Smallholder farmers finding new business strategies
A new report from the International Trade Centre finds that smallholder farmers are taking emergency measures to adapt to the COVID-19 crisis, and preparing long-term strategies to regain competitiveness. The report, “Unsung Heroes: How Small Farmers Cope with COVID-19”, builds on interviews in 11 countries across the food value chains in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Central and Latin America, and Europe, from producers, retailers and consumer-facing brands to traders, research and development institutions and policymakers. The report describes how farmer communities are working to protect the health of producers, ensure food security, create solidarity networks for social protection, keep cashflow and investment intact, and make sure that information continues to flow. To compete in the future, they are seeking to diversify their crops and markets, add value, innovate, establish partnerships, cut costs and digitalise their businesses. They are also building alliances for production and commerce, and securing partnerships for more equitable trade.
Producers also see partnerships as a steppingstone to future growth. While there are many technology-based solutions to boost productivity, few smallholder farmers can afford them. Strategic alliances that lead to improved finance and adapted technology investments will help farmers scale up both their output and their incomes. New markets and channels are also vital. Online marketplaces could boost sales, reach new customers, diversify products and create new revenue streams. Digital platforms will help bridge the gap between producers and consumers.
A webinar held by the Agricultural Fresh Produce Growers and Exporters Association of Nigeria (AFGEAN) highlighted some of the issues its members face in relation to COVID-19. Although there is some evidence that localised trade has improved, it appears that cross-border in-country movement has become more difficult and seems set to get worse. There is evidence of a logistical and timing mismatch between where agro-food comes from and where it needs to get to. There is also evidence that food waste has increased nationally. Buyers of produce are often unable to get to farms to buy and collect produce. The current restrictions do not favour small and less privileged transport modes; containers do better than bikes. An unintended consequence of the lockdown has been the criminalisation of produce movement, making it look like ‘smuggling’. Suggested potential solutions include the need for a tech-based platform to enable freer trade flows, and the need to set up exchanges and aggregation points for produce sellers/selling. Food safety will be an important component of any solution. However, the lockdown is an opportunity to change the modus operandi of agriculture in Nigeria – for better or for worse.
Nigeria’s Smallholder Women Farmers Organisation (SWOFON) has also expressed worries that they are unable to move their products from their farms to the markets, or from their rural communities to semi-urban and urban markets (Naija 247 News, 30 April). The group suggested that smallholder farmers, especially women, should be exempted from the movement restrictions while observing precautionary measures, so that they can go to their farms for work and transport their produce to the market.
But in better news (The Nation, 29 April), Nigeria’s Presidency has ordered that immediate access be granted to all vehicles carrying products on the exemption list issued by the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, especially those conveying food items. This is in reaction to reports that security agents charged with enforcing restriction measures had been detaining vehicles conveying food items across the country. Vehicles conveying exempted products including pharmaceuticals and agricultural products should be allowed access to any parts of the country, so long as those in each vehicle do not exceed three, and are in possession of prescribed basic sanitary items like facemasks and sanitisers. “The country cannot afford a situation where agricultural products are being left to rot in trucks held at various checkpoints, when millions of Nigerians across the country need food. COVID-19 or no COVID-19, Nigerians need to eat.”
Akintunde Sawyerr, Founder of AFGEAN, spoke to CNBC Africa about how best to ensure food security in the new normal – see the interview here. He says that:
“There are some organisations, some associations and some smaller companies, particularly aggregators, who are trying to look at how they can take full advantage and begin to position themselves, and to re-engineer their supply chain so there are more deliveries direct to homes, more deliveries direct to markets. Clearly exports are going to be difficult, everybody is very nervous now about food safety, where the food is coming from. But this is more of an opportunity to understand the internal supply chain, and how to actually re-engineer that, or to get sufficient knowledge and data around how to actually move food around.”
“I think we are potentially in a significant amount of difficulty if we don’t make certain changes. The interesting thing is that we also have a significant opportunity to actually enhance our food security and improve the supply chain of agricultural produce across the country.”