The tidal impact of COVID-19 has resulted in humanitarian and economic consequences that have been felt across the globe. The progress made against the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly towards no poverty and zero hunger, has been seriously hampered since the pandemic took hold over one year ago. For some SDG targets, hard-won gains such as reducing childhood stunting actually stand to be reversed.

Smallholder farmers the world over have seen their incomes, livelihoods and their communities impacted as changes and disruptions to supply and demand have been felt across global food and agricultural supply chains.

Last month, Olam surveyed over 3,400 farmers, producing nine different crops, in 19 countries. While forecasters report signs of an emergent post-pandemic global economic recovery, the survey results show that smallholder farmers in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America face a challenging situation that looks much the same as it did nearly a year ago. In fact, for many, it looks worse.

The survey shows that during the past six months, around half of all farmers saw their crop production reduce (47%) and their incomes fall (58%) as a result of lower demand.

Movement restrictions, market closures, and the fear of getting infected has decreased smallholder farmers’ market access for their crops across all regions, with farmers in Southeast Asia experiencing a slight slowing of that decline. These insights confirm with what we’re seeing and responding to on the ground. In Colombia, our coffee business has installed digital booths to allow farmers to register and deposit their coffee samples, at any time of their choosing, to avoid direct contact with anyone. We are also helping overcome the movement restrictions by hiring smaller trucks to help suppliers and intermediaries get closer to these farmers.

The continued economic fallout of the pandemic has also meant that farmers have earned less money during the past six months as compared to the same period before COVID-19. In Africa, the proportion reporting lower income remained nearly unchanged from June 2020 (68%), while about half of farmers surveyed in Latin America and Southeast Asia indicated a fall in their income. Farmers are having to seek new ways to generate income and approximately half are doing so by diversifying their crops, taking day-labour jobs, opening shops, and starting non-agricultural businesses.

Diversification is an important signal of farmers’ ability to adapt during this trying period, but it also raises the question of whether some may leave farming altogether if greater efforts to protect and strengthen their livelihoods are not brought to scale. 

Supporting farmers to withstand the challenges of this period is crucial, which is why across our supply chains we are extending credit and financial support. For example, in Nigeria our cashew business has extended the repayment periods for farmers beyond the end of the crop season, while in Côte d’Ivoire our cocoa business is supporting the establishment of Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA) that are helping more than 1,100 women across cocoa farming communities.

Farmers are not just feeling the impacts in their pocket but also in their pantry. Forty percent of surveyed farmers reported challenges in consuming an adequate diet. African farmers were particularly impacted, with 60% eating less food, and 64% eating less diverse diets at some point in the prior 30 days.  Meanwhile, nearly half of respondents in both Latin America and Africa and 35% in Southeast Asia reported that they had experienced a lack of food available in their local markets during the same period.

The challenging situation continues to impact women more severely, with nearly a fifth more women surveyed reporting they ate less at least once over the previous month than men, and almost as many ate a less diverse diet. 

Worryingly, children’s rights are also being impacted with more than three out of ten surveyed farmers reporting that their children (aged 15 and under) are spending more time working during the last six months to contribute to household income as compared to before the pandemic. This may be driven by a combination of schools remaining closed, and the lower availability or affordability of farm labour. As part of our ongoing efforts to protect children and support families, we have forged new alliances to extend “kindergarten camps” in Guatemala to cocoa farmers’ children during work hours, as well as providing learning materials and books to seasonal workers’ children in Turkey.

The need for partnership - not just collaboration - is now clearer than ever. Companies, governments, donors, civil society, and communities must work together to deliver the essential support needed for farmers to safeguard their investments and livelihoods, and prevent a downward spiral of economic uncertainty, low productivity, and food insecurity. Actions to fill the immediate income gaps must be paired with broader and more sustained approaches that address the underlying vulnerabilities, such as the over-reliance on single crops, low yields, and impact of climate change. These must be addressed for farmers to make a full and more prosperous recovery.

Establishing a steady path to recovery will take time for the majority of smallholders. Our survey data strongly suggests that the scope of the actions needed to improve their outlook needs to be far broader, deeper, and more sustained than what we may have expected a year ago.

For more news, go to:

Julie Greene is Vice President of Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability at Olam International. She spent over 15 years living and working in West Africa before recently relocating to Asia.