The outbreak and rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across the globe has not only changed the way of life and business but also pose a potential threat to food production and supply.
The declaration of Covid-19 as a global pandemic by WHO prompted the government of Kenya to institute measures aimed at preventing and containing the spread of the pandemic in the country.
These measures included social distancing, restrictions of movement into and out of some counties, regular hand washing, closure of some businesses, ban on none essential international flights, and dusk-to-dawn curfews among others.
Some of these measures could trigger reactions that impede food production and supply in the country.
Indeed evidence from Ebola-hit West African countries has shown that containment measures against pandemics often result in a dramatic reduction in food production activities as well as a spike in the prices of staple foods.
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It is therefore important to bring to the fore the nexus between Covid-19 pandemic containment measures and food security in the country.
Restriction of movement in and out of affected counties: The government enforced restrictions into and out of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi, and Mandera counties.
Nairobi and Mombasa cities have an estimated population of 4.4 million and 0.8 million respectively, thus constituting a significant proportion of the food market in the country. Therefore, restriction of movement in an out of these counties complicates market access especially for smallholder farmers, who constitute 80 per cent of farmers in the country.
Although the movement of essential goods such as food is exempted from these restrictions, most smallholder farmers rely on passenger vehicles, taxis, and motorcycles to transport their produce to the markets.
Consequently, restriction of passenger vehicles and other means of transport that farmers have traditionally relied on to access the market implies that most farmers are completely shut out of their reliable markets.
Market inaccessibility has resulted in losses that may impact on the next farming cycle.
Covid-19 has been found to have severe effects on the middle age and older people, as well as those with underlying medical conditions.
Statistics from different government policy papers as well as FAO indicate that majority of farmers are aged 40 years and above, apparently the same age group that is reeling most from the effects of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the government is discouraging the movement of people from rural to urban areas as well as free interaction between rural and urban populations for fear that doing so would exacerbate the spread of the pandemic.
While well-intentioned, this measure may hamper food production activities in rural areas in two main ways.
First, most of the farm inputs are sourced from urban areas, which imply that farmers may not benefit from a wide variety of farm inputs.
A spike in demand on the limited supply of farm inputs available in rural areas will also occasion an exponential increase in their prices, thus increasing the cost of food production.
Second, farmers will not access agricultural extension services that are more often available in urban areas.
This could translate into a decline in the use of fertilizer, pest and disease management, and other crop husbandry practices, which may lead to low crop yields that fail to meet the county’s food demand.
The dusk to dawn curfew, which seeks to contain the spread of the pandemic by curtailing people’s movement-save for essential service providers between 7:00pm and 5:00am, will have an unprecedented impact on food production and supply.
A lot of farms produce from rural areas is prepared and transported to major urban areas, where most of the market is available at night.
Moreover, much of the fishing activities in Kenya’s lakes and the Indian Ocean occur at night, hours that movement is prohibited.
While farmworkers and fisherfolk ordinarily fall under the essential service providers’ category, there are no coherent mechanisms of identifying them, after which they can be issued with special work permits that allow them to work without restrictions.
Restrictions on labour mobility and working hours on the farm and other food production sites will hurt food production thereby undermining food security in the country.
Closure of fresh produce markets, in major urban areas such as Nairobi, Nakuru, Mombasa, and Kisumu has compounded farmers’ ability to access the market. Losses in farms could affect the liquidity of farmers and their ability to pay and access credit soon.
Social distancing and hygiene
The social distancing measures have been prescribed in all places including in the farms as well as commodity collection and exchange centres. In some cases, farmers have responded by cutting down the number of workers in their farms and commodity collection centres.
This, compounded with the dawn to dusk curfew, leads to reduced labour and working hours thereby affecting farm productivity.
Furthermore, as part of the protocols for continued agricultural production, farmers are required to provide handwashing facilities, hand sanitizers, face masks, and other personal protective equipment for their workers. This puts an additional cost of production, which may compel farmers to reduce farm acreage.
Changing of consumption patterns from fresh produce to processed foods
The announcement of the first case in the country coupled with fear and continued government hint at a total lockdown as a containment measure for Covid-19 pandemic led to panic buying, especially by the urban population.
This also shifted the consumption patterns from fresh produce to processed foods with longer shelf lives. Furthermore, increased preference for processed foods over fresh produce will discourage farmers from hefty investment in the production of fresh produce thus resulting in acute shortages soon.
In the alternative, farmers would have to seek new alliances and markets with processors to sell their produce.
Navigating the obstacles
The government has a strategy of setting up collection centres where farmers within the same region, with the same commodity, can meet with transporters to minimize interaction. Guidelines are also provided on hygiene standards and Covid-19 measures to be observed in these centres. Transporters, on the other hand, move the products to designated market centres where traders could pick and retail in the markets. The protocols require transporters, on the other hand, to only carry one type of product at a time.
This is a new arrangement in the supply chain occasioned by Covid-19 that farmers need to adjust to. However, the arrangement may not benefit smallholder farmers who operate in regions independently and are not affiliated to farmer groups, cooperatives, or associations, which they can use to aggregate their produce to form a consignment for onward transportation to the markets.
Furthermore, some farmers may not have the capacity to move products to collection centres given the additional cost implications. It is prudent for farmers should carefully examine these measures and suggest areas that require reforms.
Farmers, pastoralists, and fisherfolks have been urged to embrace digital platforms and mobile money transactions to acquire inputs and access markets to minimize their exposure to the virus and navigate through logistical challenges of accessing inputs.
However, the distribution of inputs supplies has been dominated by the public sector with the National Cereals and Produce Board (NCPB), a state corporation, importing fertilizer and distributing it directly to farmers through its depots.
Similarly, Kenya Seed Company and its subsidiary Simlaw Seeds command 80 per cent of the market for maize and vegetable seeds.
The process of distribution of inputs by the government is barely digitized therefore farmers seeking to access inputs using digital platforms are left in the hands of private players who are exploitative of the farmer increasing the cost of production.
The Covid-19 protocol for agro-dealers may not be able to cushion grassroots farmers against exploitation by the middlemen. Moreover, the digital divide in rural areas and the average age of a Kenyan farmer may limit their access and utilization of digital platforms.
These observations affirm assertions by FAO that some of the virus containment measures were likely to result in an unprecedented food shortage in the country by affecting food production, access to input, output markets, and increased post-harvest losses.
The shortages of labour due to mobility restrictions and shortened working hours could disrupt production especially particularly for labour-intensive crops.
Being dominated by smallholder middle age and elderly farmers, Kenya’s agricultural food production is at higher risk of Covid-19 pandemic posing a potential higher food shortage than anticipated.
Dr Barnabas Muthusi is a researcher in Micro Enterprise Development, Innovation, Product Development, Agribusiness, and Value Chain Development at ACAL COVID-19 Think Tank