UKZN’s Farmer Support Group Assisting Rural Communities Impacted by COVID-19

The Farmer Support Group (FSG) – a community development, outreach and research unit in UKZN’s School of Agricultural Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES) in Pietermaritzburg – has identified ways of assisting rural communities cope with the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The virus has impacted negatively on the livelihoods of rural farmers with drought conditions exacerbating the situation in some areas.

The national lockdown made it impossible for rural farmers to plan for their agricultural production. Furthermore, many were not fully informed about the stringent measures that would be imposed.

To help alleviate the difficult situation, the FSG worked with communities in Msinga and Okhahlamba Local Municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal implementing action-research aimed at improving smallholder farmers’ livelihoods.

The first intervention was to conduct remote monitoring of project activities by phoning farmer representatives weekly to assess the situation on the ground with respect to inputs, markets and associated factors. The FSG also sent SMS messages to community members every two weeks to update them about important information associated with the virus and the lockdown.

The second intervention involved FSG partnering with the Umgeni Resilience Project (URP) to conduct a telephonic survey with 215 farmers in rural communities in the Msinga, Okhahlamba, Richmond and uMshwathi local municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal. The action provided valuable information on the status of rural farmers’ food insecurity.

Preliminary results of the survey indicate that about 63% of farmers had concerns about access to seedlings as their normal suppliers were not operating due to the lockdown. In addition, farmers did not receive any agricultural assistance during lockdown, which adversely impacted their operations resulting in 67% of them encountering a decrease in agricultural income due to a loss of production.

It was established that smallholder farmers were not fully conversant about the pandemic or about the precautions needed. A COVID-19 information pamphlet was compiled containing information about symptoms, importance of vitamins, crops to plant in different seasons, particularly to boost immunity, and other virus-related information.

A total of 430 foods parcels were distributed in Msinga and Okhahlamba and, in addition, the FSG provided farmers with agricultural seeds as part of the COVID-19 food packs to ensure food security. The packs contained non-perishable food items, seeds, face masks, and the COVID-19 pamphlet.

The farmers thanked everyone involved for the assistance they received.

Words: Avrashka Sahadeva and Maxwell Mudhara

Photographs: Bongumusa Mbatha and Avrashka Sahadeva