can surely also assist with pandemic response, in alliance with Zimbabwe’s many committed health care workers, community leaders and others.

Of course, as people become very critically ill, this is outside anyone’s ability to respond – and in Zimbabwe this includes the whole health system – so this is why enhancing the ability to stop the spread and building resilience is the essential challenge of the moment. As winter approaches, there is probably very little time.

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

Cover photo: Women informal traders, Masvingo, Zimbabwe. Credit: Ian Scoones

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