23 year old Ajidiru Robinah after avocado harvest in Uganda. Photo by Gloria Komukama Zziwa/IFRAD.

Resilience of small-scale farmers and businesses tested during COVID-19

Uncertainty and a great test of resilience

I have worked with Oxfam for the last eight years managing the economic empowerment and resilient livelihood program. During these years, never have I experienced firsthand what it truly means for your resilience to be tested, until recently during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The world has been grappling with the unprecedented outbreak since it was first reported in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. Measures like enforcing a countrywide lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19 were completely new to most of us. Arguably, while the lockdown in Uganda contained the fast spread of the virus, it came with immense economic aftershocks that are testing our resilience.

Before the pandemic, Uganda was already experiencing high levels of inequality which has been aggravated. Most people employed in the informal sector were already living from hand to mouth and those employed in the formal sector were barely living beyond their monthly paychecks. The Agriculture sector that employs over 70% of the workforce was already experiencing challenges from climate change and man-made injustices like land grabs. Therefore, one might question how an already vulnerable population has been able to cope and be resilient amidst this pandemic.

There are many definitions of resilience, but I will use the definition from Oxfam’s framework of resilient development. It defines resilience as the ability of women and men to cope, respond and recover from shocks, stresses and uncertainty as well as improve their well-being. Drawing from this definition, were people resilient during this pandemic?

I was among those privileged to retain my position as Oxfam put measures to protect staff from job losses during the pandemic. This meant that I still have my monthly salary coming in. However, the in-kind support that I have had to provide during this pandemic has tripled. With children being home due to school closure, universities closed and businesses not operational, my monthly salary has continued to support a large family of 18 including siblings and other relatives. Rather than saving for the unforeseen, I have been eating into part of my savings to ensure that we can all survive. This has not only put a financial strain on me but also phycological stress. I have watched as my yearly plans and saving targets go down the curve.

Like myself, most Ugandans have felt the negative impacts of COVID-19 in varying proportions. Those already vulnerable such as refugees are most affected. I am lucky to expect some money at the end of the month and had some savings. But, many people have grappled with finding a meal for the day. Many have sunk into debt, been left jobless and those running small scale businesses have been left in doubt of continuity.

A rapid survey carried out by the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC) indicates that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have experienced the largest effects of the risk associated with COVID-19 compared to large scale businesses. According to the survey, the lockdown measures reduced business activity by more than half. Also, agriculture enterprises were worst hit due to challenges of accessing inputs arising from transport restrictions and the ban on weekly markets, as well as due to the lost demand and the shift from consumption of fresh agricultural produce to dry rations.

The stories I have been receiving from the small-scale farmers and the small businesses we work with concur with this survey. They speak of loss, uncertainty and a great test of resilience.

My own experience triggered me to find out how other people especially small-scale farmers, market women and those running small businesses have been coping with the situation. I wanted to find out if amidst their struggles to survive there is something that could have helped them cope better.

I was particularly interested in women as I know that they have been hit hardest. I spoke to Aisha, Robina and Paul who were keen to share their experiences.

Resilience through savings

30-year-old Aisha Musa from Dadamu sub country, Arua district is a businesswoman, married with 3 children and one dependent. According to her, she has never encountered such shock and impact in her 4 years of running a business as she did during the pandemic. 

“I have been selling produce as a retailer for four years. I buy produce that includes beans, groundnuts, and food items in bulk from markets and sell them in markets here in Dadamu. I would normally make a profit of about 150,000 Uganda shillings from every sale. On average, the stock would take between 2 to 3 days before I could buy more from the market. I can say my family and I were living a comfortable life and had never imagined something like a pandemic affecting us to the extent of a lockdown. When they declared a countrywide lockdown, I was shocked and did not believe it. I had made plans to go for business, as usual, the following day, but now everything had been stopped. I was in panic because I had not stocked enough food and we did not know how long the lockdown would last. I kept wondering how I would sustain my family without a running business.”

As months went by, the government started to devise measures to ease the lockdown. However, some of these were not helpful to Aisha.

“When they decided to allow public transport to operate, the fares were three times higher. Currently, with the situation still not 100% back to normal, I can only buy produce from the local market, which is expensive but sell at the price that does not earn me as much profit. I have to persevere through this to earn a living as I wait for the main market to be re-opened and the transport costs to normalize.”

Aisha Musa (left) taking note of savings records during their weekly VSLA meeting.

Despite her business coming to a standstill, Aisha still has a lot of hope that the situation will normalize, and she will pick up her business to make it even stronger. When asked about lessons she learned from the COVID period, she emphasized that savings are a good way out in unexpected situations such as this. “I used to think that people who save money don’t have what to use it for or maybe they don’t have urgent demands until I was trained on financial literacy by Oxfam and their partner, the International Foundation for recovery and Development (IFRAD). Following this, I joined the Arua super Youth Savings group. When the pandemic and lockdown started, I appreciated the need for having savings.

Resilience needs to be built over time. Having savings and being a member of a savings group cushioned my shock as we remained supportive of each other as members and even took some loans to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, not everyone had such fall back options.

23- year old Ajidiru Robinah’s (right) story is not different. 

“My avocado business could not withstand the COVID-19 lockdown. Being a perishable product, I ended up making losses as the lockdown came when I still had a lot of stock. The only thing that saved me during this period is the little savings I had with my village savings group. I requested this money and it took me through the lockdown period until when the markets and transport opened up. I saw firsthand how vulnerable you can be when you do not have savings or any other source of income to rely on. For now, I have started growing vegetables as an alternative source of income as I wait for the transport fares to stabilize. Although the vegetables do not bring in as much profit, I can survive. I learned from this COVID-19 period that savings are a great asset and if I had not been saving, I wouldn’t have been able to survive through the period. My future now is to save enough money that will allow me to rent a bigger farming area which will give me more produce for sale.”

Resilient through my farming business

25-year-old Jabo Paul (right) from Oluko sub country, Arua district is a farmer and businessman who runs poultry and beekeeping businesses. His businesses were running well before the COVID-19.

“The poultry business was working well for me until the lockdown. It was the most affected business that I do because we buy the hatched chicks from Kampala, that are transported on a bus to get here. The feeds would have to be bought from town but because of the lockdown, the transport system was completely shut down.” Jabo narrates.

His beekeeping business was not affected by COVID-19 as such although he says that if the restrictions on the transport system had continued, then he would not have had a way to transport his honey to the markets after harvesting in October.

Having received business training from an Oxfam and IFRAD youth ignite project, Paul and his friends managed to secure a ploughing oxen from the Ministry of Gender Labor and Social Development for youth involved in agriculture. Paul says that the oxen have helped fetch them a stable income during the lockdown because many people began to focus on their farms and planting crops for sale, so they hired out the Oxen. Although he was not earning as much as he would before the pandemic due to people having no money and prices going low, he continued having steady cash flow.

Paul hopes to re-invest in his poultry business when the situation is normalized, and transport costs become lower. He also desires to expand his beekeeping venture from 20 beehives to over 100 by the end of next year because he has a goal of constructing his home soon.

Building resilience

Just like myself, Aisha, Robina, and Paul were able to withstand the situation because they had a fall back of savings and alternative businesses. This fall back was possible because they had invested in this over time and because they had businesses that kept running while I had a job that kept paying.

Although we are yet to recover fully from the economic aftershocks of the pandemic, we were able to cope, respond, and withstand the lockdown, something that many were not able to do.

Borrowing from these experiences, there is a need to invest in building the resilience of communities because when crises of such magnitude as COVID-19 hit, people will be able to adapt and rely less on government handouts which are not sustainable.

Therefore, there is need for actors especially the Government to invest in programs that build the adaptation and resilience of people. Programs such as providing farming inputs, access to credit and market, skills in businesses and entrepreneurship. To ensure that small scale farmers and SMEs can stay afloat with their businesses and continue growing food especially now that the lockdown is eased, the Government needs to put in place a stimulus package that focuses on boosting small scale farming systems and SMEs growth and development.

Author’s bio

Harriet is a Social Worker by profession with 15years of practical hands-on experience, 8 of which are at senior management level. Currently, as the Interim Head of programs, she is responsible for providing leadership, strategic development and management of the Oxfam in Uganda program.