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Supporting Smallholder Farmers in the COVID-19 Crisis

by Lino Dias

The livelihoods of smallholder farmers worldwide are on the line. The lockdowns imposed in numerous countries have hit smallholders hard, especially in poor rural communities. As a global partner in the Better Life Farming (BLF) alliance, Bayer is providing BLF Care Packages to smallholders in some of the most disrupted areas worldwide. So the pandemic doesn’t turn a health crisis into a hunger crisis.

Dr. Lino Miguel Dias,

Bayer Vice President of Smallholder Farming

While the COVID-19 pandemic affects us all, it doesn’t do so in equal measure. Smallholders farm ten hectares at most, and the vast majority less than two. Their margins and room for error are just as small as their farmland. As a result, their capacity to absorb the shock of a dramatic disruption is gravely limited.

COVID-19 lockdowns have led to logistical challenges. Farmers face difficulties in accessing the required seeds and crop protection products and selling their harvest. The outcome has been crop losses and reduced incomes. This vicious circle also impacts their capacity to invest for the upcoming season. The pandemic has imperiled not only farmers’ livelihoods but also food security in many regions of the world. Smallholder farmers feed more than half of the population in low- and middle-income countries and are thus critical in meeting the demands of a growing global population. According to a UN FAO report, 97 percent of the world’s farms are located in low- and middle-income regions of Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa and smallholder farmers produce more than half the calories consumed in these regions. Among them are many subsistence farmers leading a borderline existence from one day to the next. For them, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a fundamental shock to their already fragile food system.

What’s more, in some countries of East Africa and Asia the impact on incomes and food supplies has been all the more severe through a double blow of pandemic and plague. Record-breaking swarms of locusts consuming up to 400,000 tons of food a day – about as much as 84 million people would eat – have hit Kenya and Uganda particularly hard. Kenya’s locust plague is the worst in 70 years and swarms in India are setting similar records. Though the two threats are entirely unrelated, their effect is identical and mutually reinforcing: plunging developing communities into a downward spiral of economic uncertainty and food insecurity.

Recognizing the importance of smallholder farmers for food supplies around the world and the need to prevent a health crisis becoming a hunger crisis, Bayer is utilizing the BLF Alliance to provide smallholder farmers with help in addressing the current challenges and building resilience for the future. As part of Bayer’s overarching commitment to empower 100 million smallholder farmers in low- and mid-income countries by 2030, the company launched an immediate COVID-19 response plan with a three-phased Response, Recovery, Resilience approach.

Together with our partners, we aim to build resilient food chains for smallholder farmers in rural areas that spur economic development to improve the livelihoods for smallholder families and communities. By doing so, we help smallholders become stronger contributors to feeding their nations.Lino Dias

The Immediate Response involves support for smallholder farmers through BLF Care Packages, services, produce offtake, and health and safety measures. The BLF Care Packages vary from market to market to specifically meet local farmers’ needs. Some kits contain quality seed, mainly for staple crops such as rice and corn. Some consist of crop protection products. Others contain both seed and crop protection, and personal protective equipment is included in some of the packages. Developed in collaboration with many local governments and local NGOs, this initiative commenced in June 2020 and as many as 2 million smallholder farmers in Asia Pacific, Africa and Latin America will ultimately receive these packages. The focus is on hotspot geographies where smallholder livelihoods have been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The services offered to smallholders include knowledge and training support. And the BLF Centers in India, for example, have been acting as intermediaries in connecting smallholders with bulk buyers.

The Medium-Term Recovery measures include rolling out a network of Centers of Excellence to pass on farming expertise and agricultural know-how to smallholders so they can farm better through improved knowledge. Moreover, value-chain partnerships formed during the emergency response phase are being expanded and the BLF model extended to countries across Asia-Pacific, e.g. Indonesia.

One of the key initiatives in building up Long-Term Resilience is the focus on digital farming tools. Most of us have come to rely more heavily on digital devices during the recent lockdowns. Smallholder farmers are no exception. The information sent to smartphones via digital tools provides them with a farmer’s most valuable asset – information. Advice and insights into current market conditions, weather forecasts, guidance on the proper use of new products, pest pressures, and crop disease outbreaks can equip smallholder farmers to survive this pandemic financially and make them better prepared to tackle future crises. In India, digital tools such as FarmRise are already delivering key insights directly to farmers’ phones, while Bayer’s Grower Engagement team is using conference call technology to advise hundreds of smallholders in a single session. These digital technologies are not new. What is new is the level at which they are being adopted among smallholders across Southeast Asia.

Without taking anything away from the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to remember that, seen from a longer-term perspective, the world’s number one killer disease is still malaria. In 2019, over 400,00 people worldwide died of diseases transmitted by mosquitoes, and farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa and India are especially vulnerable. The fact that the 2019 total was less than half the number of deaths recorded a decade earlier is due not least to the success of measures undertaken by global partnerships between UN bodies, NGOs and companies like Bayer to combat vector-borne diseases. However, if a significant proportion of the global funds previously used to fight malaria, dengue and zika is diverted to financing pandemic control measures and coronavirus research, there is a real risk of a dramatic spike in the malaria mortality figure in 2020.

As was the case with the battle against vector-borne diseases, the only way forward in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic is through partnerships. Right now, BLF is conducting discussions with a number of potential new global partners that want to support the alliance in the long term. After all, no single government or company can tackle challenges of this magnitude on its own. To ensure a successful long-term impact we need big solutions and a shared commitment among dedicated partners at the global and local level. Only by working together can we help smallholder farmers survive the pandemic and get fit for the future.

About us

Better Life Farming (BLF) is a long-term partnership between Bayer, the International Finance Corporation, Netafim and Swiss Re Corporate Solutions. By enabling smallholders to unlock their farming potential, BLF helps them grow their farms into commercially viable and sustainable farming businesses.