Testimonies news – Post date: September 21st, 2020.

COLEACP’s Covid-19 surveys in sub-Saharan Africa

COLEACP’s qualitative surveys on impacts of the coronavirus, carried out with 175 businesses in 18 sub-Saharan African countries between March and August 2020, identified financial management and logistics as key priorities for support. While some more resilient horticultural businesses are responding to the pandemic by exploring opportunities offered by different markets and delivery platforms such as online trading, others will need support to do so.

In the early days of the pandemic, COLEACP decided to seek first-hand information on the impact of Covid-19 on operators of horticultural businesses to assess how support could best be redirected as a response. So between March and August, in partnership with regional and national horticultural professional associations, COLEACP organised surveys in 19 sub-Saharan African countries.

The surveys reached out to COLEACP members and partners, plus members of the relevant partner associations, in countries within ECOWAS (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo); CEMAC (Cameroon); COMESA (Ethiopia); EAC (Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda); and SADC (Madagascar, Mauritius, Zimbabwe).

In total 175 businesses responded from 18 countries, ranging from MSMEs to large-scale exporters, and including different types of operators throughout the value chain. Most of the responding companies sell on more than one market: 39% are operating on local markets, 14% on regional markets, 65% on European markets and 15% on other international markets.

These were not intended to be systematic surveys – respondents were self-selecting and needed to have internet access. The numbers of operators taking part from each country ranged from three to 23, varying greatly in size and operation. Some surveys were carried out early in the pandemic, others later when different levels and types of impacts were being felt, and some were repeated over several months. A few of the surveys organised on COLEACP’s behalf by national producers’ associations followed a different format that was specific to the context. But the results provide an illuminating qualitative snapshot of the key impacts of Covid-19 to date, and have been used to inform COLEACP’s and partner organisations’ priorities going forward. More detailed survey results can be accessed by COLEACP members and partners via the respective country websites, and this article describes some key takeaways.

Impacts on trading

The clearest impacts were on logistics – companies in all 18 countries reported disrupted domestic logistics, such as curfews and checkpoints, as the number one issue. Exporting companies cited disruption to air freight and increased cargo costs as key impacts.

For the majority of companies (82%), orders were down on their initial projections, although the impact varied. Notably, just over a quarter of respondents said orders were reduced by 75% or more.

Of the 64 companies that estimated the impact on their turnover, 45% said they had suffered losses of over 50%, with 14% seeing losses over 80%. 33% estimated their loss of turnover at 10–50%.

While not all companies were able to quantify their losses, in Kenya, for example, for the 3-month period March–May the cumulated respondents to the repeated surveys reported an average (median) loss per company of €135,000.

The impact on prices was less clear cut, and varied by market sector. Overall, while 37% of companies said they were receiving lower prices, 44% said prices remained similar to the same period in 2019. And some respondents reported higher prices: in Nigeria, for example, 46% of companies said prices had risen on 2019.
The main challenges cited by respondents were consistently cashflow problems, particularly covering overhead costs and inputs for new production cycles, and meeting commitments towards financial institutions.

Potential government support differed between countries, but a clear pattern was seen of companies being unaware of government support offered, only a few companies attempting to access government support, and even fewer companies actually receiving support. Only 7% of the 86 companies that responded on this question said that they had received any government or local authority support; 93% stated that they had received no official support. Types of support mentioned included a Covid loan (although the company received only 15% the amount applied for), reductions on utitlies such as water bills, special dispensations to move produce in restricted zones, and assistance with field inspections.

Impacts on labour

Of 133 responding companies that normally employed casual seasonal workers, 76% had reduced the number employed due to Covid-19, and 23% had not been able to employ any seasonal workers at all due to the crisis.

Impacts on permanent staff were less marked, but 85% of companies reported some level of impact on permanent staff. 19% of companies were forced to lay off staff. Other measures to reduce staffing costs included reducing wages (23%) and putting a stop on recruitment (28%).

Of 88 respondents who use external producers, 32% of companies said they were unable to guarantee a market for their small-scale outgrowers, 24% were unable to honour existing contracts, and 17% were unable to pay outgrowers for their fresh produce. In general, companies were scaling down on new planting schedules which will have an impact on future supply, and on revenue and livelihoods for outgrowers, in the coming weeks/months.

63% of companies had played a corporate social responsibility role in their community – distributing food (23%) and health and safety equipment (35%), and awareness-raising on the virus.

Resilient responses

55% of companies said that they had not yet identified any alternative markets, but were looking for opportunities. Only 9% of companies said that they did not wish to enter alternative markets. 28% were selling more on domestic markets, and just one company mentioned moving into regional markets (Morocco). 17 companies (11%) said they had moved into processing their fresh produce.

Just 19% of companies said they had access to an online platform to market their products. Five companies were using their own website for this purpose, and four used specific online agri-food sellers such as EspaceAgro (mentioned by companies in Madagascar and Senegal) and Garden of Eden in Rwanda. The remainder mentioned non-specific social media platforms (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter). In six countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Tanzania, Togo), all of the respondents said they had no access to an online platform to sell their products.

Covid-19 measures

The vast majority of companies in all countries surveyed were applying virus containment measures in their workplaces as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). But respondents in all countries identified a need for more information and support on the virus as the pandemic evolves, and on applying measures in the specific context of horticultural businesses. Particular challenges identified included the costs of implementing Covid-19 safety measures, and difficulties in applying social distancing measures on staff transport.

Key support needed

Finance is a major bottleneck for many companies’ operations due to impacts on turnover coupled with increased costs for logistics, safety measures, etc. In all 18 countries, advice and support on financial and cashflow management, access to finance, risk management and contingency planning were the key support areas identified. Specific Covid-19 procedures for farm and packhouse operations were also earmarked as an area needing more support.

Covid-19 in the Caribbean

In May, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) published Food systems and COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean: Impact and risks in the labour market. The labour-intensive agrifood sector is essential to the regional economy. The key findings are:

  • Although it is too early to measure the impact of Covid-19 on the labour market in the region, a slight downward trend could be seen in the first months of 2020 compared to last year. It will be necessary to continue evaluating employment-related indicators, especially when a time of high labour demand is approaching for some countries.
  • The reduced availability of data due to restrictive measures, which affects state officials, poses a new challenge for decision makers in designing evidence-based policies.
  • The food sector is one with medium risk to the impacts of Covid-19, and it is considered essential by the vast majority of governments. However, if restrictive measures continue and the economic impact is accentuated, the sector is likely to be affected.
  • The high percentage of informality in the sector makes it vulnerable to layoffs if the crisis continues.
  • Informality is higher among women, youth, migrants and indigenous groups.
  • It is vital to maintain jobs in the agrifood sector for economic and food security reasons.
  • In countries that depend on tourism and are net food importers, workers in the agrifood sector are impacted by the absence of hotels or restaurants operating to sell their agricultural or fisheries products.

In addition, a Covid-19 Food Security & Livelihoods Impact Survey has been conducted by CARICOM with the World Food Programme (WFP), Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Two rounds of this short online survey, in April and June, were circulated via social media, email and text message, and reached 5,708 respondents in 22 Caribbean countries and territories. This survey focused on impacts on individual households and their livelihoods and purchasing patterns. Over half of respondents reported impacts on pursuing their livelihoods.

  • Compared to April, while there is better access to markets, there appears to be greater job loss, higher food prices and poorer food consumption.
  • The survey results coupled with poverty data suggest that 2.9 million people are now estimated to be food insecure compared to 1.2 million in April; however, the number of severely food insecure remains steady at slightly more than 400,000.
  • Job loss and reduced income were reported by 7 out of 10 respondents. The main worry of respondents is unemployment, followed by meeting food and other essential needs.
  • Most respondents have changed their diet, with nearly one-third skipping meals, eating less or going a day without eating. Detrimental impacts on income and food consumption appear more widespread among low-income families, as well as those responding in Spanish, single parents and mixed households.

The section of the survey that focused on agriculture and fisheries found that nearly one in four respondents produce food or raise livestock, and 5% are engaged in fisheries/coastal activities. In both cases these activities are primarily for their own consumption. Most of these respondents earn income from salaries, and one in ten pursue their own business or trade. The pandemic seems to have led to an increase in gardening and household production, with 39% of respondents indicating that they have increased the amount of time spent on these activities. CARICOM and FAO are conducting a more in-depth assessment and analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 on agricultural livelihoods, production and food systems.

COLEACP’s Covid-19 action plan – based on partnerships

The on-the-ground experiences identified by the surveys are being used to inform and prioritise COLEACP’s Covid-19 action plan. As a hub linking public and private actors throughout horticultural value chains, COLEACP delivers its action plan through strategic partnerships where possible. It focuses on the following five key areas.

Business support: financial and business management was the key issue identified by all 18 surveys. In partnership with the African Management Institute (AMI), COLEACP has already presented a series of six virtual Business Survival Bootcamps, with participants from 30 countries. For companies wanting more in-depth support, follow-up is offered through individual e-coaching sessions – this demand-driven service has been requested by around 30 MSMEs to date, and delivery is under way.

Market access and food security: the surveys identified logistics, access to markets and alternative market channels as major issues. A digital interface developed and piloted by COLEACP matches supply to demand for available logistics routes; and also supports diversification from export markets to local/regional markets, and from fresh to processing. The first matches between local fruit and vegetable suppliers and local buyers have been recorded in Guinea and Nigeria, thanks to the involvement of the professional associations Fédération des Planteurs de la Filière fruit (FEPAF) and the Agricultural Fresh Produce & Exporters Association of Nigeria (AFGEAN). The test phase is still ongoing in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Kenya.

Covid-19 health and safety: up-to-date health and safety information and training was also identified by survey respondents as a key need. COLEACP has developed online training-of-trainers in Covid-19 health and safety measures for horticultural companies, deploying its longstanding “cascading” training system. More than 40 experts based in a range of ACP countries have received training, and will carry out coaching within companies. In this way, the key messages are “cascaded” to stakeholders (public and private) and local communities through the Pan African Farmers Organisation (PAFO) and other rural networks. In addition, COLEACP’s Covid-19 massive open online course (MOOC) on Covid-19 health and safety has been viewed by 349 companies representing 17 countries, and is still open to registrations from our members and partners.

Advocacy and policy: the surveys have informed the prioritisation of COLEACP’s advocacy activities, for example regarding air freight. The association offers policy recommendations to governments, international institutions, donors and financial services, including designing contingency and recovery plans for the ACP horticultural sector and identifying the means and resources needed for their implementation. COLEACP is working closely with the Organisation of ACP States (OACPS) and the Regional Economic Communities to define priority activities both during and after the pandemic. On request, specific emergency situations are being dealt with on a country-by-country basis.

Information and communication: all of the surveys found that up-to-date, reliable information is highly valued by sub-Saharan African horticultural companies. Rapid and targeted information is integral to all of the four key themes described above. COLEACP has recently begun publishing country-specific websites for members and partners, and the first 25 are now online. And in response to the need for capacity building to go online, the association is engaging Digital Methodology Advisors to support its experts and trainers in the ACP regions, including “From face-to-face to distance learning” coaching.

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