The global spread of COVID-19 pandemic disrupted agricultural value chains in numerous countries, affecting both food production and supply. In Nigeria, the official pandemic response during April and May included total lockdowns in Lagos, Abuja, and Ogun States, while other states had partial lockdowns with curfews. For Oyo State (where HarvestPlus Nigeria is located), the curfew was in place from 8pm to 5am each day, with bans on religious activities.* 

This effectively meant that the beginning of the 2020 planting season would go to waste if early actions were not taken to find innovative ways of supporting Nigerian farmers and keeping the seed and food supply chains strong. Seed producers were unable to move seeds to sales outlets; workers could not get to farms, factories, and markets to provide services; small and medium size crop processors were unable to procure raw materials; agro-dealers, aggregators and retailers could not supply markets with food items and seeds; consumers could not purchase nutritious foods; and increasing prices of seed and processed foods following the increase in demand and dwindling supply.

HarvestPlus needed to act quickly to ensure that the more than 4 million farmers growing biofortified crops in Nigeria—and households depending on these crops for nutrition and livelihoods—could plant, cultivate, harvest, and sell these crops. 

Mobilizing Partners for Action

The HarvestPlus country team in Nigeria came up with a strategic plan to ensure that maximum support was provided to farmers in the planting season and operations ran smoothly while also ensuring the safety of our staff and minimizing exposure to COVID-19. The team first procured safety kits including face masks, face hoods, and hand sanitizers for staff and partners to ensure compliance with government directives. Social distancing was strictly enforced and any official meeting or gathering did not exceed 20 people. The field teams also avoided high exposure zones and reorganized training schedules to make sure that social distancing guidelines were implemented in the events.

To kick things off, multiple webinars were organized to help catalyze action and coordinate responses among public and private stakeholders. These included a national webinar to develop action plans; a state-level webinar to implement action plans; and a stakeholder-level webinar to monitor progress.

Four Key Intervention Areas 

The HarvestPlus team then focused on the intervention areas that were identified in consultation with all partners as those that would achieve maximum impact to protect food systems in the country: 

  1. Increase availability of quality planting material for vitamin A maize (VAM) and vitamin A cassava (VAC)

Round-the-clock coordination was facilitated with relevant government departments to make sure that road passes were issued for breeders and seed companies so they were able to operate with minimum restrictions. The team sensitized and encouraged seed companies and agro-input dealers to take actions to reduce storage losses and keep to targets set in 2019 for 2020, even with lower labor supply. 

  1. Facilitate farmer access to VAM and VAC seeds

To encourage farmers to procure biofortified seeds for planting on their land, the country team negotiated a 10 percent price discount with seed companies for VAM seed and 20 percent for VAC stems. To enable the farmers to take advantage of this discount, the team linked agro-dealers in Niger, Kaduna, Ogun, Oyo, Enugu, and Imo States to seed companies that were offering the discount. The farmers were also offered the VAM seed and aflasafe as a package to reduce aflatoxin contamination under a new partnership with HarvestField, a Nigerian agro and healthcare company that focuses on importing agrochemicals, insecticide-treated mosquito nets, and agricultural spraying equipment. 

  1. Assist value chain businesses to lay the groundwork for recovery from COVID-19

The HarvestPlus country team helped facilitate activity across biofortified crop and food value chains to keep them active and connect value chain actors. The team helped crop aggregators find and utilize raw crop material (VAM and VAC), and helped facilitate the delivery of aggregated supply to food processing companies. For example, HarvestPlus worked with Niji Foods so that it was able to supply more than 25 tons of VAC gari and flour to food companies during the first week of June. 

HarvestPlus also helped food distributors supply processed foods to retail outlets. Food distributors were given helpful market intelligence—for example, where demand by retailers was high at a particular time, and contact information for potential buyers. 

The HarvestPlus team also trained 155 extension agents in Ogun, Niger, Kaduna, and Benue States to deliver technical and advisory services to value chain SMEs that HarvestPlus would otherwise not be able to reach. The extension agents participating in these trainings became master trainers and organized training for farmers in their clusters who were registered under the Anchor Borrowers’ Programme (ABP). The Programme, operated by the Central Bank of Nigeria, aims to create economic linkage between smallholder farmers and reputable large-scale processors with a view to increasing agricultural output and significantly improving capacity utilization of processors.

The trainings under ABP were held in compliance with the strict guidelines laid out by the Ministry of Health and the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). The training locations had adequate ventilation, proper air circulation, health personnel to detect fever on entry, hand washing facilities with running water, soap, and hand sanitizer. Each location had a maximum of 20 participants maintaining 6 feet distance from each other.

 “Despite the food security challenge facing the country, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) and partners like HarvestPlus led a national effort in tackling this challenge through the Ogun State Anchor Borrower’s Programme,” said Dr. Adeola Odedina, Commissioner of Agriculture in Ogun State.  

  1. Provide relief assistance to highly vulnerable populations

HarvestPlus contributed to several efforts to provide food relief as well as emergency seed supplies to farmers For example: 

In addition, HarvestPlus linked Value Seed, a seed company that produces VAM Seeds, to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) as a supplier for discounted VAM seeds to 10 states in the country.  

Implications and Lessons Learned

During the COVID-19 health crises, HarvestPlus strove to strengthen multi-sectoral partnerships across locations to ensure continuity of delivery activities amid ongoing restrictions, while also ensuring safety. 

The HarvestPlus country team has worked hard to strengthen virtual platforms to increase interactions with partners and stakeholders, making use of digital resources. The Nigerian team is also ensuring that staff have access to available resources to implement innovations that would help reach farmers in the most efficient and safe manner, in this and in future shocks to the food systems. 

*Note: The Federal Government announced the easing of total lockdown effective from 2nd June, 2020 with interstate movement still restricted to essential services only, for which a Federal pass is required.  It was also announced that citizens comply with directives by state governments, which have the responsibility of controlling the spread of the virus. Some States such as Ogun are still under partial lockdown, with curfew imposed either all day (in some states, people are only allowed to go out 3 days in a week) or all night.