Commitment, flexibility, innovation. During this Coronavirus pandemic, all of us who work in agriculture sustainability need to strengthen our ongoing support to smallholder coffee farming families by being flexible and innovative in order to adapt to the challenges the times present. In Uganda, after the strict lockdown measures were put in place, the local population were concerned about the implications of the virus on their health and livelihoods. Farmers are struggling due to limited transportation; on the one hand they can’t access agriculture inputs if they reside far from trading centers and on the other hand, they won’t be able to take their harvests to their Cooperatives for the upcoming harvest season which is fast approaching. Closed markets also threaten incomes and food security. In the face of the national lockdown, Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung (HRNS) Uganda managed to get a special permission to return to its project sites. In Mityana, 5 field staff are now back on their motorbikes, doing individual farm visits to provide households with much needed farming support and advice. Jackie Nakintu is one of them.

The roads of Uganda’s countryside town of Mityana are unusually quiet following the lockdown; most shops are closed; public transport is inoperative and almost everyone must stay home. But one sound is common in Maanyi and Banda sub-counties: every morning, Jackie, one of HRNS’ experienced agronomists, fires up her motorcycle and takes off on the rugged turf. With each day comes a renewed fervor to achieve her goal of visiting up to 5 demonstration plots in order to offer one-on-one agricultural support to the farmers she facilitates.

Vital support for youth in times of crisis

Jackie is responsible for approximately 1710 young farmers across two sub-counties but the only way she can reach them is by building the capacity of 19 selected youth from the community to become farmer trainers. They organize and facilitate Youth Farmer Field School (YFFS) sessions twice a month. In order to adhere to the social distancing measures introduced by the Government of Uganda, all trainings on Good Agronomic Practices (GAPs) through the YFFS methodology have been postponed or put on hold. Since the YFFS facilitators are restricted in terms of movement and reach, they can only continue their support remotely through phone calls, text messages and WhatsApp.

Jackie on her motorcycle

“Initially, my focus was ensuring that the YFFS facilitators were calling their farmer group members to remind them about the agriculture practices they should be performing as well as the safety measures they must take to protect themselves from COVID-19,” Jackie explained.

HRNS Uganda reinforced and translated the Ministry of Health’s (MoH) safety messages into local languages and ensured that the messages were passed on to all Field Officers across all project areas. Field Officers thereafter communicated the messages to over 200 farmer trainers and relied heavily on them to pass them on to their farmer groups remotely.

Special permission to move in a country under lockdown

To build upon this immediate reaction, HRNS sought special permission for Field Officers to continue providing support through individual farm visits. As agriculture is deemed an essential service in Uganda, this permission was granted by the Local Government in Mityana. Thereafter Jackie and her fellow field staff were equipped with masks and hand sanitizers and were back on the road.

Jackie demonstrating correct planting of coffee seedlings.

Jackie discussing progress of beans and maize at a demonstration plot.

When she is in the field, Jackie is truly in her element, not only because she is passionate about agriculture but also because she is a people person and has a great relationship with the farmers. “When I am on site, I analyze the progress of the coffee, maize, beans or tomatoes being grown and how the farmers can improve farming activities under this COVID-19 situation”, she says.  “We discuss a lot and usually have fruitful outcomes.” Sometimes, their discussions go beyond agronomy as most of the farmers she facilitates are young and therefore bring up other serious social issues such as HIV prevention and family planning. These topics have been very relevant during the lockdown, especially for youth, and Jackie is able to advise them on the appropriate precautionary methods.

Change Agents as role models in gender relation

Like Jackie, Michael Ssengooba, HRNS’ Gender Officer has been visiting young farmers in Mityana to ensure that families are in one accord. “I was afraid that domestic violence would increase after the lockdown began but fortunately, there have been only few instances among the coffee farming households which we support,” Michael says. HRNS Uganda has also shared messages encouraging peaceful coexistence through Change Agents who are role model couples that voluntarily carry out extension. “Where there have been complex challenges among households in their communities, Change Agents have reported it to me and I am working closely with the Local Government to address these issues,” Michael elaborates.

Before the lockdown, Michael conducted gender trainings to empower couples to jointly develop long-term and short-term goals for their households. These plans encouraged joint decision making on how the family income should be spent. “Now that I cannot continue to gather couples for the gender trainings, my focus is on conducting 3 household visits per day to encourage and support couples to continue to work together towards those goals,” Michael states.

​Michael continuing support while still complying with the MoH’s guidelines for social distancing.

“Although the implementation of HRNS’ projects has become more difficult due to the Coronavirus pandemic, with each challenge, the country team has sought solutions,” says HRNS Uganda’s Deputy Country Manager Malisa Mukanga.

“The pandemic has also illuminated opportunities which the organization is addressing like the importance of safe storage of food as backup in case the situation doesn’t improve soon.” – Malisa Mukanga.

Additionally, HRNS is highlighting the importance of domestic rainwater harvesting not only for maintaining good hygiene but also because it relieves women of their duty to fetch water and leaves them more time to take care of the farm and attend FFS sessions when they resume.

More food secure thanks to previous project activities

One thing is for sure, it is vital that HRNS and partners continue adapting their activities to the impact of COVID-19 in order to support the farmers’ wellbeing. The pandemic clearly shows the importance of investing in the livelihoods of smallholder families. Fortunately, food security is not a pressing issue for farmers in HRNS’ project areas as they have been advised to go beyond coffee farming and plant quick maturing food crops that can meet their daily sustenance. However, with the current movement restrictions, bringing coffee to the cooperative or transporting agricultural inputs to the farm can be a challenge. “If the situation does not improve in the near future, farmers’ coffee income may be greatly affected, which will have a significant impact on their livelihoods. That is why now more than ever before, the HRNS team is committed to addressing the threats that the pandemic poses to the wellbeing of coffee farmers in Uganda, as we continue to develop our approach further to respond to the situation,” says Mukanga.

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