Smallholder farmers face daunting prospects

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With the requirements for accessing government’s stimulus package – Coronavirus Alleviation Programme – automatically disqualifying smallholder farmers because they do not register their activities or keep records of transactions, and faced with various challenges including disruptions in market linkages and production processes due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the country’s many smallholder farmers are in for a rocky ride.

Ideally, the majority of farmers usually store produce and sell it when the new farming season starts or is about to start. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic most of them could not sell their products to aggregators who in turn supply to industry, mostly beverage manufacturers. This is because the slowdown in economic activity and restrictions on movement and mass gatherings, coupled with the lockdown of drinking bars and hotels, have forced manufacturers to either reduce or shutdown production.

A typical example is sorghum, says Charles Kwowe Nyaaba, Head of Programmes and Advocacy at the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana (PFAG), whose outfit regularly aggregates sorghum and other agricultural produce from the farmers and supplies to Guinness Ghana – but it has not been able to do so over the past two months because the latter has cut down production.

“Those in the three regions of the north – Upper East and West and Northern – most of them produce sorghum as a cash crop. Now, Guinness Ghana about two months ago told us to stop supplying them sorghum even though we have a contract with them; because with the coming-in of COVID and closure of hotels and drinking bars, people don’t buy drinks like Malta and Guinness, so their production has reduced.

“Once they couldn’t buy, we couldn’t also go to buy from the farmers; so farmers are having the sorghum, the new farming season is ongoing and they want to sell the product so that they can rent tractors, buy fertiliser and other agro-chemicals and inputs – but they can’t sell. So, that’s one direct impact of COVID-19 on farmers,” he told the B&FT.

Mr. Nyaaba was asked about the virus’s impact on the smallholder farmers, and noted the plight of farmers has been exacerbated by the fact that they recorded massive post-harvest losses from growing vegetables which they could not sell due to the imposition of restrictions on movement in March and April, as the decision coincided with the peak of the vegetable farming season.

“In the current main farming season, it has become difficult for most of them to hire tractor services; not only because the farmers do not have money, but those who bring in the tractors could not bring them because of the lockdown. So, as we speak, access to tractors is a problem.

“Additionally, during the partial lockdown of Accra and Kumasi, most of them could not sell their vegetables – notably tomatoes and pepper – because the buyers could not travel to buy them, and these things cannot be stored. So, the majority of farmers who grow vegetables during the dry season and cereals and grains in the wet season recorded massive post-harvest losses,” he narrated.

Traditional sources of lending from financial institutions has not been an option for most farmers for many years now. Rather, they rely on small businesses and associations like PFAG which do agribusiness like trading in agriculture commodities to advance them credit; and when they produce, these lenders will deduct the amount advanced to the farmers in the form of produce and then buy the remainder from them, if possible.

This type of arrangement, however, has also not been spared from impacts of the pandemic, as most businesses or organisations struggle to cope with the downturn in economic activity caused by the virus.

“The whole supply chain is distorted; farmers are not getting this kind of assistance from small businesses and associations. So, all these factors are compelling them to reduce the size of their farms.

“These are the practical challenges affecting all of us. Even traditional input suppliers are facing serious challenges – because when they were asked to start delivering inputs like fertilisers and other agro-chemicals, they were asked to package them in Planting for Food and Jobs-branded bags and most of these are imported; so, there has also been a delay because of the lockdown. All these things are causing disruptions in the production process,” he lamented.

Customised stimulus package

Although government runs a number of intervention programmes under the Planting for Food and Jobs (PFJ) initiative, Mr. Nyaaba says it is ‘simply inadequate’ to offset the challenges and disruptions caused to industry by the virus.

For example, to cultivate cereals or grains an acre of land under the PFJ programme, he says, a farmer needs to buy at least two bags of 50kg NPK fertiliser at GH₵84 and one bag of Urea fertiliser of the same size for GH₵80.

He added: “If you do the mathematics, it is well over GH₵250, in addition to ploughing cost which is GH₵150, seeds and labour among others. This is too much for a farmer who has produce to sell but cannot because of the pandemic.

“Our recommendation is that since food security is very important and the agriculture sector is very important – providing jobs for so many people – we don’t have to neglect it.

“We are therefore calling for targetted support to farmers. We are not saying government should give us something for free, but they can make it compelling for financial institutions to advance credit to farmers at reasonable rates; and after they produce, they can pay back,” he advocated.

“If you look at all the interventions aimed at alleviating the impacts of COVID on businesses, farmers are left out. Even with the state-sponsored stimulus package, the criteria alone mean that farmers are left out; and we think our farmers have been marginalised because of the criteria set up for accessing these interventions,” Mr. Nyaaba said

“We therefore need some kind of customised support that targets smallholder farmers for them to be able to remain in business, because the support under the Planting for Food and Jobs is negligible and cannot address challenges they are facing due of impacts of the pandemic,” he reiterated.

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