While many sectors are trying to pick up the pieces from the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, another rise in infections is bringing uncertainty to the agricultural sector, leaving informal traders and black farmers especially exposed.
A seminar last week by Dr Marc Wegerif on the impact of Covid-19 on black farmers in South Africa, outlined how informal traders and municipal markets were severely affected by Covid-19 regulations. The seminar was held as a partnership between the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC) and the University of Pretoria.
Wegerif, a lecturer in development studies in the department of anthropology and archaeology at the university, said it was evident that Covid-19 “really destroyed” informal traders who will take years to bounce back.
The research on which the seminar was based, was done by engaging 40 farmers from Limpopo, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Counting the loss for farmers
“While the country had massive unemployment issues, Covid-19 exacerbated the matter. There are farmers who lost everything because of the pandemic,” Wegerif said.
“Informal traders had to stop selling and stay at home because of the regulations. Some workers had to stay at home because of not having permits, leading to farmers or sellers with products that were not being sold.”
Some of these workers, Wegerif pointed out, were foreigners who were fearful of their lives at that time, so they stayed home or left the job.
Wegerif added that the impact was particularly painful where some lost out on lucrative deals that were slowly picking them up financially.
“Some farmers had been selling their produce to the national school nutrition programme, but it had to be stopped because of lower turnout of kids at schools and ultimately the closure of schools.
“Two women farmers lost use of school land, some farmers are getting deeper into debt and some are stopping production, which leads to a risk of losing the land,” he said
Because of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown restrictions, some farmers dropped their prices to enable customers to buy, which resulted in a loss of income for many food producers.
“One thing certain is that there were job losses, which really hit farmers very hard. Loss of jobs and incomes were the order of the day. The biggest negative impact was on markets, reduced demand and downward pressure on prices,” he said.
Informal traders overlooked
Furthermore, according to Wegerif, there was little focus on the informal market; the biggest market in the country supplying millions of South Africans.
“There is little attention to the informal market, both by government and the private sector. It should be worrying [to] farmers that this is happening. This is one of the important markets because many people in the communities rely on this market… to get their vegetables.”
When it comes to government intervention, Wegerif said it was far from impressive as farmers were still in limbo on how to go about getting assistance during trying times.
“Where government managed to help, it was a bit of disaster because wrong seeds were ordered, seeds arrived late or at times they were taken to the wrong destinations. Government support at times was not aligning with the needs of the farmers.”
What is the way forward?
Wegerif said innovative ways were needed to ensure that food security does not become a problem in South Africa. He also felt access to land needed to be prioritised, especially for young people who want to get into farming and work the land.
“The question is, what do we do now? How do we ensure that farmers do bounce back stronger in this trying and tough times? Everyone needs to participate in coming with solutions because at the end of the day, everyone is affected. The whole value chain is affected.”
Wegerif added that there was a great need for a holistic support which must be informed by the nature of black farmers’ operations.
“Recognise their contribution to employment, local food systems and food accessibility. We need to build more autonomy with sustainable farming systems and explore agroecology. The importance of local markets and municipal markets can never be left behind.”
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