How can farmers in Ethiopia work safe and smart during COVID-19 lockdown?

What does farming under lockdown look like – and what are the options for keeping farmers safe while work goes on? 

Amare Molla's picture
Blog by 
Amare Molla
Amare Molla is an assistant professor of development studies in the College of Agriculture at Wollo University, Dessie, Ethiopia
03 July 2020
Tomatoes and other vegetables on a shelf outside a house

The pandemic has disrupted local food chains, which is particularly a problem for producers of perishable foods who don't have access to storage facilities (Photo: Charles Roffey via FlickrCC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

IIED’s Facebook page regularly invites our followers – particularly our younger audience – to blog about their opinions and experiences. In this month’s blog, we hear how farmers in Ethiopia are managing the fallout from COVID-19 and about the options for operating safely during the pandemic.

The Kobo Girana Valley Development Programme is an irrigation and drought development project in North-Central Ethiopia’s North Wollo Zone. It employs around 2,470 farmers who, together, harvest over 143,000 quintals (14,300 tonnes) of fruit and vegetables each year. In this drought prone area, highly susceptible to crop failure, the project has brought food security to more than 10,000 family members. 

I am a senior lecturer and researcher at Wollo University and teach rural development courses in the agriculture department. My students and I regularly visit the Kobo Girana project.

During a field visit (pre-COVID-19) I got talking to a female farmer, Mulumebet Molla, who told me about her day – a combination of weeding, watering, digging and harvesting. Her children play their part with the weeding and watering.

Mulumebet’s typical crops are onion, garlic, watermelon, mango, cabbage, papaya, maize, mung bean and teff – a protein-rich grain and a staple food in Ethiopia. She explained that she grows crops according to the project’s cultivation schedule that rotates crops to maximise production. 

Farming under lockdown

Now, under COVID-19 lockdown, what has been the fallout for farmers like Mulumebet? Land borders have been shut, physical distancing measures are in place, and wearing masks and other protective equipment is encouraged. But farmers are permitted to continue working – so the Kobo Girana project is still up and running. But there are many obstacles. 

Production is suffering because farmers cannot get the inputs they need – such as pesticides and fertiliser – quickly enough. With borders shut, imported inputs are not arriving into Ethiopia. And where inputs are available, travel restrictions make it almost impossible for farmers to reach the markets where they are sold. This will likely lead to a heavy drop in production and sales, particularly of tomato, papaya, and watermelon. 

The travel restrictions have also doubled transport costs. For farmers and merchants, getting products to market is twice as expensive. And this has further knock-on effects: because transport costs are higher, buyers are setting lower prices for produce to compensate for their higher transport cost.

Since farmers do not have the option to store their goods – particularly perishable produce – they are forced to accept the low prices set by buyers. Buyers feel justified in setting these low prices because there are fewer customers to sell to – with the lockdown restrictions, people are not going to the market to buy goods. 

Labour is also a challenge. Many rural labour workers returned to their homes when the lockdown was announced. Farm labour all but disappeared and far fewer workers available has pushed up the costs of labour. 

Working safely during the pandemic: what are the options? 

Farmers are being encouraged to continue their work during the lockdown. But farm labour and selling produce involve working in groups, and gathering in marketplaces, and most workers most do not have protective equipment such as gloves, masks and sanitiser. 

My students and I have been discussing: how can farmers continue working safely on their farms? What measures can be taken to maintain physical distance in the marketplaces? 

Our city of Dessie experimented with fragmenting large markets to prevent mass gatherings of people. The city has two large markets, Segnogebya and Robit, open on Mondays and Wednesdays respectively. During the lockdown, the markets were split into more than 15 areas in the city. 

But the locations of the smaller markets are often on main roads and in squares. Bringing more cars and people to these spaces is causing traffic congestion and risks more accidents. Furthermore, fresh produce is not equally distributed among the different markets – with more being delivered to centrally located markets.

As a result, the price for the same produce varies from one market to the next. In search of cheaper prices, people have been travelling further distances – increasing movement and potentially the spread of the virus. Market fragmentation also impacts food storage and shelf life. The smaller markets in the new locations have no shade or storage – surplus product is taken back to the retailer’s house. This has resulted in losses for farmers.

Mobile-based marketing is another option – where producer, retailer and consumer associations connect using mobile phones. Farmers are organised into their producer associations (cooperatives) and share information about what they’ve produced, the quantity of produce, and when it will be ready for sale. This information is shared with wholesalers and retailers who indicate their interest.

The product is delivered to the consumer through fragmented markets found in each town administration. By reducing the numbers of people working in the mass open markets, mobile-based marketing offers an effective way of getting produce to market while minimising the risks of virus transmission. 

Planning our research

My students and I are planning to research these two options. With regards to market fragmentation, we will seek to identify the major market actors in the local fresh produce chain to see how fresh produce can be more evenly distributed.

We will also look at post-harvest losses of perishable produce and examine ways to connect producers with other market actors to minimise these losses, reduce price variability – all the while considering how social distancing can be observed and the movement of people reduced.

When looking at mobile markets, we will collect data on how market actors perceive mobile-based markets, what would influence their decision on where to sell or buy, when to sell or buy, how much to sell or buy, and who to sell to, or from who to buy from. In short – can mobile based marketing work for both sides? 

The Kobo Girana Valley Development Programme has documented its activities in this video.

About the author

Amare Molla is an assistant professor of development studies in the College of Agriculture at Wollo University, Dessie, Ethiopia

Amare Molla's picture