The impact of COVID-19 on African smallholders

Karen Smith avatar


As COVID-19 takes hold in Africa we are concerned about the impact it will have on our clients, the small farmers that they work with and the agricultural sector as a whole. Many Africans are simply not able to stay at home in a “lockdown” to avoid contracting and spreading the virus – they would quickly run out of money and food. While many countries have low numbers of reported cases at the time of writing, there are projections of exponential increases, similar to the ones that have shocked Asia, Europe and America. This sobering briefing illustrates how disruption to rural livelihoods may lead to large scale food shortages and potentially national insecurity.

Below we have illustrated some of the many factors that will affect smallholders in developing countries. Beyond the direct health and financial cost of COVID-19, these multiple impacts include reduced access to local services, the broader effects of closed borders and, for cash crop farmers, reduced consumer demand in export markets.

The multiple impacts of COVID-19 on smallholders

How can digitisation help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in rural Africa?

Digital tools, particularly mobile technology will be vital in combatting COVID-19 in rural Africa in many different ways. GSMA, the mobile network operator association, has many useful resources and information on how ‘mobile for development’ initiatives can help in this crisis. The growth of e-Health applications, from diagnostic tools to patient data management, will also become more and more important. In a worst case scenario, humanitarian and social responses can benefit from sophisticated location and identity management technology tools to both collect real time information and use this to plan logistics.

How can Smallholdr help?

As our team already works remotely, the lockdown has not impacted on our ability to support clients or design systems for new ones. Zoom, Whatsapp, Google Drive, etc, are online tools we have been using for years. This approach is cost efficient and carbon friendly, and fortunately fits with the current ‘new normal’ way of operating given that international travel will be restricted for a long while to come.

Our first priority is to provide the best possible business as usual support to our clients so that our systems continue to support their operations. This in turn means that farmers who are reliant on these agribusinesses can continue to have access to extension services, inputs and a market for their produce.

COVID-19 public health billboard in Malawi

Some practical steps to mitigate against COVID-19 are being implemented among our partners and networks. For example, our client Good Nature Agro has taken measures to reduce the risk of the spread of infections within their small-scale farmer network by promoting distancing measures and awareness-raising trainings on the disease and its prevention. In these activities, the Smallholdr app has been used to quickly and effectively disseminate official guidelines among GNA’s lead farmers.

Other clients, such as Nature’s Nectar, are reducing the numbers of farmers gathering at buying points and also pausing the registration of farmers in new areas to reduce the risk of transmitting infections. The use of technology – such as Smallholdr’s Work Plans – to manage smallholder engagement can reduce the amount of travel that remote workers need to do as well as replace cash with mobile money payments, both of which are going to be increasingly important to reduce the spread of the virus.

We will be keeping abreast of other business partnerships and collaborations that are springing up across the continent among both local and international companies. In Zambia, the Business Coalition Council Emergency Taskforce has been set up for firms to collaborate on fundraising, education, lobbying and more. The National Business Compact on Coronavirus in Kenya has been widely praised for its rapid and well organised response. Further constructive B2B and public private partnerships will be needed to pool resources and knowledge to prevent escalation of this crisis.

In addition, Karen is involved in supporting donor funding programmes for the private sector to respond to COVID-19 (with a focus on African and agriculture) and so will be gaining an insight into best practices and ideas emerging from these. Business Fights Poverty has some excellent information on the role of business in tackling COVID-19 – for example, their Action Toolkits. The IFC’s COVID-19 Community Impact Hub has a wealth of information, much of which relating to Sub Saharan Africa – who knew cassava could be used to make hand sanitiser?!

In the meantime, we hope you all stay safe. Please do get in touch if you have any comments, questions or ideas.