A year of farming under the Covid-19 pandemic
It seems impossible to think of an economic activity that has not been negatively impacted by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Farming is one of the sectors that have been greatly undermined by the pandemic leading to reduced income for the farmers and to food insecurity in thousands of households in Uganda.
On September 21, 2020, the Washington based Heifer International, a global development organisation, released a research report in which it was revealed that 97 per cent of smallholder farmers in Uganda have seen their income drop since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, with 86.6 per cent of farmers seeing their income plunge by more than half.
The findings were part of a survey of 448 farmers and interviews with 10 agri-hubs, four private sector partners, and three district local governments. The survey further showed that 87 per cent of farmers reported eating less than three meals per day since the onset of Covid-19 with 31 per cent eating one meal a day and 40 per cent at times going days without food.
Just think of the plight of farmers that used to grow maize and beans for selling to traders contracted to supply the commodities to schools. The schools have been closed for months due to the pandemic and therefore such farmers have not had a sure market for their farm produce. To this day schools have not been opened to full capacity.
Large towns such as Kampala, Jinja, Mukono, Lira, Gulu, and Mbale used to be the places where farmers sold their farm products such as eggs, milk, chicken, vegetables, among other food items. During the months that the country was under total lockdown, most town dwellers were out of work and unable to purchase many of the foodstuffs that they used to consume before. Transport hurdles coupled with less purchasing power by town dwellers resulted in less food going to towns from rural areas.
Due to the strict restrictions on public transport, a lot of small scale traders could not take food crops using such transport means as buses and taxis to towns. This meant fewer people buying food items from farmers and reduced income for the farmers. The Covid-19 pandemic calls for strict observance of the Standard Operations Standards (SOPs) and failure to observe them led to government closure of some food markets in the towns.
The suspension of the boda-boda transport business in the country did not help matters as people found it harder to even access the markets to buy food. Most people intending to purchase items from the market would send boda-boda cyclists but only a few had sufficient trust in the riders.
Most smallholder farmers depend on public transport to travel to towns to purchase farm inputs such as pesticides, herbicides, seeds, and fertilisers. Such trips were rendered difficult with the suspension of public transport. Without such inputs, farm productivity reduced for many farmers.
A recent UNDP report estimates that nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost due to Covid-19, and that income losses linked to the disease will exceed $220b in developing countries. We are already seeing the loss of farming related jobs in Uganda.
Outside most night spots before the Covid-19 pandemic, one would see chicken roasting, goat meat roasting, pork roasting and making of “rolex chapatis”. The nationwide partial Covid-19 lockdown has kept bars and night clubs closed down and therefore there is reduced consumption of roast chicken, goat meat, and eggs. The people who used to do the meat roasting around the drinking places are now struggling to make ends meet. Some restaurants have had to furlough staff as a result of losing clients. These days a tray of eggs is sold at around Shs7000 while before the onset of the pandemic it cost over Shs10,000.
The Covid-19 pandemic led to tight movement restrictions and delays at border entries thus making it difficult for the cross border movement of perishable commodities such as tomatoes, pineapples and mangoes. The growers of such crops as passion fruits, tomatoes, and pineapples in the Masaka region and other parts of the country, suffered price drops following long delays imposed on Kenyan traders crossing into Uganda to purchase the commodities.
In his State of the Nation Address around the middle of this year, President Yoweri Museveni correctly referred to agriculture as belonging to the real economy category. He went ahead to point out that agriculture was not only feeding us almost 100 per cent but it also earned Uganda a total of$2b (49 per cent of merchant exports).
During the Covid-19 total lock down coffee alone brought $45.8m in March 2020 and $36.9m in April 2020. Maize, fish, and tea continued to earn dollars for Uganda when other usual sources of foreign exchange such as tourism and diaspora remittances disappeared.
However, as the effects of Covid-19 have continued to bite, agriculture has become less and less profitable. There has been a sharp decline in the cost of most agricultural products including coffee ever since the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown was imposed. Most of the farmers in Masaka and Mbarara regions that sold a bunch of bananas at between Shs8,000 and Shs12,000 had to sell at between Shs3,000 and Shs6,000 after the imposition of the lockdown.
Coffee farmers continue to lament about low prices. A kilogramme of Robusta coffee (FAQ) has stagnated at around Shs3,700. But how can the coffee prices improve when the high intensity of Covid-19 infections in the coffee importing countries of Europe, Asia, and America has forced them to close coffee bars and restaurants?
Most farmers groups have not been able to hold normal meetings to discuss issues pertaining to their development due to the pandemic which forces them to practice social distancing. Where a few meetings have been held only a restricted number participants were invited.
This posed a big hurdle for agricultural services extension workers trying to pass on new farming practices to the farmers. The recent wave of digital technology has a slow uptake among farmers.