Skills and seeds acquired before have new importance for rural communities in Pakistan

How resilience building has helped Pakistani farmers through the COVID-19 crisis

For many rural farmers, lockdowns are presenting challenges to livelihoods. For Mansab, farming skills she learned last year at FAO’s farmer field school became even more valuable during this crisis. ©FAO


Until recently, Mansab Mai worked as a milk producer. The Muzaffargarh district of Pakistan, where her family of nine lives, is well-known for milk production, and livestock are an important part of people’s livelihoods here. Almost every household has cows or goats. Ever since the lockdown in the country to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Mansab’s family is keeping the milk for their own consumption.

Mansab’s husband and eldest son are masons and had been working as a daily wage labourers, but due to the crisis they have been out of work for the past months. Their family used to rely on this income to provide for themselves and their seven children. They had no savings to call upon.

With countries around the world introducing lockdowns to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Mansab’s situation is unfortunately not uncommon; smallholder farmers and rural communities are already suffering the negative impacts on their livelihoods. For many people, the restrictions to contain the spread of the virus have curtailed or completely stopped their ability to work.  

Sowing seeds

Fortunately, just a few months before the worldwide crisis began, Mansab took a chance on starting a new livelihood. She participated in FAO’s Farmer Field School (FFS) in November 2019 with other female participants. They received canola seeds to help them get ahead of the crop growing season. The canola oil can both be used for household consumption and be sold for a good price.

With these seeds and new knowledge, Mansab, her husband and her eldest son prepared and ploughed a small piece of their family’s land before sowing the seeds. She hoped to get a good harvest, but as she had only ever grown wheat and vegetables in the past, she was uncertain about the results.

Throughout the farming cycle, FAO provided technical support, helping farmers make key decisions on land preparation, fertiliser requirements, biological pest control methods and harvesting techniques. With this help, Mansab could just trust that this new activity would succeed.

After taking part in a FAO Farmer Field School last November (left), Mansab (right) learned to plant canola seed, providing income for her family during the current crisis. ©FAO

New reality, new harvest

By April 2020, COVID-19 had spread across all provinces of Pakistan, with the Punjab province the most severely affected by the outbreak. Punjab has had not only the highest number of cases of COVID-19, but the virus has had a major effect on the income of its population. Many people in this region, like Mansab’s husband, were daily wage workers so when the industries closed, it meant that there was no more income. 

Thankfully, however, it was also around this time that the canola, which Mansab had spent many months tending to, was ready for harvest. This canola harvest served as a ray of hope for Mansab and her family.

Mansab’s new skills and hardwork led to a high yield of canola which she was able to sell for PKR13 000 (around 81 USD) – enough to sustain her family for two and a half months.

“The canola harvest brought welcome relief for our family,” said Mansab. “The profit we made from selling the canola will help us get by during these difficult times. We will extract edible oil from the remaining 10 kilograms of canola,” she added contendedly. 

A core element of FAO’s work and its farmer field schools is building the resilience of populations, especially rural communities. Better ways of farming, methods of storage, saving schemes, access to new markets: these are all strategies taught to help farmers through crises, whether it be natural disaster, man-made conflict or even a pandemic. FAO is also now using FFS to communicate hygiene and nutrition-related information measures to help farmers, men and women, slow the spread of COVID-19.

Support for farmers throughout the country

Beyond the Punjab province, FAO, following safety procedures to contrain the spread of the virus, has also provided supplies and practical help to those farmers affected since COVID-19 hit the country.

In the Tharparkar district of Sindh, FAO, with support from the World Bank, is distributing vegetable kits and constructing small water storage tanks with in-built solar submersible water pumps to irrigate the land of 25 villages in the district. The project has also provided animal water troughs and small drip irrigation systems for kitchen gardens in these villages to support the food security of these smallholder farmers.

FAO’s health and safety training educates on the importance of hand washing to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. ©FAO

With many markets closed and transportation significantly slowed, obtaining animal feed has been a significant problem for the many farmers who depend on livestock for their primary source of income. FAO has distributed animal feed to 1 436 of the most vulnerable households, helping these livestock farmers get through the crisis.

Health and safety are, of course, other major considerations in rural areas, which sometimes have limited access to medical supplies or treatment. In several provinces across Pakistan, FAO has provided hands-on training to demonstrate the best safety practices. This included sessions on the importance of preventive measures such as hand washing, physical distancing and other health and hygiene practices, which help people stay safe in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Many farmers across the world, like Mansab, are facing new devastating challenges to their livelihoods. For many, this is just one more crisis to overcome. With crisis times increasing, resilience is critical. FAO is supporting and working together with farmers and rural communities to ensure that they are resilient to these new challenges and are equipped to handle the changes brought on by COVID-19. Now and in the future, FAO continues to help communities better face these crises so that families can support themselves and meet their needs beyond these difficult times.

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1. No poverty, 8. Decent work and economic growth, 15. Life on land