FAO Regional Office for Africa

Smallholder producer organizations and family farmers are paramount to keep food systems alive in Africa

A discussion on the challenges and opportunities for family farmers in Africa amid and post COVID-19

Photo: ©FAO

16 June 2020, Accra – Smallholder producer organizations and family farmers are agents in agri-food systems ensuring food and nutrition security, as well as the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in sub-Saharan Africa. This makes it important to evaluate farmers’ challenges and opportunities during and post the COVID-19 pandemic.

That was the central theme of a webinar hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) as co-secretariat of the UN Decade for Family Farming (UNDFF), and representatives from African civil society, farmer and producer organizations.

COVID-19 poses specific challenges to the livelihoods of family farmers and their ability to continue playing critical role in food production and as main employers and service providers in rural sectors. On the other hand, smallholder organizations’ efforts to adapt and respond to the crisis, capitalizing on their experiences and lessons learned present significant opportunities for building more resilience in rural sectors.

“An effective response to COVID-19 requires keeping agricultural supply chains alive while protecting the safety and wellbeing of everyone working along the food value chain including smallholder family farmers” stated Abebe Haile-Gabriel, the FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative (ADG/RR) for Africa in his opening remarks. He also stressed the importance of recognizing agricultural workers, notably smallholder family farmers and producer organizations- including seasonal, migrant and casual workers, as essential service providers during the crisis.

The measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID has fundamentally affected social and economic activities in African countries, stressed Benoit Thierry, IFAD’s West Africa Hub Director. Coordinated efforts are paramount to addressing already identified impacts of economic slowdowns, increasing vulnerabilities, and greater poverty. The webinar is timely and important to help governments in developing good policies. “A reduced access to nutritious food could lead to an increase of undernourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is currently at 22.8 percent - and we know that those who suffer from hunger and malnutrition may be more exposed to COVID-19’’ added Thierry.

Challenges and opportunities for smallholder farmers in Africa during and post COVID-19

During the webinar discussions, Keynote speaker Fatma Ben Rejeb, the CEO of Pan African Farmers’ Organization (PAFO) stated that COVID-19 has affected smallholder farmers’ production and livelihoods through difficulties in accessing farms, markets (in particular, sales of fresh produce), inputs, finance, seasonal workers and extension services and loss of livestock. These effects are resulting in increased levels of food insecurity, poverty and potential future impacts on migration flows. Ben Rejeb however emphasized that the crisis offers potential as an opportunity to increase intra-African collaboration, support efforts for greater decentralization, and build stronger national action plans involving producer organizations.

Roles of Producer Organizations and Civil Society Organizations

Producer organizations and CSOs play a critical role in empowering members through collective actions to improve their bargaining power to influence policy processes and outcomes; facilitating their members’ access to productive resources such as land, water, inputs, finance, to information, markets notably through aggregation, and other services; and providing platforms for social support and solidarity among their members, and in many cases, acting as the main organized response to local needs, especially for some of the most vulnerable groups, in times of crisis.

“FAO supports these efforts in several ways, including through the strengthening of technical and organizational capacities; sharing of knowledge and best practices; and supporting the establishment of enabling environments and enhancing their effective participation in policy dialogues to advocate for their members’ needs’’, said Haile-Gabriel.

Best practices to respond to the pandemic and beyond

Participants discussed best practices and lessons learned in light of the challenges and opportunities posed by the pandemic as well as entry points to effectively respond to the crisis from the perspective of organizations small-holder farmers, fisher folks, foresters and herders, as well as development partners.

The general secretary of the World Forum of Fishers People (WFFP), Naseegh Jaffer, highlighted how COVID-19 exacerbated the challenges already faced by Small Scale Fishing (SSF) communities including food insecurity and poverty and stressed the importance of bringing in perspectives of fisher folks, more specifically, how to effectively cope with this new reality, in policy design. “It is a big opportunity for our governments to scale-up the knowledge and awareness of the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradicationand to build their internal capacity to implement the Guidelines’’ Jaffer said.

Elom Zogan, Executive Secretary of the Togolese Coordination of Peasant Organizations and Agricultural Producers (CTOP), highlighted some key elements of CTOP’s comprehensive COVID-19 response plan and progress made in its implementation. This included; awareness-raising of 500 cooperatives and distribution of more than 15,000 bibs and hydro-alcoholic gels in 20 prefectures and 40 municipalities; establishment of a fertilizer supply mechanism for the 2020/2021 agricultural season; and identification of 5,000 vulnerable households with a view to distributing 65,000 kg of maize and rice seeds with the support of an IFAD project. Zogan, stressed CTOP’s plan to facilitate collective marketing of agricultural products for urban consumers, through the FAO-supported Forest and Farm Facility. He also highlighted the importance working locally “localization” - close to producers themselves and in partnership with private sector and other partners.

Ibrahim Coulibaly, President of the Network of Farmers' Organizations and Agricultural Producers of West Africa (ROPPA) explained that from past experience of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), it is important to build trust through effective risk communication. Based on this experience, ROPPA set up an awareness-raising and monitoring committee to disseminate information to smallholder family farmers and pastoralists, and monitor the situation while advocating to Governments to ensure producers’ access to land, labour and market for their livelihoods.

Participants also discussed the need to ensure the existing policies are implemented, rather than creating more frameworks, and ensuring all relevant stakeholders are involved. Digital extension services were also raised as a fundamental part of bridging the communication gap especially for greater resilience ahead of future crises. 

FAO in action

FAO will continue to provide support to family farmers and producer organization through advocacy, capacity building, knowledge exchange, and policy support.  Through its Family Farming Knowledge Platform and the Agro ecology Knowledge Hub, FAO aims to nurture an online community of practice in Africa on family farming, agro ecology and under the UN Decade of Family Farming.

In addition, FAO together with the Yenkasa Africa initiative will organize a radio campaign  addressing the issues raised in the webinar, which is set to reach millions of family farmers and producer organizations in Africa.