COVID-19 lowered food production, quality and access in South Africa, study finds

By Mantoe Phakathi for GCRF-AFRICAP

Mavis Motlokoa, a farmer from Harrismith in the Free State Province, South Africa, is still trying to recover from the loss she made during the COVID-19 lockdown imposed by the government in March last year.

From the 463-hectare farm she runs with her husband, Phori, she sells eggs and chickens to the community while supplying milk to Nestlé, a multinational food and beverage processing company.  

Although farm produce was classified as one of the essential commodities that could be distributed and sold during the lockdown, Motlokoa lost a market for her produce.

“The majority of my clients are labourers from the community who lost their jobs during the lockdown,” Motlokoa explained, adding: “Their loss of income resulted in our loss of income because we couldn’t move the stock.” She estimates their loss of income to be over 70 per cent.

She ended up giving people items on credit in anticipation that they will pay when they found jobs. With bills to pay and little money coming in, the Motlokoas put their five farmworkers on reduced pay, promising to reconcile the difference when the situation normalised, but it has not.

“Although Nestlé continued to collect milk during the lockdown, we couldn’t produce enough because we couldn’t afford to buy enough inputs for the animal feed that we grow on the farm,” she said. “When the cows are not well fed, they don’t produce enough milk, and we suffered a big loss.”

Local extension officer surveys sheep farm in Harrismith in South Africa.

While the Government of South Africa prioritised farmers under the COVID-19 Relief Fund to help businesspeople affected by the pandemic to get back on their feet, Motlokoa applied for a bailout but has not received anything up to now.

“The government people came here in January and recorded the situation and took pictures, but we haven’t heard from them since then,” Motlokoa recalls.

Motlokoa’s experience is not unique.  Farmers in South Africa were negatively affected by the pandemic, a study by the GCRF-AFRICAP programme found, citing a temporary disruption to farming activities and reduced access to labour and inputs. For some, COVID-19 has affected the quality and quantity of production while increasing the cost of production.

The study conducted by researchers from the University of Leeds in the UK working with partners including FANRPAN and NAMC noted a decline in farm incomes due to lockdown regulations, forcing some informal farm workers and households to cut-down on food expenses, for example by shifting to cheaper food.

“In South Africa food became expensive for many people and therefore they ended up opting for cheaper food,” said co-researcher, Dr. Hemant Tripathi. “This means that loss of income and escalating prices of food may negatively affect dietary diversity and nutritional health of people in the longer term.”

Building resilience helps farmers withstand shocks

According to Tripathi, the study examined how COVID-19, and associated measures to curb the spread of the diseases, impacted agricultural activities such as labour access, production, processing and distribution. By interviewing 50 stakeholders, including farmer and local authorities, it also sought to understand the coping mechanisms taken by farmers, in response to the measures.

The study highlighted how the closure of informal shops including restaurants (fish and chips shops), which farmers like Motlokoa supplied with their produce, affected producers of agricultural products.

Mixed farms like this one in Qwaqua, South Africa that produce a range of food and cash crops are more likely to be resilient to shocks like COVID-19.

National Agriculture Marketing Council (NAMC), Senior Manager Agricultural Industry Trusts, Bonani Nyhodo noted that the ban on big public gatherings and festivities affected livestock farmers and/or livestock sales who were no longer able to sell their stock mainly in the informal market.

“The classification of products was also a problem because products like wool where their value chains had services that were originally not classified as essential services yet they directly affected production,” said Nyhodo, adding: “Therefore, the shearers of sheep in the farms could not travel to work because they were initially not classified as essential workers.”

According to the co-researcher, Dr Harriet Smith, different farmers are able to cope to various shocks, such as the pandemic and climate change, by selling productive assets and reducing food expenses.

“It’s about farmers being resilient to the risks they face,” said Smith.

The researchers noted that farmers who are more diversified, for example, by producing a range of both food and cash crops, are often more likely to be resilient in response to different shocks.

It is important for government to better understand the characteristics that make a farm more resilient to risks, to better equip and support farmers, particularly in contexts of uncertainty, Smith urged.