Farming the Future: Covid19 and beyond

“I often ask myself what will happen if I stopped working? When the floods came, I had to be in my field to drain the waters. When the pandemic came, I had to be there to take care of my crop and fend for my family. Droughts, floods or pandemics, we don’t quit. We cannot quit. If I quit, we have to forsake our income and there won’t be food at home. My neighbors won’t be able to work on my farm and they will lose their income. We will lose the vegetables that we grow that can feed many families. Whatever may happen to the world, we farmers can’t and don’t quit even for a day.”

These are words from Koyu, a 67-year-old farmer from my own village in Kerala who grows paddy and vegetables in his 4 acres of land. I was speaking to him over the phone. There was both anger and anguish in his words.

“You know,” he continued, “everyone takes us for granted. When everything shut down… transport, railways, postal services, banks, markets and offices including those of the government, we were the only ones working. Without any complaint or expectation. We continued to produce, we toiled. When we produce less, we earn less. When we produce more, even then we earn less.” Koyu did not mince his words while sharing his frustration.

Refer to the full report for further details.

When I had this conversation with Koyu a few weeks ago, at Digital Green we were speaking to hundreds of farmers in various states of India where we work in. As an organization working with and for small-scale farmers, it was important for us to understand how they are coping with the pandemic and associated uncertainties. We designed the survey in a way that would help us and our partners to understand specific issues faced by the farmers so that we can help them overcome the situation and recover faster. The survey report is available here.

Nearly one-third of the small-scale farmers we interviewed were afraid of contracting the Coronavirus. There is widespread fear and anxiety, among both men and women, on their ability to continue production and find a market for their produce. Farmers have indeed become more vulnerable due to the pandemic. However, nearly all of them said they will grow crops for the Kharif season. Farmers are not letting the calamity deter their intent or morale.

For a society that is reeling under multiple waves of a never-seen-before humanitarian crisis that has crippled our lives, society and economy, the path to recovery can be hard and arduous. Our farmers are already playing a crucial role in that path to recovery. They are ensuring productivity, generating employment, feeding our people and most importantly regenerating the rural economy. For the country as a whole, from policymakers to practitioners, from the civil society to the common people, helping farmers at this hour means helping the economy to recover faster and build back better.

While there are many concerns the survey brought to light and require immediate attention, the survey findings also point towards some important future considerations. Of these, there are three that I want to highlight, so that future pandemics, calamities, shocks and stressors do not derail our decades of development investment.

#Power2choose: Reimagining farmers’ advisories

Let us not treat farmers are mere recipients of aid and subsidies who are supposed to till and toil for society. Time has come to accord them the importance they deserve as active partners and participants in the development process. Let us empathize with farmers and bank upon their immense wisdom, patience and resilience. To help achieve that, farmers need timely and efficient access to information to produce better, market better and claim reasonable realization for their efforts. Digital technology is that opportunity to empower farmers with choices to make informed decisions. Digital tools can help them access specific information that they want – what, when and how. Let them decide. Let them choose.

#markets4farmers: Reimagining markets

Today, the investment our government has made towards Digital India is slowly bearing fruits. More villages are getting connected to networks. Mobile telephony has reached every nook and corner of the country. Our data costs are among the lowest in the world. Smartphone usage is rising rapidly. Smartphones, data and digital tools can combine to bring about a radical transformation to markets. Digital connectivity can create hyperlocal market loops, connecting local producers and local consumers. Popular applications like WhatsApp and Telegram can help farmers build digital storefronts and transact with local consumers. Let digital technology build a network of farmers and farmer’s groups across the cast expanse of India. Let technology adapt to the needs of farmers than asking farmers to adapt to the technology. Let millions of interconnected farm enterprises bloom.

#FarmerFirst: Reimagining data

We have been taking our farmers for granted. They have historically lacked access to technology and information and in the modern data-driven agri-ecosystem, they don’t even understand that their own data is one of their biggest assets. Many kept mining their data while farmers also freely shared their data with many. Privacy, trust, confidentiality and security has a very different meaning in their social context and relations. The time has come for us to make them aware of the value of their data and help them make informed decisions. While global and national efforts to integrate and share data across platforms are a welcome move and in the right direction, let the first and most important guiding principle be to put farmers at the center or at the apex of such initiatives. Efforts to streamline and make data efficient will not bear desired results if it is not primarily helping farmers to improve their lives and livelihoods.  Help farmers discover the primacy of their own data. Let Farmers be First.

Extension and Advisory Services Role in the COVID-19 Crisis

This post is written by Kevin Chen, Mark Leclair, Esmail Karamidehkordi, Carl Larsen, and Suresh Babu for DLEC and published first on Agrilinks.

There is increasing concern that the COVID-19 pandemic will have dire consequences for food security unless adequate safeguards are established. Food supply chains must continue to function; the health of food system workers must be protected, and measures to ease the economic blow from lost incomes must be taken. Information, advice, and coaching for rural — as trusted rural communication and education institutions — are a critical piece of emergency response to such a crisis, providing credible information about the virus and farming advice to adapt to various shocks.

In this post, we gather lessons from past emergencies and show how Extension & Advisory Services (EAS) have adapted their education and communication for COVID-19 among regular and continued outreach. We also make recommendations for EAS for future emergencies.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time EAS have been called to action in an unfolding disaster. As an institution with trained technical staff who are trusted by communities, and with local reach and communication skills, extension has supported efforts and educated communities during crises such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, avian influenza, natural disasters, and pest infestations.

Past experience

The 2014-16 Ebola outbreak in West Africa caused 11,325 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and had widespread economic and social consequences. UNICEF’s communication for development (C4D) work during the Ebola crisis identified working with local journalists and community radio — part of the broader EAS community — as the most effective and flexible way to share information, allowing real-time rapid feedback from communities. In Sierra Leone, extension agents received social communication training to encourage preventive and behavior change messages through community sensitization meetings and radio discussions. Liberia developed stronger health protocols that could now help manage COVID-19.

Lesson: Capacity strengthening and the right tools and channels are necessary to provide tailored EAS messages.

Extension was instrumental in controlling another viral disease that jumped from animals to humans in Asia — avian flu. In Vietnam during the 2005-2007 outbreak, extension officers helped detect positive cases, coordinated the establishment of quarantine zones in collaboration with local authorities, and supervised the culling and destruction of infected flocks and the disinfection of affected farms. They then helped reestablish post-disaster production. Their swift and effective action helped minimize loss of human life in Vietnam caused by the H5N1 virus.

Lesson: EAS must support local producers throughout the process and along all areas of the value chains; this means they need a broad set of capacities.

Present response

In the days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, EAS responded quickly to provide COVID-19 information to rural communities and to adapt their regular outreach to the “new normal” of social distancing and noncontact communication.

In the pre-COVID-19 world, radio was already a trusted source of information for rural residents. Radio reaches over 70 percent of the world’s population and is used by EAS to reach rural people with information and advice. Evidence shows that listening to radio increases knowledge and leads to adoption of new technologies and practices. Research by BBC Media Action showed that radio consistently occupies an important informational and community-building function in disasters. Similarly, a meta-analysis by Hugelius and colleagues showed how humanitarian radio plays a major role in fostering community resilience and recovery.

Now, as many people shelter in their homes and/or try to limit contact with other people, the radio work of journalists and extension agents has become a crucial means of health and safety communication. Farm Radio International is currently working with over 1,000 radio broadcasters in Africa to ensure that myths and misinformation about COVID-19 are challenged over the airwaves, bringing critical information to listeners who may lack other credible sources.

A couple of EAS country responses to the COVID-19 crisis show how extension staff are working to spread information about the virus while continuing to share vital agricultural knowledge.

In China, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) established an EAS big data platform linked to the National Cloud Platform for Grass-Root Agricultural Technology Extension (NAECP) to mitigate the pandemic’s economic impacts, especially during spring planting season, in three ways:

  1. Providing training and technical support for spring ploughing, ensuring that agricultural production is on time. For example, Jiangxi Province utilizes online extension platforms for technical guidance and online expert consultation to help farmers under quarantine. Before February 15, over 2,100 technicians and 100 experts provided online services, answering 27,000 questions.
  1. Promoting delivery of online market information to guide farmers on crop selection to maximize economic benefits. For example, an expert team in Yongqing, Hebei evaluated vegetable growth periods, time to market, and projected supply and demand, identifying lettuce and sprout as priority crops this season.
  1. Contributing to pest monitoring and prevention. Agricultural experts predicted the fall armyworm would cause more severe damage this spring season. The National Agro-Tech Extension and Service Center published timely forecasts and early warning and prevention and control measures.

Extension officers’ smartphones allow ubiquitous connection to the NAECP for knowledge sharing, management, performance appraisal, and data collection. This system requires minimal face-to-face contact between the extension and farmers, a key advantage during the outbreak.

The platform is now targeting farmers, agriculture enterprises, destitute households, and low-income families for further effectiveness during COVID-19. Local platforms such as one in Shanghai has a “fighting COVID-19” module, providing health advice for farmers.

Iran — which has been especially hard-hit in the pandemic — reported the first case of COVID-19 on February 19 and declared an emergency. The Ministry of Health and Medical Education led the outbreak’s control. A public awareness approach — including engaging EAS — through mass and electronic media (radio, TV, social media, text messages) informed the public about the virus and its prevention. The Agricultural Education and Extension Institute at the Agricultural Research, Education and Extension Organization of the Ministry of Agriculture-Jahad established a national working group on March 10 to use EAS to prevent COVID-19 in agricultural, rural, and nomadic communities. They produced materials, apps,  electronic pamphlets, videos, and text messages for training and information on the outbreak.

Initial feedback from local extension staff shows that these communications reached over 7,500 extension agents, local leaders, and community-based organizations. According to Agricultural Extension Administrations, most farmers received information from mass and social media and village posters and public boards. Radio and TV programs are broadcasted several times a week to cover all communities. Extension agents use social distancing measures, postponing regular face-to-face contact, and mass media and electronic devices.

Future lessons

As shown above and elsewhere, quick action from governments coupled with credible, regular information is critical in dealing with emergencies such as COVID-19. As a critical actor in providing such information to rural areas, EAS can do several things globally to help mitigate the economic and health impacts of COVID-19. FAO gives some guidance on this, including raising awareness about COVID-19, advising local producers in dealing with value chain disruptions, and facilitating gender-sensitive social support.

EAS can offer support during uncertainty and sudden changes that come with the pandemic, and strategies to bounce back from shocks and enhance resilience. Some markets, such as fruits or vegetables, may disappear when flights are reduced or food export bans are enacted. Extension agents can help farmers to come up with “Plan B” (or even “C” and “D”)––as was the case in Kenya, where horticulture farmers switched to varieties in demand from local rather than international markets.

What happens after the COVID-19 crisis passes? Given the likelihood of future disease outbreaks, we must build more robust and effective extension programs that continue to function seamlessly in a crisis––helping with disease management efforts while continuing to support agricultural operations and averting food insecurity.

COVID-19 and Agriculture: Resources and Recommendations

Updated 16th June 2020.

Digital Green has been closely following the effects of COVID-19 on farmer livelihoods and resilience, food security, agricultural market systems in order to adapt digital extension approaches to best support beneficiaries under these unprecedented circumstances. While this pandemic presents many challenges, it also creates an opportunity for digital extension to continue to serve farmers and be adapted to support public health responses and new agricultural needs that arise. Digital Green staff have been in close communication with stakeholders on the ground to understand their concerns and adapt digital technologies to their current needs under COVID-19. Furthermore, Digital Green’s Feed the Future Developing Local Extension Capacity (DLEC) project organized a webinar on extension and advisory services’ role in crises and emergencies, including COVID-19. Digital Green blogs are showcasing specific actions that Digital Green has already taken to support beneficiaries during COVID-19.  

Below we have listed a compendium of resources addressing agricultural challenges surging under this pandemic and responses from various actors.

Impact on Food Security

Many of Digital Green’s partners and collaborators are at the forefront of the analysis regarding COVID-19 and its effects on agriculture and food security.  The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has been curating resources covering COVID-19. IFPRI suggests that the impact of COVID-19 in the agriculture sector will be felt unevenly; farm operations may be spared the worst, but small and medium-sized enterprises in urban areas will likely face considerable problems. They recommend addressing food security impacts stemming from reduced incomes or unemployment.

In India, the food-based safety net is providing rice or wheat and pulses to families, which helps families meet their cereal requirements, but there are concerns over exclusion of the urban poor, maintaining food quality, and the long-term effect of relief that may depress prices and affect farmers’ incomes in the long run. IWWAGE put together a study with qualitative evidence from 1331 mandis to show that by comparison to last year, only 6 per cent of wheat sold during the first three weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown. Economic & Political Weekly, a peer-reviewed policy journal,  published an article that highlighted COVID-19’s high transaction costs and uncertainty in India’s transformed food supply chains: food security is at risk as 92% of food consumption in India is purchased; 80% of food consumption by value is non-grain, which means a shorter shelf life and a need for a continuous supply; and more than 60% of Indian rural incomes are linked to the post-farmgate food supply.

In Africa, COVID-19 related lockdowns are affecting informal urban food trade. Better communication between political leaders and market leaders, as well as ensuring that safety nets reach these market actors, can help mitigate effects on informal traders and markets.

The United Nations (UN) University released estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on global poverty, showing that COVID-19 poses a challenge to the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty by 2030; global poverty could increase for the first time since 1990.  Furthermore, non-monetary indicators such as undernutrition and malnourishment, could also be seriously hit. 

In a blog, the World Bank recognizes that it is imperative to keep food moving during these times of pandemic. They recommend addressing the domestic issues that affect food supply in stores. Secondly, countries should not issue export bans, as these would only exacerbate economic losses. This is of particular importance, as some countries are starting to place export restrictions already. Lastly, safe and affordable methods to get food from field to table need to be implemented, including cash transfers for farmers, ensuring the availability of key agricultural inputs, and developing health screening protocols.  Furthermore, the World Bank is emphasizing modernizing government-to-people payments as a social mechanism to deal with COVID-19’s effects.

The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition reports the effects of COVID-19 on food systems on low- and high-income populations, along with mitigation and adaptation systems. Main concerns include food prices and shocks to the most vulnerable. But they offer hope: this is an opportunity to focus on and prioritize food safety issues.

Digital Green’s collaborators are sharing their concerns stemming from this pandemic. For example, the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) published recommendations for addressing COVID-19’s effect on Indian agriculture. In India specifically, the agricultural cycle dictates when farmers make most of their income; therefore, ensuring proper storage, access to seeds and inputs, and allowing for intra and inter-state movement would allow farmers to sell their products or store them appropriately in order to prevent income losses.

Role of Digital Extension

Organizations in the digital space are rethinking how to adapt their work and approaches in light of COVID-19. ICT Works, a community for international development professionals committed to utilizing new and emerging technologies, is providing resources specific to digital responses to address COVID-19. The Skoll Foundation, which focuses on social entrepreneurship, adapted its annual Skoll World Forum into a virtual forum. A session on climate-smart agriculture digital tools addressed concerns with locusts and COVID-19 in East Africa, leveraging WhatsApp and machine learning on food security and locust interventions, as well as insurance, cash transfers and market support.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) and other stakeholders organized a virtual Global Digital Development Forum  to mobilize COVID-19 digital responses and address long-term challenges to build an open, inclusive, and secure digital ecosystem. Digital Green presented on learnings from digital agricultural extension from the DLEC project and applicability to COVID-19. USAID has also issued guidance on COVID-19 preparedness and response digital technologies and data systems.

Arghyam, a foundation focusing on sustainable water solutions in India, recently released a “content store” with information from partners and government agencies on handwashing, social etiquette, and government relief schemes in the form of videos, posters, and audio.

Donor Responses

Many donors in the agriculture and nutrition sector are taking active steps to overcome COVID-19 challenges. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced funding to develop vaccines and treatments of COVID-19, which will be critical for saving lives. The World Bank has launched a $160 billion USD COVID-19 emergency response to protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery.

The World Bank has organized an agribusiness management and resilience task force in Uttar Pradesh, India, with the purpose to help farmer producer organizations address the challenges related to pre- and post-production operations stemming from COVID-19. This multi-stakeholder initiative includes the participation of the Government of Uttar Pradesh, the Water Resources Group 2030, the BioEnergy Board, civil society organizations, microfinance institutions, private sector logistics and agri-business solution providers, ICT companies, amongst other key stakeholders.

USAID has pledged $274 million USD in health and humanitarian assistance to help countries respond to COVID-19. The agency has released guidance to implementing partners on how to deal with implementation disruptions resulting from COVID-19.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has policy tools to help decision-makers, including a food and agriculture policy decision analysis and food price monitoring analysis. The FAO recognizes its role in supporting the emerging needs stemming from COVID-19, and plans to ramp up field implementation to support access to agricultural inputs for farmers and herders; distribute kits, seeds, and/or small stock in communities with higher prevalence of undernutrition; and stabilize access to food by supporting purchasing power through cash distribution. In a paper focusing on the role of extension and advisory services at the frontline of the response to COVID-19 to ensure food security,  FAO indicates that extension and advisory services plan an indispensable role in minimizing the impact of COVID-19 in rural areas. They recommend adapting the delivery mechanisms of extension and advisory services, including going digital and joining forces with emergency response actors.  

How are you and your organization adapting your approaches and the way you support beneficiaries during this pandemic? If you see opportunities to collaborate with Digital Green, please reach out to us too! Share your ideas and feedback at