The current COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to contain it are significantly impacting countries around the world, regardless of their level of income or economic development.
Apart from the novel coronavirus’ tragic toll in terms of human health and lives lost, government-imposed rules and restrictions on movement and assembly have upended work and livelihood activities for billions of people, causing serious strain on budgets and household resources, seriously impacting people’s ability to care for and nourish themselves and their families.
These negative effects can be immediate and often catastrophic for people who have few resources to fall back on in hard times — such as Africa’s estimated 33 million smallholder farming families.
Most of them live on what they can grow themselves for food and also sell to earn income to pay for medical care, school fees, and other expenses. Even brief shortfalls in harvest volumes, seed and input supplies, or market sales can quickly lead to less food, or at least, less nutritious food, on these families’ plates, leading to malnutrition — or worse.
This reality was reflected recently in Malawi, a country in southern Africa where the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Development Initiative, HarvestPlus, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, or CIMMYT, are working together to strengthen the resilience of smallholder farming communities.
In mid-April, Malawi’s government declared a 21-day lockdown to help control the spread of COVID-19, sparking immediate protests about the lack of government support measures in place to help the country’s low-resource citizens manage a likely sudden drop in their economic activity, including farming. An advocacy group actually succeeded in convincing Malawi’s high court to issue an injunction to postpone the lockdown.
Malawians reacted quickly because they know how tenuous their livelihoods are. The situation also highlighted the need to ensure that smallholder farming families — as well as other low-income populations — are better able to weather shocks, be they health threats like COVID-19, droughts, crop infestations, or otherwise.
Strengthening the resilience of smallholder communities is critical to guaranteeing their food and nutrition security in the present and future; otherwise, they stand to fall further behind and suffer serious consequences whenever shocks arise.
Crops that boost resilience
A key aspect of building resilience for these communities is to ensure that the staple food crops grown by smallholders are as nutritious and robust as possible, so that farming families benefit in both health and livelihood terms.
As part of the partnership work in Malawi, there are now 30 demonstration plots for smallholder farmers in 10 districts with varieties of maize that are drought-tolerant and others that are both drought-tolerant and rich in provitamin A — a micronutrient that is critical for good vision health, proper fetal development, and stronger immune systems.
The plots also include high-iron beans developed by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture with HarvestPlus. Iron is a leading cause of energy-sapping anemia, as well as impaired cognitive function in children.
The demonstration plot approach in Malawi is reaching about 30,000 farmers and is an entry point to engage farming communities in ways that they can become more climate resilient and have access to nutritionally enriched food.
Through the plots, the partners gather valuable feedback from the “end user,” which allows for mutual learning and encourages buy-in by the farmers managing the demos and the broader communities to which they are connected.
In the coming seasons, we expect to see these varieties being grown in the farmers’ fields more widely, driving resilience across the entire farmer population through increased access to, and availability of climate-resilient and nutritionally enriched seeds.
Resilience means farming communities that are food and nutrition secure are able to access and engage in reliable markets, prioritize the well-being and participation of women and youth, and are able to withstand shocks — not only health shocks, but also those related to climate, pests, and crop diseases.
Community agribusiness approach
One of the ways to foster economic opportunities among farming communities is by connecting farmer groups to an ecosystem of partners, where farmers receive training on building trust and working together and best practices in sustainable intensification of farming systems, and business.
This “Community Agribusiness” approach addresses challenges along the entire value chain — linking farmers in groups and providing access to inputs and capital — to increase the quantity, quality, and consistency of smallholder community production, while improving access to markets.
Developing seed supply chains within and across rural communities and improving access to and availability of quality seeds is an essential of this approach; these seeds are often climate-, insect-, pest-, and disease-resilient, nutritionally enriched, and generally higher yielding, meaning they are more reliable and sustainable in the long-term.
The micronutrient-rich crop varieties included in the Malawi project are biofortified through conventional breeding — non-GMO — methods; they help address micronutrient deficiency, or hidden hunger, that is widespread among smallholder farmers and other vulnerable populations and causes serious health problems.
When eaten regularly, provitamin A-enriched maize can provide up to 50% of daily vitamin A needs of consumers in a country like Malawi, while iron beans can provide up to 80% of daily iron needs.
Resilient food systems that work for smallholder farmers
It is critical now, and into the future, that farmers are able to rely on the seeds they put into the ground, that they are trained in the best agronomic management practices for growing these improved varieties, and that they are connected to markets where they can sell some of their harvest for enhanced income and livelihoods.
Our job is to make sure that the seed technology and beneficial traits continue to be relevant to farmer communities, and that there are pathways to both seed and crop markets so that every farmer is able to access and benefit from these crops’ improved traits.
In the context of the current global health pandemic, it is also more crucial than ever for all stakeholders to focus on building resilient, inclusive food systems that work for smallholder farming families.
Working in partnerships is important for reaching this objective. A single organization or country cannot address the global threats to food and nutrition security on its own.
As we continue to see the effects of COVID-19, we realize more and more how dependent we are on one another. Together, we have the ability to address this unprecedented situation.