By Ann Ngugi(pictured) [PHOTO- COURTESY]
The rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic in most countries around the world hit hardest in the month of March 2020. Countries started to advocate for social distancing, avoiding gatherings and in the worst case scenarios curfews and lockdowns which led to panic buying especially of food stuff and essential household consumables, followed by the inevitable closure of many businesses.
The laid down measures of combating the pandemic have far and wide disrupted the daily routines of our normal. It has affected our social lives and businesses alike. The pandemic has negatively affected the food supply chain and posed risk on food safety and security. The uncertainty being created by covid-19 is definitely affecting producers and other value chain actors across the agriculture sector. The rains are here, but it’s not a vibrant planting season for the farmers.
Our interview with smallholder farmers as well as small and medium enterprises (SMEs) from the twelve counties that the Micro Enterprises Support Programme Trust (MESPT) has established operations in and particularly those catering for the export horticulture market are most affected. This is because of borders closure and limited incoming shipments and air cargos to the lucrative consumer countries which has led to markets shut down. The most affected market is Dubai. Whereas Europe is still accessible, it is not steady due to the limited cargo flights which has made flight charges to skyrocket.
The SMEs in the export business of fruits and vegetables are really struggling to keep business afloat as their profits are being eaten into by the costly flights. The trickle-down effect of this is that the prices of buying the produce from the smallholder farmers has gown down. If the markets continue to be so unstable in the next thirty days, the SMEs are also contemplating layoffs of some of their employees. The social distancing measure has significantly contributed to loss of jobs as most casual labourers are no longer going to work in the shambas as was the norm. If the worst happens, most of the smallholder farmers producing premium products for the export markets will exit since they can no longer make money from their ventures.
However, all is not lost. We remain hopeful that things will change. MESPT clarion call to farmers and other value chain actors is that they remain committed to their duty of feeding the nation. It is the high time that farmers remained keen on good agriculture practices such as handwashing which will really protect them (together with their consumers) from Covid -19 infection. Farmers also need to take all the other necessary precautions to protect themselves and consumers – who are certainly even more cautious of clean, safe, healthy and affordable food. At such a time, farmers can diversify their produce mix to ensure stable supply of not just food, but food perceived as healthier and which can boost the immune system since it is on high demand.
On a note of hope, MESPT is putting in place incentives and subsidies that will help the SMEs weather the current storm of market disruption. This will help the farmers impacted by the coronavirus crisis not to make losses or lose incomes. Some of the measures will be on flight charges and curbing the post-harvest losses. Collaborations at the production level are also being sought with an aim of reverting the price cuts already being experienced by farmers. MESPT support also targets equipping farmers with personal protective gear at the collection centres and value addition incentives to enhance the shelf life of surplus farm produce not absorbed due to closures.
The writer works at the Micro Enterprises Support Programme Trust – MESPT