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The impact of HIV on agriculture and rural development: implications for training institutions

D. Topouzis

Daphne Topouzis, Ph.D. is a Rome-based freelance consultant who has written extensively on HIV and agriculture/rural development for FAO, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) and the European Commission on Agriculture (ECA). E-mail: hemrichgue@

The impact of HIV/AIDS has been particularly severe on smallholder agriculture, but is increasingly affecting commercial agriculture. This article traces how HIV/AIDS affects the two subsectors, highlighting the loss of agricultural knowledge, skills and experience - an area of particular importance for training institutions and one that has received little attention to date. The article argues that the multisectoral response concept needs to be redefined within a development context, in order to extend responses to HIV/AIDS beyond the health sector to the core technical areas of agriculture and rural development. It discusses the need for training institutions to go beyond health-oriented information, education and communication (IEC) HIV/AIDS components that are added on to existing programmes. Training strategies need to take into account the implications of this increase in young adult morbidity and mortality and, particularly, the loss of agricultural knowledge, skills and experience among the staff, as well as the target groups, of institutions.


L'impact du VIH sur le développement agricole et rural: enjeux pour les organismes de formation

L'impact du VIH/SIDA a été particulièrement grave sur l'agriculture de subsistance, mais il affecte aussi, de plus en plus, l'agriculture commerciale. Cet article décrit les effets du VIH/SIDA sur les deux sous-secteurs, mettant en lumière une question d'importance particulière pour les organismes de formation, mais largement ignorée à ce jour: la perte de connaissances, de compétences et d'expérience agricoles. L'article soutient que le concept de réaction multisectoriel doit être redéfini dans le contexte même du développement pour faire en sorte que la lutte contre le VIH/SIDA puisse, au-delà du secteur sanitaire, atteindre le c_ur même des secteurs techniques du développement agricole et rural. L'article soutient en outre que les organismes de formation doivent dépasser les composantes information, éducation et communication (IEC) sur le VIH/SIDA axées sur le secteur sanitaire et qui viennent se greffer sur les programmes existants. Leurs stratégies de formation doivent prendre conscience de l'impact de cet élément sur la morbidité et mortalité des jeunes adultes et, plus particulièrement, de la perte de connaissances, compétences et expérience agricoles aussi bien parmi leurs effectifs que parmi les groupes cibles.


Repercusiones del VIH en la agricultura y desarrollo rural: consecuencias para las instituciones de capacitación

Las repercusiones del VIH/SIDA han sido particularmente graves en la agricultura de subsistencia, pero la agricultura comercial se está viendo crecientemente afectada. En el presente artículo se describe de qué manera influye el VIH/SIDA en los dos subsectores, señalando una esfera de particular importancia para las instrucciones de capacitación que ha sido objeto de escasa atención hasta el momento: la pérdida de conocimientos teóricos y prácticos y de experiencia agrícolas. En el artículo se aduce que es necesario volver a definir el concepto de respuesta multisectorial en un marco de desarrollo, para ampliar la respuesta al VIH/SIDA más allá del sector de la salud, llegando a aspectos técnicos fundamentales de la agricultura y el desarrollo rural. Se argumenta además que las instituciones de capacitación tienen que ir más allá de los componentes del VIH/SIDA orientados a la salud a la orientación y a la comunicación que se añaden a los programas existentes. En las estrategias de capacitación hay que tener en cuenta el aumento de la morbilidad y mortalidad de adultos jóvenes, sus repercusiones y en particular la pérdida de conocimientos teóricos y prácticos y experiencia agrícolas entre su personal, así como en los grupos destinatarios.


Worldwide, more than 34 million people are currently infected with HIV, according to United Nations Joint Programme on AIDS estimates (UNAIDS, 2000). More than 90 percent of new infections occur in developing countries, with Africa being the most severely affected continent to date. In 16 countries in Africa, more than one-tenth of the adult population between 15 and 49 years of age is infected with HIV. In seven countries, all in the southern cone of the continent, at least one adult in five is living with the virus. In Botswana, 35.8 percent of adults are infected with HIV, while in South Africa just less than 20 percent are. With a total of 4.2 million infected people, South Africa has the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world (UNAIDS, 2000).
HIV/AIDS cuts across all segments of society (men and women, adults and children, rich and poor, urban and rural) and has an impact on a wide range of sectors (industry, commerce, tourism, education and agriculture). As such, it is intrinsically linked to the core technical areas of agriculture and rural development.

The impact of HIV/AIDS on the agricultural sector

The impact of HIV/AIDS on agrarian systems depends on the structure of the farm sector, especially the smallholder sector, and the labour-intensity of the farming system. Farming systems with fertile soils, abundant and well-distributed rainfall and a wide range of crops are less likely to be sensitive to labour loss than those with poor soils, little rainfall and a limited range of crops, regardless of the degree of peak labour demand (FAO, 1994a; Panos Institute, 1992: chapter 6). For example, Uganda's farming systems are less vulnerable to the HIV epidemic than the maize-based cropping systems of southern Africa, because Uganda has fertile soil, a tropical climate, abundant land and rain and a staple diet based on drought-resistant and low-labour cassava, sweet potato, millet and matooke (green bananas). In southern Africa, when morbidity and mortality or burials coincide with certain agricultural activities (such as weeding and harvesting), crop yields are likely to decline.
Factors that determine the sensitivity of agriculture to labour loss resulting from AIDS include (FAO, 1988):

The adverse effects of HIV/AIDS on agriculture and rural development are manifested primarily as loss of labour supply and on- and off-farm income.
Loss of labour supply can contribute to reductions in productivity, yields and agricultural output. For example, according to a survey on communal agriculture conducted by the Zimbabwe Farmers' Union, agricultural output in Zimbabwe has declined by nearly 20 percent among households affected by AIDS. Maize production by smallholder farmers and commercial farms has declined by 61 percent because of illness and death from AIDS. Cotton, vegetables, groundnut and sunflower crops have been cut by nearly half, and cattle farming has declined by almost one-third.
The loss of on- and off-farm income (including remittance income) may reduce household income dramatically and may have repercussions on investments in agriculture, household nutrition and health, children's schooling, etc. The combined loss of labour supply and household income may, in some instances, increase food and livelihood insecurity and severely undermine the resilience of household coping mechanisms.

The effects of HIV/AIDS on smallholder agriculture

The impact of HIV/AIDS is most severe on smallholder agriculture which, through its effects at the household level, is the primary economic sector and engine of growth in many sub-Saharan African countries. Many farm households are sustained by cash remittances from male migrant heads of household and the earnings of women working in farming and/or the informal sector. Smallholder agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa relies almost exclusively on family labour - often the only productive resource that poor people have.
In Malawi, for instance, 87 percent of the population earns its living from agriculture. About 80 percent of the country's food comes from subsistence farming. Most smallholder farmers cultivate less than 1 ha, with women performing about 87 percent of agricultural work. Last but not least, labour is in short supply in Malawi (Malawi Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, 1998). Given these characteristics of the agricultural sector, HIV/AIDS can constitute a serious threat to smallholder agriculture and to food and livelihood security.
In particular, HIV/AIDS-related morbidity and mortality have an adverse impact on the productive capacity of rural households. This affects a number of parameters, including:

A recent study of orphan-headed households in Kenya found that many of them were losing the essential skills needed for agricultural production. When asked if they knew where to get information on food production, a staggering 82 percent of the orphans replied in the negative (Ayieko, 1997).


Area of need



Land preparation



Seed selection and sowing



Harvesting and storage



Use of fertilizers



Use of farm chemicals



Raising farm animals



Marketing farm produce



Most of the above






Source: Ayieko, 1997.

About 80 percent of orphan-headed households expressed the need to enhance their knowledge of agriculture and improved practices. Only about 7 percent of these households had adequate knowledge of agricultural production. More commonly, surviving young widows are often not familiar with farming methods for certain cash crops that were previously grown by their husbands, or with marketing operations. For a growing number of survivors, therefore, access to agricultural skills (inclusive of improved farming practices, farm management and marketing) is critical. It should be emphasized that the value of so-called "unskilled" labour in agriculture has been greatly underestimated. In fact, people who are commonly thought of as unskilled have accumulated location- and task-specific skills that can be very difficult to replace (Cohen, 2000).

The effects of HIV/AIDS on commercial agriculture

The impact of HIV/AIDS on commercial agriculture has been significant but not uniform. One recent FAO study claimed that Kenya's commercial agricultural sector is facing a severe social and economic crisis resulting from the impact of HIV (FAO/UNDP, 1999). Other studies have shown that the HIV epidemic has a highly diverse impact on agro-estates. In some cases, it neither cripples company operations nor seriously affects profitability. For example, on a sugar estate in Zambia (where the estimated HIV prevalence rate was 20 percent at the time of the study) HIV-related illnesses resulted in a 1 percent labour loss because of sickness and a further 1 percent loss from paid absences (e.g. to attend funerals of co-workers), resulting in costs of US$148 920, or some 32 percent of the total cost of AIDS to the company.
Other AIDS-related costs to the company included US$75 184 in pension payments for deaths and medical retirements (16 percent of the total), $60 000 in increased employment of expatriates to fill positions (13 percent of total), $70 124 for increased medical costs (15 percent), $59 448 for repatriation (12.5 percent), $35 208 for training (7 percent) and $24 314 for funeral expenses (5 percent) (FAO, 1994a: 132). The costs arising from HIV/AIDS represented about 2 percent of company profits (FAO, 1994a: 132). Thus, even though HIV/AIDS costs were significant, they were not substantially detrimental to the company's operations.
On a sugar estate in Kenya, the additional cost of AIDS was estimated at K Sh 4 900 per employee per year by 2005 against an average real annual salary for that company of K Sh 60 600. In other words, the impact of HIV/AIDS could increase average labour costs by as much as 8 percent by 2005 (Forsythe and Rau, 1996: 104). However, the sugar estate was expected to lose less than 1 percent of its profits to AIDS. On a second Kenyan sugar estate, the number of AIDS cases represented 25 percent of the total workforce (FAO/UNDP, 1999: 6). Direct cash costs related to HIV had risen dramatically - company spending on funerals had increased fivefold between 1989 and 1997 and direct health expenditure had increased tenfold. In addition, the estate's managers reported rising absenteeism, lower productivity (a 50 percent drop in the ratio of processed sugar recovered from raw cane between 1993 and 1997) and higher overtime costs as workers were paid to work extra hours to fill in for sick colleagues. On a third estate in Kenya, the recovery ratio declined by 67 percent over four years. The study argues that the decrease of recovery ratio is a direct result of the illness and death of experienced employees (FAO/UNDP, 1999: 19). A flower farm in another part of Kenya saw a similar tenfold increase in spending on employee health costs between 1985 and 1995. This expenditure, estimated at more than US$1 million for a company with 7 000 employees, ate so heavily into profits that the owners sold the company.
The degree to which the commercial agricultural sectors of countries in eastern and southern Africa are being adversely affected by HIV/AIDS depends on a wide range of factors, including the labour intensity of the agro-estate (those that are more labour-intensive suffer a greater impact), the level of skilled labour necessary for production and the level of benefits offered to employees.

In horticulture, nursery management is sensitive to loss of labour, particularly regarding weeding and pest control. If these activities are compromised, total loss of the product can result (FAO/UNDP, 1999: 19).
The illness and premature death of employees affects labour productivity through absenteeism, replacement of skilled and experienced workers with less skilled or experienced people, and a decline in the overall health of the labour force. Employees take sick leave (paid and unpaid) and annual leave before being discharged (Whiteside, 1995). In 1996, the Mhulume Sugar Estate in Swaziland reported that AIDS was responsible for 30 percent of all employee deaths over a three-year period (SADC/EU, 1996).
The following two key consequences of the impact of HIV/AIDS on commercial agriculture should be highlighted: the indirect costs of HIV/AIDS (productivity and production loss) may, in the long term, be greater than the direct costs of the epidemic (health care costs); and HIV/AIDS is likely to deplete significantly the supply of skilled labour, which is already scarce in southern and eastern Africa (Ainsworth and Over, 1994, refer to businesses in general and cite reports from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia). For example, the death from AIDS of a senior manager in Zambia delayed plans to replace the Zambian Sugar Company's senior management with nationals (World Bank, 1996).

Multisectoral approaches to HIV/AIDS

Multisectoral approaches to HIV/AIDS were widely adopted in the 1990s in recognition of the growing realization that the HIV epidemic was more than just a health problem and that the intervention of ministries of health was not enough to stop the spread of the epidemic and mitigate its impact.
Multisectoral approaches in ministries of agriculture (MoAs) frequently have two components: the establishment of HIV/AIDS focal points within the MoA; and IEC activities for MoA staff and target groups. Both of these components have been primarily health-based. IEC activities have often been added on to training programmes and projects but have rarely touched on the core areas of agricultural and rural development work. In other words, multisectoral responses have essentially consisted of AIDS-specific components that were implemented in relative isolation from the mainstream activities of MoAs. Similarly, the vast majority of donor projects in MoAs have not addressed the implications of HIV/AIDS for food and livelihood security. The few that have attempted to take HIV/AIDS into account have focused on HIV prevention and other IEC health-oriented activities.
In view of this, the multisectoral response concept needs to be redefined within a developmental context in order to extend responses to HIV/AIDS beyond the health sector and into the core technical areas of agriculture and rural development. Accordingly, training institutions need to go beyond health-oriented IEC responses and develop training strategies on the basis of increased young adult morbidity and mortality and the corresponding loss of agricultural knowledge, skills and experience among both trainers and their clients.

Implications of young adult morbidity and mortality for training institutions

Relatively little is known about how training strategies, projects and programmes have been affected by HIV/AIDS, particularly in the public sector, and how they are responding. Yet, there is evidence that the impact of the epidemic is likely to be significant: anecdotal information from Zambia indicates that on one agro-industrial sugar estate, three out of 15 newly recruited engineers were estimated to be seropositive (seroprevalence rates in the area stand at 20 percent), and were expected to die within a few years (FAO, 1994b). Expenditures related to productivity loss after training have been emphasized as a significant direct cost of HIV/AIDS. Replacement and retraining strategies are being adjusted by the private sector in Uganda. However, to date, little has been done to assess the implications of young adult morbidity and mortality for training institutions and their strategies and programmes.
More specifically, the following questions need to be addressed:

While this article does not attempt to explore these questions, the following preliminary points can be made with regard to the implications of young adult morbidity and mortality for training strategies and programmes.
First, the capacity of institutions to implement agricultural and rural development programmes has been weakened substantially by morbidity and mortality among the most productive age group. Rural institutions and farm households alike are assuming great financial burdens as a result of HIV/AIDS. This situation arises from the diversion of investment funds to health care, absenteeism, burial costs, recruitment and replacement, loss of labour and reduced productivity. At a conference entitled Responding to HIV/AIDS: Technology Development Needs of African Smallholder Agriculture, held in Harare, Zimbabwe in June 1998, it was recommended that rural institutions providing agricultural support services to farmers review their policies and operations in terms of the conditions being created by the HIV epidemic. Part of this review would involve an assessment of the quantitative and qualitative impact of HIV/AIDS on various internal aspects of public and private agricultural extension organizations and training institutions, such as human resources, training, management, budgets and programming. For example, adjustments may be needed in existing replacement and retraining provisions, and training strategies may need to strike a balance between the extensiveness of the training and the number of people to be trained.
The second preliminary point is that the fact of HIV/AIDS being more than just a health issue has impacts on the design of training programmes, as the latter need to reflect the developmental implications of the HIV epidemic. In other words, adding an HIV/AIDS component to existing training strategies and programmes is not sufficient. HIV/AIDS needs to be integrated as a cross-sectoral issue, along with gender and the environment. Hence, all agricultural and rural development training programmes need to incorporate HIV/AIDS, not only in terms of IEC on HIV prevention and AIDS care, but also in terms of the developmental implications of HIV/AIDS for food production, livestock production, food security, etc.
Training programmes, on improved agricultural practices for instance, may need to put more emphasis on labour- and capital-saving technologies to compensate for farm labour shortages. Such technologies include:

The third preliminary point is that the loss of skills, knowledge and experience brought about by the HIV epidemic needs to be carefully considered in training programmes. This does not refer only to skilled labour, where the implications for the loss of skills are more evident, but also to unskilled labour. For instance, in their training capacity, agricultural extension workers may need to pay more attention to imparting the wide range of skills involved in the food system (from food production through to marketing and consumption). This may be a new concern as, to date, such tasks have been the prerogative of parents and grandparents. The emerging lacunae in extension and training mean that curricula need to be reviewed to include, inter alia, labour- and capital-saving technologies, gender-appropriate agricultural practices, crop diversification and a reduction in external input requirements.

1 Subsistence farming is characterized by a close relationship between household domestic activities (child care, food processing, home maintenance) and production activities.


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