THE LATEST: During COVID-19, support for smallholder farming communities is more important than ever

by Deborah Atwood, Chair, Tanager Board of Directors

Supporting smallholder farmers is essential to maintaining supply chains during COVID-19.

As an agriculture and food security career professional, and as a board member of ACDI/VOCA, Tanager, and AV Ventures, I am especially concerned about COVID-19’s effects on smallholder farmers in developing countries.  We cannot allow this crisis to erase the progress of the last 20 years towards alleviating hunger and poverty in the developing world. To mitigate the effects of COVID -19, I believe that the global community must mount a coordinated effort to support the livelihoods of smallholder farmers, facilitate access to nutritious foods for smallholder farming families, and support gender equality in smallholder farming communities. The global community must help farmers survive today to thrive tomorrow.

To be sure, COVID-19’s effect on supply chains is potentially devastating and could have a deleterious effect on farmers’ economic and physical health. If supply chains stagnate, farmers will lose an essential source of income. We must continue to invest in research and extension services that support healthy soils, increase farm productivity, and connect farmers to buyers. We simply cannot allow crops to rot in the ground. Although offering extension services and improved access to markets is more difficult by the restrictions put in place by governments, progress is still possible.

In India, Tanager works with smallholder maize, cashew, and vegetable farmers through the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Market Readiness Project. This foundation-funded, co-created effort works closely with farming communities to strengthen Farmer Producer Organizations, support gender equality, and train farmers on Good Agricultural Practices and collective marketing. During the pandemic, the team in India has been able to use their connection to the communities where they work along with mobile phones to help mitigate the effects of labor shortages and – in certain instances – connect farmers to buyers.

COVID-19 also poses a serious risk to household nutrition and gender equality. The International Food Policy Research Institute predicts that COVID-19 may lead to a nutrition crisis in rural households due to a decreasing supply of nutritious food and farmers switching to the cheapest available sources of calories. According to that same IFPR research, mothers and young children could be affected most severely from a lack of nutritious foods. This is not the only threat that women face from the virus. According to The Lancet, with schools and businesses closed and travel restrictions in place, many women are losing their economic status as they are tasked with being the primary caregivers.

Tanager’s work in the poultry supply chain in Burkina Faso provides a roadmap for how to improve household nutrition diets while supporting gender equality. By encouraging women to engage in the poultry sector both by raising chickens and becoming village vaccinators, and by sensitizing men on the importance of women’s involvement in poultry farming, diets improved alongside women’s economic and social status in their communities.

From one point of view, the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented in modern memory. This fast moving, easily transmissible virus has forced billions of people into quarantine and continues to test both the public and private sector to develop a response that decreases the spread of the virus while respecting the enormous impact on livelihoods. However, from another perspective, there is a roadmap to follow. The AIDS epidemic led to The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the Ebola outbreak brought private and public actors together to stop the spread of the disease. A global pandemic like COVID-19 that impacts both health and livelihoods requires a comprehensive global response; now is the time to act.