Recently, some commentators are shifting their attention from densely populated urban areas to rural communities in their discussions of COVID-19. How are farmers in the southern African nation of Zambia weathering the crisis and what particular issues do they face?
Just as the pandemic highlights class disparities in work and school and racial disparities in health care, the difference between those with basic economic security and those without has been made starkly visible. For those in hard-hit countries such as the US, they can dial the emergency line 911 for an ambulance or, in France, residents can access free universal healthcare to receive care for coronavirus symptoms. However, communities situated within struggling state infrastructures have no such safety nets.
Coronavirus’ Impact on Sub-Saharan African Economies
In these communities, were you to need immediate care, you’d have to rely on neighbors who are struggling just as much as you. With luck, you’d be able to pay one of them to give you a ride to a hospital, but in Zambia’s fragile health care system, that hospital is likely to be kilometers away and have few resources. The hospitals outside of the urban capital region of Lusaka will likely not have intubators or ventilators for patients with severe coronavirus symptoms. What’s more, small farming communities are by no means insulated from exposure. In many regions in Zambia, villages are connected to a single central urban hub, which means that these centers are the one and only stop for dozens of surrounding villages. The Harvest Fund’s farmers in the Mungu village of Kafue district would have to pass through Kafue town to procure essential supplies, and passersby in Kafue town usually come from the national capital Lusaka (where more than 50% of arriving passengers sare from the coronavirus epicentres of EU, US, or China). You can imagine how, moving through this type of network, asymptomatic travelers are able to carry the virus from Lusaka to Kafue, innocuously infecting others in Kafue. This is what’s currently happening.
Infection would be devastating for struggling families and struggling systems—especially given the increased health risk for the undernourished, while the risk of exposure for rural communities is not as minimal as you may think, despite relatively small populations.
Economic effects could prove equally dire for small farming communities. Many Zambian farmers sell their goods at informal markets, such as the roadside, where health conditions are hard to regulate. Any random passerby could be a coronavirus carrier and, from the buyer’s perspective, any roadside vendor could also transmit the coronavirus. Because of this fear, many subsistence farmers do not have any place to sell their vegetables. Without refrigeration or other storage, vegetables go to waste very quickly.
April in the southern hemisphere is the time to cultivate seed, but if seed purchasers can’t purchase or transport seed due to market or border closures, there will be a shortage of seed in the coming season. For subsistence farmers, a shortage of seed will mean that seed prices for their basic crops, such as maize, will skyrocket in the coming year. Many sub-Saharan countries, Zambia included, are unable to produce their own organic and chemical nutrients for fertilizer, therefore those prices will be unmanageable for smallscale farmers. Poor soils are devastating for yields and global warming and it is critical to procure fertilizer to nourish soils. Coronavirus economic effects on agricultural cycles are long lasting—even perpetual.
For all the differences that are drawn out by this global crisis, there is also a sense of connectivity across the most varied of experiences. In the effort to spotlight some of those experiences and, at the same time, explore our global connectedness during this crisis, we wanted to share stories about life during the COVID-19 pandemic from the farmers themselves.
COVID-19 and Women Smallholder Farmers
Caroline Mwanza, one of the farmers in The Harvest Fund’s Cohort 1, says that the virus has affected farmers’ marketing season in a big way. Grain and vegetables have been harvested, but because no one is selling and no one is buying, the harvest needs to be stored. The Harvest Fund shares the cost of innovative PICS bags with the farmers and trains them on proper usage; with these bags, farmers can store their grain long-term until the market prices are favorable. For longer storage of vegetables, The Harvest Fund is evaluating a transportable solar-powered cold storage unit that would be the first of its kind in Zambia.
No one has tested positive in Caroline’s village of Mungu, but she says there have been cases in the closest town, Kafue, which is only 10 kilometers away. Caroline has a daughter who works in HIV programming in Lusaka, the capital city, and another child in secondary school. Caroline has two other dependents for whom she pays for primary school. Educating her children and family members costs Caroline about $100 per year, or about ¼ of her yearly income, but the benefits have already proven to be significant for her daughter in Lusaka. With a job in the city that is not labor intensive, Caroline’s daughter may be able to help build her family’s income and escape extreme poverty.
Caroline speaks English fluently, an ability her fellow farmers don't have, and she also has managed to maintain a few cows, which is difficult and expensive. But dairy milk is a good source of income for someone like Caroline. Unlike her pay from maize harvest, which comes once a year and after 7 months of backbreaking work, income from the sale of milk can flow to her daily. However, the upkeep of cows is very difficult considering the extreme limitations of water, grass, and veterinary services.
We asked Caroline how her roadside sales are doing and what happens to the produce she’s not selling. “When we go to the roadside,” she said, “the cars used to stop, but now they’re not stopping. The vegetables we can’t sell … we’re drying them up. We do throw away some. We keep them about 2 days, then we have to dry them.”
Her face covered with a black and pink cloth mask against a bright and sun-lit background, Caroline said:
“We’re very scared of the Coronavirus. We’ve never seen a virus like that one. It’s different than HIV, you know. With the Coronavirus, we don’t know. We don’t even know the way it comes.”
For all the recent studies and media coverage, the sense of the unknown that surrounds the Coronavirus is indeed profound. Even as new data emerges, many of us are still left with little more than a name, like a vague threat affecting our daily lives in ways that could not be more concrete. A sense of unknowability—of fragility—has been one of the lessons of COVID-19 for those of us who may have forgotten how easily our plans for the future can be swept away.
Coronavirus Preventative Agriculture Trainings for Smallholder Farmers
In one scene from the new reality, farmers sit in a circle some two meters apart from one another, occupied with different tasks. They are participating in The Harvest Fund’s socially-distanced training on grain storage in PICS bags. Some sit in the shade, some on benches, some on the edge of a traditional structure made from sticks to store grain harvest, and some on the ground. One member of the circle is Jacobina, a Ministry of Agriculture camp extension officer who works alongside The Harvest Fund to train the farmers how to work with these new storage bags—part of the effort to keep farmers up-to-date with new resources and technologies.
Jacobina helps the others store materials in large plastic bags called PICS bags, and to do so, the women have to work closely together. After using the handwashing station provided to them by The Harvest Fund, they put on the supplied masks. They make sure to regularly apply hand-sanitiser - there’s a Ministry of Health official overseeing the group activity, as required by the Zambian government. The PICS bags provided by The Harvest Fund surpass the farmers’ current storage techniques. The bags allow the farmers to store the grains hermetically for many months - rather than just a few weeks - preventing them from rotting or being infested with insects. Long-term storage also allows farmers to sell when prices skyrocket during the off-season, giving them a way to drastically increase their income.
Plastic or metal silos are a better, less labor intensive way to store grain, yet there isn’t a low-cost solution that has arrived in the country. Though the country’s industry supply chain isn’t yet able to cater to smallscale farmers, The Harvest Fund is exploring ways to make this a reality.
Having learned how to work with the new bags from Jacobina and Ackson Mwanza, Technical Director of Harvest Fund, the women make them a gift of several large bags of maize. One of these bags could feed the women’s children for a month.
Training sessions like these highlight best practices for agricultural producers at the bottom of the pyramid – i.e., those who are emerging entrepreneurs and farm on a small scale but struggle with extreme poverty and lack of resources. As a nimble agriculture social enterprise, The Harvest Fund was able to pivot and embrace the new coronavirus-prevention precautions, yet continue with time-sensitive harvest trainings.
If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we are all interconnected, economically and simply as human beings. Farming communities in Zambia are experiencing the same crisis in ways that differ greatly from people living in urban environments and in different infrastructures. If nothing else, a crisis like this can highlight the need to develop the resiliency of smallholders and rally support from all of us who have been given new insight into the mutual connections of our global, rapidly shifting world.
Follow The Harvest Fund on Facebook or donate to Harvest Fund with Paypal to support Coronavirus prevention in communities like Caroline’s. Prior to any training, The Harvest Fund secures permission from the Ministry of Health and provides handwashing stations, masks, and hand sanitiser to its farmers. Your donation supports ongoing efforts to improve food security, poverty alleviation, and rural development during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond.
Jennifer Flaherty is a writer with a Ph.D from the University of California, Berkeley in Slavic Languages and Literatures. She is an expert in 19th century Russian literature and culture, which she has taught at a number of institutions, and has a broad interest in social issues and how art and cultural forms grapple with them. She is pursuing new opportunities at the intersection of publishing, arts and culture organizations, and non-profit work dedicated to causes of social justice.