Farmers who are growing pineapple in Kayenzi Sector of Kamonyi District explain how COVID-19 has affected their farming activities. Photo by Laetitia Umulisa/Oxfam
Rwandese smallholder horticulture farmers worst hit by COVID-19
COVID-19 has disrupted the local, regional, and global supply chain flows. Due to limited shelf life, the horticulture supply chain was less adaptable to supply chain disruption. Trade and market opportunities were limited because the entire horticulture value chain got disrupted, the markets closed, there was restricted border crossing while transportation and logistics costs increased.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Rwanda’s borders were closed on 20th March 2020 and this had direct implications on incoming and outgoing passenger flights and buses. Since Rwanda’s horticultural export sector isn’t serviced by cargo flights, the border closure has significantly restricted access to market for fresh produce exporters. Disruptions have impacted jobs and smallholder farmer livelihoods in the Rwandan horticultural sector. The distribution channels of their produce have been disrupted by COVID-19 confinement. The survey on the impact of COVID-19 on horticulture and business continuity conducted by Oxfam, indicated that 94.6% of domestic market outlets for horticulture fell short in sales revenues in 2020.
The most affected of all are farmers in fruits, flowers, and vegetable farming as they had nowhere to sell their produce. This is attributed to many factors among which are the closure of hotels and restaurants, restricted movements of people during the lockdown period as well as people’s choices of other food than the fruits, flowers and vegetables during that period.
Havugimana Jean Pierre is a 43 years old father of two children and a flower farmer from Rulindo district in Rwanda’s Northern Province. He is the president of a farmer cooperative growing flowers on a land size of 5.5 hectares. He said that before COVID-19 hit the country, they used to harvest around 2 metric tons of flowers per week and were able to sell everything. It was only after COVID-19 hit the cooperative, that members were caught up by a bad surprise.
“COVID-19 caught us by surprise and everything else changed in a blink of an eye. We did not have where to sell flowers and we couldn’t move to places as the lockdown was enforced. We were forced to remove all flowers planted to replace them with food crops as starvation was knocking on our doors. We have incurred a big loss.” Havugimana and his cooperative members have started growing flowers again and have added avocadoes as a profitable horticulture crop.
A rapid assessment on the impact of COVID-19 on horticulture by Oxfam indicated that 48.3% of horticulture farmers have faced challenges to access the marketplaces either for selling their produce or buying planting materials due to movement restrictions especially during the country lockdown period which was a good season for horticulture planting.
Agriculture was one of the activities that continued operations during the lockdown period dubbed “stay at home period” while observing the COVID-19 prevention measures. However, factors such as limited access to inputs and social distancing which enforced a limited number of labour working on farms, have reduced the volumes and performance of horticulture production.
Nyirahabimana Christine is a 42 years old mother of 4 children and a passion fruits farmer from Nyamagabe district. She said that, even if they could continue farming activities, they couldn’t access farming inputs and due to social distancing and face mask wearing, the labour was reduced and work on the farm was heavy. She added that selling and buying farming inputs from the market was impossible.
“We run out of money and we had to share the savings we had put aside together for our cooperative development activities. We had to start all over again,” said Christine.
As Rwanda slowly reopened back to normal thanks to increased COVID-19 prevention measures awareness and the acceleration of access to vaccines, farmers like Christine and Jean Pierre are also going back to their normal horticulture production. Both farmers in their cooperatives have started planting fruits and vegetables supported by the Horticulture Value Chain project led by Oxfam in Rwanda through DUHAMIC-ADRI COCOF and DUTERIMBERE as local partners. The project is funded by the European Union (EU) and has supported horticulture farmers in Nyagatare, Rulindo, Kamonyi and Nyamagabe districts to get back to their normal horticulture production activities.
Nirere Theresie is a farmer from COALFKA cooperative growing onions in Kamonyi district. She said that even if the borders with Uganda are closed and that’s where they sold almost all their onions produce, they can at least sell on local markets and still make some small income to survive. She added that their hope lies in the EU-funded horticulture project that supports them in many ways including linking them to markets and they are committed to support other farmers toapply the knowledge acquired.
The functioning of the horticulture value chain relies both on the steady demand for fresh fruits and vegetables from different market segments but also the ability of farmers to supply quality horticulture products which in turn depends on their access to quality inputs, extension services as well as financial services. COVID-19 has disrupted all those critical needs in the chain on both demand and supply.
In June 2020, the Government of Rwanda launched an Economic Recovery Fund (ERF) and the eligible businesses were asked to apply for funding. The fund was established to support the recovery of businesses hardest hit by COVID19 so that they can survive. It was also created to facilitate the domestic production of essential goods. It has been noticed that the ERF started to support tourism, businesses in manufacturing (including agri-processing), transport and logistics as well as small and medium enterprises linked to domestic and global supply chains.
The rapid assessment conducted by Oxfam in Rwanda, as well as comments collected during the policy dialogue , showed that the flow of ERF-related information seems to favour SMEs and businesses that are or were already integrated into more formal networks and systems, before COVID-19. The rapid assessment further revealed that the flow of accurate information related to the ERF facility and other opportunities especially in rural areas has been a challenge. In addition, the ERF didn’t take into consideration the specific needs of horticulture smallholder farmers, especially women and SMEs with low borrowing capacity. In the absence of a reliable market for their products, horticulture smallholder farmers, SMEs of horticulture products are faced with cash flow challenges and some of them are not able to service their loan obligations. These challenges have economic impacts after the COVID-19 lockdown and the whole value chain needs strategic innovations in the future. Policy makers and the private sector should take these challenges into consideration and see this situation as an eye-opener and opportunity for what could have been done better to save the horticulture value chain. Proposed strategies would include, but are not limited to, the introduction of cold rooms that would keep horticulture fresh produce for longer periods whilst waiting for the markets. Moreover, accelerate the implementation of the COVID-19 ERF taking into consideration specific needs of those most in need including horticulture smallholder farmers, SMEs with low borrowing capacity, women and youth involved in the informal sector, or unknown networks in the agriculture and agri-business sectors. Finally, there is a need to promote technology and innovations so that farmers adopt new technologies. Agriculture enterprises may find new input suppliers when the regular supply chain is delayed.