Impact of COVID-19 on small scale farmers in Kenya

The impact of COVID-19 on small scale farmers in Kenya was experienced by both subsistence and commercial small scale farmers.
Tomatoes farming. Photo by Joseph Wambugu

How  COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on small scale farmers in Kenya.

For the first time in history, the have and the have-not seem to be playing on the same level ground. Covid-19 has leveled the ground following the various social and economic disruptions caused to people across all social classes. Unlike other hygiene related infections, covid-19’s calls for a set of hygiene measures that are so interrelated and interpersonal that it requires a collective approach to keep infections low.
Measures taken to mitigate the possible upsurge of infections have caused economic disruptions across all sectors. Both formal and informal businesses are feeling the heat.
 In Africa, farming is majorly an informal business.

Like other governments in the world, African governments have established kitties to cushion the poor and the vulnerable in the society against the economic impacts of the pandemic. This support is disbursed either in form of distribution of  food items or cash transfer programs. Majority of the earmarked beneficiaries of these kitties are residents of urban centers and informal settlements near major cities. Among the targeted beneficiaries, rural families whom majority are farmers, were left out of the equation.  While historically rural families always come first during disaster management interventions for example during distribution of relief food, why is it that during this pandemic nobody is considering farmers as a needy group? Is it because agriculture was categorized as an essential service and hence assumed to be marginally disrupted?
I am not sure which criteria the government (of Kenya) used to alienate smallholder farmers but whatever the criteria, I find it logical not to consider farmers a vulnerable group, at least for now. A vulnerable individual is one who can hardly afford to put a meal on the table, which is not the case for many smallholder farmers at the moment, thanks to the abundant rains that have been consistent since mid-2019. Were it not for the good agricultural season, the government of Kenya could currently be dealing with a bigger number of vulnerable individuals, to close to twice or thrice as many.

Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on subsistence  small scale farmers

A huge majority of Kenyan smallholders practice subsistence farming, and as long as the rains persist, there shall always be something available on their farms for them to eat. This group of farmers who grow crops only for self-consumption has not felt the heat of economic meltdown caused by covid-19. This is due to that fact that they do not rely on the formal markets to sell or buy food. However, the latter exposes them to the risk of hunger in case of draught.

Impact COVID-19 pandemic on commercial small scale farmers

On the other hand, there exists another group of entrepreneurial smallholder farmers who commercialize their produce no matter how little they produce. This group practices intensive farming on micro, small and medium pieces of land with the objective of supplying their produce directly to consumers or through local markets. As the lockdowns persist due to covid-19, this category of farmers continues to enjoy the privilege of the food supply business which is considered as essential service in the country. However, this privilege is being experienced only by farmers who operate within well-structured supply chains where produce from several farmers is pooled together and delivered to the market using a common channel, ie food trucks.
 On a regular day, most smallholder farmers deliver their produce to the market through informal channels that are relatively convenient for very small amount of produce. These channels include using modes of transport such as motorcycles, motorbikes, donkeys, personal cars, and carrying on ones back.
 With the enhanced restriction of movements of people, delivery of food to the market through such methods has become close to impossible due the frequent altercations between the non-licensed farmers and the law enforcers at the border points or during curfew hours. This has caused a serious disruption in the unorganized informal food supply chain. 
My hope is that this inconvenience shall be a wake-up call for all farmers to start conducting their operations within a networked food distribution channels.

Impact on labor supply

The last impact that covid-19 has had on smallholder farming is related to the supply of labor. Small-scale farming in Kenya heavily relies on family labor. The closure of schools has safeguarded a continuous supply of labor especially during the planting season of April. School-going children normally assist their parents in running several farm activities.  
Disclaimer: The government must ensure children are protected from forced labor.

Joseph Wambugu is a consultant in Agribusiness
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