United by Change: How to address COVID-19 in smallholder communities

Written By:Michael Opitz
Date:3 September 2020
Theme:COVID-19, Social Situation
United by Change: How to address COVID-19 in smallholder communities

For smallholder coffee farmer families, poverty and financial hardship were on the rise even before the pandemic started. And the situation now got worse in many places with COVID-19. Coffee prices are low, food is more expensive, income is affected, farm management practices are changing, unemployment is rising.

COVID-19 showed us something very clear: problems of rural communities are complex. These are now aggravated by a situation that is hovering. While lockdowns and travel bans are increasingly lifted cases of infection are on the rise, we see insecurity everywhere about what will come.

This is adding on two clear results from surveys Hanns R. Neumann Stiftung (HRNS) conducted in the smallholder communities in Indonesia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Brazil, Honduras and Guatemala:

1.: Long-term impacts due to COVID-19 for coming crop-cycles and families’ cash flow are to be expected. While prices of coffee remain the biggest challenge for smallholder families, COVID-19 is coming on top of challenges like living costs and weather patterns. As a conclusion, 64% fear that prices in the markets will get worse as a result of COVID-19 followed by concerns about health and availability of labor and inputs.

2.: Farmer families are ready for digital trainings and want them. HRNS’ digital support to smallholder coffee farmer families that started since the pandemic was not only through phone calls. Digital training sessions were conducted, training videos got produced, a coffee sustainability classroom went online, dialogue through messenger groups increased, a radio show went on air and webinars were organized with farmer organizations and other beneficiary groups. The survey shows that access to hardware is quite good and growing.

Our surveys indicate that economic concerns for smallholder farmer families dominate, and together with health concerns, paint a picture of existential fears and constraints to the people’s future perspective. What does that mean for us?

In our view, a coffee perspective to the problems is far too narrow. Programs on productivity, quality, traceability, safe use of agrochemicals are rather second-best.

From the surveys, our conclusions are:

  • Support is required basically to sustain income and bolster food security and to strengthen farmer communities to better address the crisis (spread of information on disease prevention, access to supplies like soap and personal protective equipment, raising attention for the peoples’ needs and concerns).
  • Our focus needs to be on livelihoods and resilience where coffee is an element of diversified production systems that incorporate cash and food crops and are adapted to climate change. Then further elements enter: comprehensive risk management, improved access to security systems, social services and health care.
  • Therefore, we aim to better connect with complementary partners and offerings such as the health services, financing, technology and digital solutions. An example for such a connection is the TeamUp Program, we implement together with Siemens Stiftung and Deutsche Stiftung Weltbevölkerung (DSW) and additional funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)in Uganda.

But it is not only about the approach we are having; it also is about the way we are implementing it. And we are changing the course in which we engage with the beneficiaries and the approaches we use. Backed by our partners, our programming looks different today from what it was in the beginning of this year.

  • We more prominently address the young generation that can easier work with digital formats and can perform an important transmission function inside rural areas.
  • We work with smaller training groups (keeping distances and observing hygiene and protection protocols), we tailor our messaging to the immediate requirements in line with production cycles, we empower farmer organizations to perform additional functions, we upgrade our training curricula and incorporate additional subjects.
  • We make increasingly use of digital solutions to deliver trainings and information. With additional investments, digital trainings can be further rolled out efficiently and remaining problems in accessing digital content can be tackled.
  • We monitor the response of our beneficiaries to identify which formats best trigger action and adoption and to assess how programming changes reflect on impact.
A future strategy and approach working with smallholder communities requires a multidimensional view which might sound a bit complex. But it is doable, more relevant, super enriching and will not only mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 crisis but rather improve peoples well-being and provide better perspective for rural life in the mid- to long-term.
  • To advance, we need to talk, amongst us and together with smallholder farmer families and youth in the coffee regions. We need to systematically connect different expertise and turn down the containers in which we usually work. Together, we unite amazing experiences and views on a number of thematic areas and in terms of approaches and methodologies.
  • Let’s take COVID-19 despite all the hardship it creates as a chance to improve altogether. We are united by change and the best we can do is to consolidate our views and experiences, ideally in a practical environment and together with farmer families, to get better jointly. It is not a question of commitment, but of programming relevance and effectiveness.

HRNS is an organization with collaboration and direct exchange with farmer families as a core element of our work. Don’t hesitate to get in touch for taking it further together. Coffee communities deserve our partnership and best possible support.

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