People have discovered ways to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, which has harmed access to markets and capital.

Limbe market is well-known in Blantyre’s food industry.

Benches and dealers selling rice, maize, beans, and other farm produce can be found on one side. On the other hand, there is a meat-selling line. Farmers from all around the country ship their crops to this location. Malawians come from all over the country to shop at the market: families buying for their consumption, intermediaries buying to resell, and traders buying to resale.

And then the COVID19 pandemic happened.

The government placed restrictions on movement, disrupting agribusiness in Limbe and across Malawi. Farmers couldn’t sell their crops. Traders couldn’t buy.

Rose Chisowa is a 39-year old agro-entrepreneur who grows tomatoes and rice and raises pigs and chickens on a two-hectare plot near the capital Lilongwe. The pandemic forced her to do things differently at a steeper cost and required her to take out a loan.

“It’s been hard to get orders… since the consumers could not go to the public markets or chain stores in fear of contracting the virus. This has made us suffer the costs of advertising through different media platforms and hiring a van for door-to-door deliveries which is very expensive,” she says.

The cost of doing business has gone up in other ways. Yunike Phiri, a small-scale farmer, said the prices of farm inputs such as pesticides and seeds went up due to the lockdown as labour was also disrupted.

“There was also loss of manpower as most of our workers were either affected or infected. We were lucky not to have recorded any deaths unlike other farmers,” says Phiri.

Riding out the waves

Amid the lockdowns, actors including the government, civil society, and farmers themselves have tried to find ways for farmers to continue to operate effectively.

Rosalia Kaundama, 38, is the Traditional Chief Lukwa in Kasungu. She is one of a dozen farmers who, before the pandemic, had formed a cooperative and gained access to warehouses. This arrangement allowed the group to sell their crops at higher prices in the market and softened the economic blow when the pandemic struck.

“Farmers have aggregated their produce,” explains Lingalireni Mihowa, country director of Oxfam Malawi, which has provided support to Kaundama’s cooperative. “This has also helped farmers to save on transportation costs which had gone up when Covid was at its peak… The warehouses have… helped the farmers we work with maximise their profits, contrary to what a majority of the farmers are facing.”

Kaundama says the cooperative’s access to the market is still limited, but she hopes Covid vaccines will help. The group has decided that every member should get the jab. If everyone in the village could get the vaccine, she says, markets might return to normal. Other cooperatives in the area have followed suit and Kaundama hopes the group will set an example in a country where vaccine hesitancy has increased following reports of out-of-date doses, fears over blood clots, and misinformation.

Other civil society organisations have tried to support Malawi’s farmers with financial management advice.

“Most [farmers] have gone into debts and they can’t cover up to now,” says Bernet Lwara, project officer at the Small Scale Livestock and Livelihoods Programme (SSLLP). “In terms of the market solutions, we advised them to buy only the quantity that they can sell. I think Covid-19 is here to stay and farmers need to appreciate that fact.”

On the government side, Malawi’s agriculture ministry has rolled out an information-sharing system through which farmers can get in touch with agricultural extension workers through the internet or push messages, instead of in-person meetings. Extension workers’ primary role is to help farmers and companies make better decisions to increase agricultural production. This supply line of information helps keep farmers in the know while keeping them safe from being infected.

The government has also tried to make it possible for farmers to observe auctions despite social distancing rules so they can ensure their goods are sold at a fair price. “In some marketing areas like at Auction Floors where farmers sell their tobacco, we made an arrangement that allowed farmers still witness the selling of their tobacco,” says Gracian Lungu, a ministry spokesman.

The pandemic has negatively disrupted the supply chain and capital for farmers like Kaundama and Phiri, but a range of solutions have helped cushion the impact.

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