For the past several months, movement restrictions and market closures implemented to curb COVID-19 have meant that farmers have had no access to markets to sell their produce, or cannot access them as easily as they did before, which has shut down their supplemental income streams. As well, recent floods have devastated farmlands, causing huge losses. These events have had the dual effects of compromising farmers' livelihoods and denting their ability to continue to produce. We spoke with three farmers – from Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania – to understand their struggles.
Fatuma Mgao - Tanzania
Fatuma Mgao is all about the numbers — whether that is about doubling the size of land she farms on or increasing her share of inputs. This year, the numbers worry her. Looking at them, she can see the effects of a very bad year for her and millions of others.
“The economy is not doing well,” says Fatuma, who hoped to sell maize fresh off the stock this year, just as she has every season. But her usual customers told her they cannot buy from her because they have no one to sell to. Hotels and markets in the city are closed, so the demand for food has significantly gone down. “The borders are also closed, so we cannot sell to other countries either,” she says.
Normally, Fatuma wouldn’t worry too much about her finances but her other major income source, a shop she runs at the local market, is equally affected. Where she used to bring in up to Tsh30,000 ($13) on a single day, now she barely sells Tsh10,000 ($4.50).
‘I’m not sick but I feel the impact of the virus’ Fatuma Mgao
“I believe that this disease is affecting everyone in some way,” says Fatuma. “I may not be sick, but I feel its impact all the same.” She exemplifies this with the rise in the price of sugar, a commodity she depends on to prepare mandazi (a form of fried bread) which she sells in her shop. She has had to reduce the amount she purchases from two kilograms per week to about half a kilo.
Since she enrolled in 2018, Fatuma has made weekly loan repayments of at least Tsh10,000 ($4.50), beginning soon after she receives her inputs at the start of each season. This year, she has had to revise that amount significantly downwards — sometimes failing to make any payment at all.
Still, she is hopeful she will finish her loan; she has to. “I depend on selling part of my harvest and the profit from my shop to pay my loan, but this year has been tough,” she says. She now looks to peas, which she will be harvesting in July, to meet her obligations. At the moment, a bag of peas sells for Tsh25,000 ($10.8), and she hopes to make enough to complete her loan and re-enroll.
“With inputs, I can be sure of farming next season. That is a much better alternative than dropping it altogether and depending on purchasing food,” Fatuma says. “Even if the financial challenges continue, I believe with the little I make from my shop, I can make little repayments throughout the year.”
Despite the present challenges, Fatuma believes that farmers in the program can still afford to farm because the repayment model affords them welcome flexibility. “Ten members in my group have committed to enrolling next season,” Fatuma says. “I believe other group leaders have similar accounts to report,” says Fatuma, who is a group leader herself.
Caroline Sikukuu - Kenya
Caroline Sikukuu cannot express her gratitude enough that One Acre Fund sent her soap, and taught her about COVID-19 prevention measures. She is profoundly grateful. Still, although her hygiene is catered to, she can’t stop worrying about existing movement restrictions, and the threat of COVID-19.
“My husband and I cannot go out for work because people are afraid we may infect them. We don’t make the additional money we used to, yet it is what we depended on to repay our loans. I’m worried that if I don’t pay back my loan, the organization may drop me from the program,” says Caroline.
She also notes that since market centers were shut down, even the few sellers who can still access them do not make much since people don’t go to buy from the markets anymore. “Farmers are at a loss on how to survive, as they cannot sell their produce. Much of the fresh produce we harvest goes bad,” says Caroline. “I don’t even want to think about next season since I am not sure I will finish repaying in time, or even at all. At the moment, I just worry about the now, not the future. But I know if the situation remains the same until September, then for sure I will not re-enroll.”
‘We are far, far behind’ Caroline Sikukuu
“It’s very tough for everyone out here and all of us are struggling. Collectively, our site is not at the repayment level we usually are at this time; we are far, far behind,” says Caroline.
Although markets are gradually reopening, for the moment farmers are still scared of the coronavirus. Bungoma, Caroline’s home district, connects to Malaba which is a border town. Truck drivers on their way to Uganda, who must undergo mandatory testing, usually park their trucks in Bungoma while they go through the process. Locals are scared about this.
“Some markets are open again and people are walking about with masks on, but many of us are scared of going out. There are so many truck drivers around, who, for all we know, are spreading the virus; we can’t take chances with that. I don’t feel too confident about going out just yet. If the drivers can leave, then I will go and look for work,” says Caroline.
Her priority right now is food. If she can feed her family, other needs can wait. “When my kids are home, I try to give them a balanced diet — you know, fruit, meat, fish, and mandazi. Right now those are not even on the menu. We are eating to survive, that’s all. We have ugali, sukuma wiki, and sometimes the sweet potatoes from the garden,” the farmer says.
Caroline says she wants to clear her loan, but appeals for an extension to the loan repayment deadline. She also calls on the government to further relax the prevailing restrictions to allow farmers to continue to produce without hindrance or fear. “Farmers produce food for the country. When we are unable to sell what we already have, that affects us. If the government eased some of the more punitive restrictions, we would be happy to go back to farming full time.”
Emmanuel Mundego — Rwanda
Emmanuel Mundego says farming is his entire life. He depends on it to earn a living and feed his family. He has farmed with One Acre Fund since 2015. He talks about not knowing how to apply fertilizer before then and believing it to be bad for the soil. He also speaks of poor harvests — as low as 100kg of maize and 40kg of beans from one hectare.
In his first year of enrollment, he ordered 10 kilograms of fertilizer and planted beans on a small plot; he harvested 150 kilograms. The following season, he planted both maize and beans and harvested 2,000 kilos of maize and 400 kilos of beans. “I felt so happy and made the decision to stick with the program,” Emmanuel says. When he thinks of returning to his previous yields and the idea of not being able to continue farming with One Acre Fund scares him.
‘I have no idea how to finish paying this time; I just know I will need inputs’ Emmanuel Mundego
When the government announced a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, Emmanuel says his revenue streams outside of farming took a hit that directly affected his repayment plan. The farmer, whose seasonal credit amount is more than RwF170,000 (about $178), has often relied on banana sales, besides his bean and maize harvests, to repay his loan. He is not sure he will finish repaying this season. Flooding damaged most of his crops, and so there was little to harvest.
“Paying on time is important to me. I understand if I don’t meet my repayment obligations fully, I will not get farm inputs for the next season,” Emmanuel says.
Owing to the countrywide closure since April, including schools, which were his main clients, Emmanuel has had nowhere to take his produce. “I have bananas in the field which are [over]ripening and going bad because my buyers no longer come. I also had stocked maize, but as schools are closed, it is just sitting there. I may have to sell it at a throwaway price.”
“We are drawing closer to the repayment deadline. I have already paid at least 60% of my credit but have no idea how I am going to complete the remainder. I just know that I am going to require seed and fertilizer next season because I rely on farming to feed and provide for my family,” Emmanuel says.