Covid-19 support ‘misses the mark for smallholders’

Government interventions to help small-scale farmers during the Covid-19 lockdowns were ineffective and benefitted few farmers, says the author of a new study. The pandemic has had a dire impact on this segment of the agriculture sector.

Street traders and small scale farmers are always neglected in times of crisis and the leaders in the agriculture sector have urged government to prioritize them in future to protect our food systems. Photo: Nomfundo Xolo / GroundUp

Street traders and small-scale farmers are always neglected in times of crisis and leaders in the agriculture sector have urged government to prioritise them in future to protect vulnerable food systems. Photo: Nomfundo Xolo/ GroundUp

Thousands of small-scale farmers in the country are feeling the strain of running their businesses following a challenging and hectic year, which was characterised by setbacks such as load shedding, the pandemic, petrol price hikes and animal disease outbreaks. Unfortunately the Covid-19 support measures government instituted to help these farmers missed the mark, and few benefitted from it.

A study by Dr Marc Wegerif – which mainly focused on black farmers in the informal and municipal trades – aimed at unpacking the challenges faced by those farmers during the pandemic. 

Dr Marc Wegerif of the department of development studies at the University of Pretoria. Photo: Shaun Roy Photography

Wegerif, a lecturer in development studies at the University of Pretoria, says the reason for his focus on black farmers was that they mainly sell in the informal and municipal trades. 

Food For Mzansi asked him to help us understand the effects – both positive and negative – the pandemic brought to this segment of the agricultural sector. 

Tiisetso Manoko: What do you think is the main lesson for farmers to learn from this period? 

Dr Marc Wegerif: Diversify and build autonomy. That is, reduce dependence on inputs and markets. Especially those one has little control over. Farmers have seen that the surge in international fertiliser prices, for example, can put them out of business. When a particular market is doing well, like restaurants were for some, it is nice to focus on it. But farmers then found themselves in real trouble when that market was affected. Value the local markets that are less likely to be disrupted. 

Do you think Covid-19 brought new opportunities for farmers, changing their business models to thrive in a changed world? 

It has pushed farmers to adapt, which can have long-term benefits for some. For example, diversifying crops and markets targeted has created some new opportunities. Being forced to look for other, more affordable inputs such as using manure and composting instead of bought fertiliser, is another adaptation that some farmers are trying, which could have long-term benefits. 

What was the biggest impact on operations of the farmers in your study from the Covid-19 pandemic? 

Farmers lost markets, especially in initial harsh lockdowns that affected street traders, restaurants and events. Later economic decline has impacted negatively on aggregate demand. 

There was a lot of disturbance in the value chain which led to 21 farmers from the group of small, medium-scale fresh produce farmers [included in the study] having to reduce or stop their production. Six stopped completely for some time. Events, restaurants and hotels, which farmers were delivering to, closed. 

Jobs were lost as some farmers had to lay off their workers because of the travel regulations and permits which were needed at one time. 

Do you think government played a meaningful role in offering Covid-19 support and assisting farmers during this period? 

No, sadly it doesn’t seem that the Covid-19 support has been very effective. Few farmers benefitted and the benefits for those were limited. The government has tried, but the support is not well aligned to farmers’ needs. 

Do you think there were any mental health-related issues such as depression in farmers during this period? 

Definitely, many farmers and their workers were directly affected by Covid, including some who lost workers and close relatives. These direct impacts and the repeated waves of Covid, along with changing restrictions and the tough economic situation, caused a lot of anxiety. Farming involves long-term planning and investments; it is particularly tough to farm in such an uncertain time. 

ALSO READ: ‘Recognise black farmers’ contribution to economy’

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