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“Until I could not mobilise ten people to support harvesting my cocoa beans, I had always thought COVID-19 was a disease for the rich, and as such, a problem limited to the city” (Yaw Yeboah, Kumkumso-Bia West District, Ghana).
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on African countries is becoming increasingly clear. In addition to a rising death toll and immediate challenges to national health systems, the economic predictions are looking bleak. Intercontinental trade has stagnated, leading to shrinking gross national products of African countries that depend on the export of raw materials. According to the World Bank, economies in Sub-Saharan Africa could lose between US$ 37 billion and US$ 79 billion in output losses in 2020 due to COVID-19. Moreover, the lives of millions of people have been turned upside down, as a result of measures to contain the spread of the virus.
Markets, schools, bars, and churches are closed, social gatherings are discouraged or prohibited, and the transportation of goods and people has been restricted. As yet, little is known about how these measures play out in remote rural locations, and how poor people are coping. As members and partners of the Tropenbos International Network, we therefore decided to make use of our contacts in the landscapes where we work in Ghana, DR Congo and Uganda, and interviewed people in the villages. We asked them about the impacts of the measures on incomes, food security, and the way the lands and forests are being used. In this article, we highlight some of the patterns we found, illustrated with quotes from the interviewees.
Clearly, the pandemic has taken a big toll on family incomes. Markets have been closed, and people are afraid to go out in public. As a consequence, farmers can no longer sell their produce or find themselves selling for very low prices. Moreover, bigger farms do no longer hire labourers, because working in large groups is prohibited. With the closing of businesses, offices, and schools, other income opportunities have decreased too.
“Our products, like plantain, banana, bush meat, and vegetables, are rotting due to a lack of customers. Life is getting more and more difficult” (Jacques Mapoli, Bafwasende, DR Congo).
“Market women from cities and towns do no longer come regularly to buy harvested produce. This has led to the perishing of some of our crops” (Oppong Daniel, Elluokrom, Ghana).
“I used to supplement my farm income by sewing school uniforms, but currently there are no customers, as the schools have been closed” (Ndagire Joyce, Lugasa, Uganda).
“The offtake of my products has been reduced, since buyers are scared of possible infection. Demand for the honey I produce has decreased” (Nicholas Lartey, Asuopiri, Ghana).
Many of the interviewees stressed that the crisis has caused transportation costs to rise. Very few people have their own means of transport, so they depend on public transportation. Due to the pandemic, buses and motorcycle taxis are not fully operating, or take fewer passengers and charge higher prices. This affects people in numerous ways: Hired labourers are no longer able to travel to other farms; and farmers who try to sell their products in neighbouring towns are no longer able to make a profit. Rising transportation costs are also brought up as the reason for increased prices of products sold in village stores. Interviewees across all three landscapes stress that basic food products, like cooking oil, have become too expensive for families to afford. The same applies to soap—widely considered crucial to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“In our village, transportation is the major challenge in this pandemic period. We cannot go to our farms in numbers since there is a limit on the number of passengers that can board the tricycle or truck. And those who own motorcycles themselves are reluctant to offer people outside their household a ride” (Yaw Yeboah, Kumkumso, Ghana).
“Food is expensive now, because of the increase in transportation fares. Some foodstuffs have become scarce because farmers are not able to go to their farms to harvest” (Rosina Nokolaweh, Elluokrom, Ghana).
“Food prices are rising because there are fewer products on the market, and because the price of transportation has increased. We eat by the grace of God” (Jean Marc Maisha, Niania, DR Congo).
“Before the pandemic, transport was abundantly available through pick-up trucks or even taxis, which allowed us to transport and sell a variety of food stuffs, such as cassava, to supplement income” (Edward Ssali Kisige, Kibali, Uganda).
Overall, the availability of food has been affected, mostly because food products in stores have become more expensive while incomes have decreased, Also, some farmers are less willing to sell their foodstuffs, keeping it for their own consumption. It is getting increasingly difficult for villagers to sustain their households, as illustrated by the quotes below.
“We don't eat what we want, but what we find. There is no diversity of food” (Claudine Faida, Beni/Butembo , DR Congo).
“Food prices are high. People just buy the little food they can afford” (Thomas Donkor, Asuopiri, Ghana).
“The prices of food are rising every day, we are in trouble to feed ourselves and our families” (Jacques Mapoli, Bafwasende, DR Congo).
In Ghana, interviewees argued that agricultural production has been decreasing, because fewer people are now working in the fields due to social distancing regulations and fear of contracting the disease. Also, Ghana’s boarder closure with Côte d'Ivoire has affected the inflow of labour, on which many cocoa farmers depend. As a result, farmers are having difficulties managing their cocoa farms, which is expected to affect future harvests. Further, COVID-19 has reduced the frequency of farm visits by extension officers who provide technical support to farmers.
The COVID-19 pandemic does not only have social and economic consequences in remote rural villages, but it may also take a toll on the ecosystems on which these communities depend. Several interviewees in Uganda, for example, mention that the crisis forces community members to rely on extractive activities, like the production of charcoal, because there are no other viable alternatives to make a living. Respondents in DR Congo mentioned the opposite trend, as they argue that the pandemic has decreased the number of gold miners coming into the area.
“There has been massive environmental degradation including clearance of trees for charcoal burning, since there are now very limited sources of income amidst abject poverty” (Nassanga Rose, Kibali, Uganda).
“Due to the lack of income, my sons now focus on charcoal burning. I allowed them to cut all available trees, so that we can earn a little money, and continue affording the basic necessities” (Ngagire Joyce, Lugasa, Uganda).
“Gold mining is no longer intense, because many mining quarries have evacuated people” (Jean Marc Maisha, Niania, DR Congo).
The COVID-19 pandemic shows the importance of local food production to cover community basic needs in times of crisis. Most of the community members we spoke to indicated that, with the increasing prices of food in stores and their decreasing incomes, local food production was their safety net.
Although the interviews made clear that the effects of the crisis are widespread, affecting virtually everyone, Edward Ssali Kisige from Kibali, Uganda, managed to provide a silver lining. “The only advantage of the pandemic, is that people from Kampala now appreciate agriculture more,” he said. “And I believe my children now also have a better understanding of the importance of food cultivation.”