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How smallholder farmers bounced back during the health crisis

Photo: Daniella Van Leggelo-Padilla / World Bank

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit at the start of 2020, the then-nascent health crisis presented considerable, long-lasting economic challenges, exacerbating an ongoing food security and nutrition crisis. Some countries were already facing drought, severe flooding, and desert locust invasions as they found themselves also tackling COVID-19. In many countries and contexts, smallholder farmers experienced a range of shocks that they had to respond to and adapt quickly to.

The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) was able to respond quickly and flexibly to the emerging crisis – providing much-needed financing that allowed farmers to design and implement the interventions which worked best for them. Launched in 2016, the Missing Middle Initiative (MMI) pilot is a public sector initiative designed to respond to smallholder farmers’ unmet needs by providing direct financing to producer organizations. The total “pilot” portfolio of this initiative spanned five projects worth $17 million, with projects in Bangladesh, two in Mali, Senegal, and one across Rwanda and Uganda.

GAFSP has now expanded upon this initial pilot, taking on board key lessons learned and financed projects led by producer organizations in 12 countries, to help meet the demand for financing for smallholder farmers and their organizations. Farmers, through civil society and farmers’ organizations' representatives, have always had a seat at the table in GAFSP’s decision-making process and are now designing, implementing, and leading solutions that address their needs as key stakeholders in building sustainable food systems.

Early response to the crisis

Despite the challenges already felt across the five pilot projects, led by producer organizations, during the COVID-19 pandemic, all of the projects were able to respond quickly by making small but critical changes to mitigate impacts. Challenges across the countries included restrictions on the movement of people and goods, the closure of input and output markets, limited availability of seasonal workers, limited access to finance and price volatility, scarcity of information, about the transmission of the virus, how to avoid it and national responses; and lack of access to protective gear.

By September 2020, the GAFSP had allocated close to US$3.7 million in additional financing to all five projects to scale up or implement new activities that address the short-to-medium-term impacts of the health crisis on agriculture, nutrition, and food security. Four out of five projects had already developed a COVID-19 response using their original funding envelope, including the producer-led projects in Bangladesh, Senegal, and East Africa, and one project in Mali. Early responses ranged from government support to ensure agricultural supply chains functioned without any significant disruption; to strengthening connections between farmers and markets. 

In-country responses

In Bangladesh, a group of 55 Producer Organizations led by the Sara Bangla Krishak Society, the national network of farmers’ organizations, were already able to quickly leverage the additional US$1.2 million provided in emergency response to establish 57 Virtual Call Centers. The Centers allowed the network to take collective action, by buying inputs or products or raising awareness of on-farm safety measures. The quick dissemination of information across the farmer networks kept agricultural supply chains functioning throughout the crisis, ensuring access to credit, cash, and in-kind support, even establishing a COVID-19 Recovery Revolving Loan. To date, the project has benefited more than 9,000 people, including 5,000 women. 

In East Africa, the e-granary innovative mobile platform illustrated the advantages of having farmers already organized. The digital platform had 38,000 registered farmers, including 16,000 women, even before the pandemic hit. With an additional US$478,240 in funding, the platform quickly leveraged this network and lobbied for essential service permits, allowing for input procurement and delivery to farmers, aggregation, and collective selling to continue. Farmers were quickly and remotely trained on good hygiene practices and received prevention kits, including hand-washing kits of soap, bleach, and protective gear.

In Mali, the additional US$1.2 million in emergency response was used to bolster capacity building among young people, providing lacking response information. The youth networks already set up through the project to include rural youth in poultry and aquaculture value chains identified three regional COVID-19 focal points to provide health training and distribute hygiene kits while raising awareness among communities. A workshop was set up to support entrepreneurs with financial training and to monitor income generation data, with 179 organizations in a better place to respond, having received financial credit and information to start, run, and expand their businesses.  

Meanwhile, still in Mali, another project to improve rice paddy and cowpea quality processing for improved nutrition and increased farmer development was awarded an additional US$655,200 to strengthen production, harvesting, and processing. To date, more than 14,000 smallholder farmers have benefited from the project, with 24 farmers’ field schools providing information to 50,000 people. Levering this network, when the pandemic hit, two rice parboiling units were established, with capacity building on improved processing techniques, conservation and consumption of local products. In addition, a community fair selling local produce was organized, hygiene kits were distributed among the already-existing network, and a radio program on COVID-19 hygiene was broadcast.

Senegal’s emergency response within the project, Strengthening rural women’s livelihood for sustainable economic development in the region of Tambacounda, demonstrated the importance of collective action. With an additional US$248,000 in GAFSP funding, producer organizations enabled 3,000 smallholder farmer members to have bananas grown between June and July 2020 bought. This enabled members to buy and distribute food seeds for the next agricultural season, and supported producers who had already suffered losses in bananas sales, covering some of their production inputs.

Lessons learned

Across the farmer-led portfolio, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that organized farmers are remarkably resilient and can serve their members’ needs quickly and flexibly in times of crisis. Driven by demand from their members, these farmers’ organizations are in the best position to create useful services in times of crisis. Their plans are designed at local level and tailored towards the specific needs of local communities, often inherently including input from families, women, young people and local actors for more resilient decision-making. 

The portfolio highlights another important lesson: additional economic support is essential during crises, where other financing is often lacking. In the future, investment in strengthening autonomy among smallholders and in supporting digital technology must be scaled up to allow for immediate emergency response.