Small-scale farmers at work in their homestead and communal gardens.

A Looming Crisis: The Impact of COVID-19 on Small-Scale Farmers

UKZN experts and facilitators working on the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP) have weighed in on the looming “crisis within a crisis” for informal and local food systems as the COVID-19 pandemic affects various sectors of society.

URP Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, Ms Nhlonipho Mbatha; Project Support Officer, Dr Vimbayi Chimonyo; and Project Facilitators Ms Xola Nqabeni and Ms Khethiwe Mthethwa, with Components Director, Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, described how the South African food system will fare under pandemic conditions.

The URP focuses on reducing climate vulnerability and increasing the resilience and adaptive capacity of rural and peri-urban settlements and small-scale farmers in the uMgungundlovu District Municipality (UMDM). Lessons learnt through the project’s suite of complementary gender-sensitive interventions could improve the long-term resilience of smallholder farmers post COVID-19.

The spread of the pandemic, compounded by challenges such as poor health, low food and nutritional security, and limited access to resources and services to mitigate risk, puts marginalised groups at increased risk. These vulnerable groups, which often live in rural areas or informal settlements, are largely served by local, informal food systems as opposed to the large agro-industrial system, as a result of apartheid legacies that created a dualistic food system serving distinct groups.

Smallholder producers, who have little access to land, produce food for their own consumption or for poorly-developed informal markets, and remain reliant on the often unaffordable dominant food system. These previously disadvantaged farmers, most of whom have not benefited from agricultural transformation policies, often fall among the 21.3% of South Africa’s population with poor access to food, and many households suffer from malnutrition.

In rural and peri-urban areas, people have access to locally-produced food from smallholder communal farmers. However, constrained by high vulnerability to climatic extremes such as droughts and floods and with limited access to resources and extension services, these producers contribute less than 5% of South Africa’s agricultural produce.

‘That aside, smallholder farmers have a huge role to play in sustaining household food and nutrition security in rural communities during and post-COVID-19,’ said the URP group.

As smallholder farmers are currently busy harvesting and selling their summer crops, the advent of the COVID-19 crisis that has restricted movement and the functioning of informal markets, creates serious buying, marketing, storage and processing constraints that generate particularly acute problems for perishables. Market access and supply chains are impaired, and the distribution chain within the informal food system has ground to a halt, while many vulnerable groups cannot engage in farming activities to access food. While community members with access to land have a chance of recovering after the crisis, they might be plunged further into poverty as it progresses.

Resilience can be achieved by investing in social protection systems; strengthening food processing and storage facilities closer to farms; investing in local, community seed and grain banks as well as in local food production and consumption; supporting rights to food policies and institutions; and exploring ways for trade agreements and rules to better support the transition towards more sustainable agro-ecological food systems and local production for local consumption.

Interventions launched in South Africa to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on the productivity of smallholder and communal farmers are positive but could still exclude smallholder communal producers in the informal economic sector who fall below the minimum threshold for support.

These farmers require support to enhance their productivity and market access through the establishment of collection or aggregation centres within communities, and provision of capital and access to finance and safety net systems. In the short-term, farmers could also be provided with storage facilities to prevent postharvest losses as a result of COVID-19, or localised strategic emergency reserves could be supplied.

‘When it comes to maintaining food systems during the pandemic, South Africa may have some advantages over other parts of the world, for example its relatively younger workforce. Nonetheless, it will undoubtedly face significant challenges in the coming months that will require thoughtful attention from policymakers,’ said the group.

‘Crucial preventative measures will be essential to slow the impacts of the virus, including informal food systems and smallholder producers.’

The URP is managed by the UMDM with support from the South African National Biodiversity Institute, in partnership with the Department of Environmental Affairs. UKZN is a sub-Executing Entity, acting through the UKZN Foundation. URP interventions in the UMDM have included early warning and ward-based disaster response systems; ecological and engineering infrastructure solutions; integrating the use of climate-resilient crops and climate-smart techniques into new and existing farming systems; and disseminating adaptation lessons learned and policy recommendations. The project has established a number of homestead and community gardens in Swayimane and Nhlazuka that offer community farmers the required skills and inputs.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied