The Coronavirus outbreak in Liberia has just not unveiled the woes within country’s health sector but it has also unraveled the vulnerability of the country’s food producers who are mostly smallholder farmers producing food in the absence of timely extension services, delivery of agro-inputs, cash and machines.
Staying in business has become crucial for food producers despite following all safety rules from health authorities during the crisis.
COVID-19 impact on agriculture workforce
For the Liberia Farmers Development Corporation (LIFADCO) in Nimba County (one of the three highest food-producing counties), farming has always been about collective efforts.
Prior to the virus outbreak, administrators of the corporation would mobilize members into a large group in the name of “kuu” for several farming operations.
“We formed [kuu] for many operational purposes including bush clearing, soil plowing, sowing of seeds, weeding, harvesting and transporting our produce to market,” explained Bories B. Barlea, Chairman of the Board of Directors of LIFADCO.
But the recommended safety measures from health authorities have changed the work pattern of the corporation.
“We are not gathering in large numbers like before because we all understand how serious the situation is. What this has done to us is that it has affected the availability of manpower and our production size. The planting season has just begun but we cannot plant our rice now because we can no longer meet as a group,” said Barlea.
On the “Kuu”, where farmers gather together, they come in close contact as they collectively work to open large farms for one another. But with the health restriction, it is difficult for them to work and make large farms as before. This means that the sizes of farms will now be reduced since the number of kuu members will be reduced as a result of the health restriction.
It can be recalled that on March 22, the Government of Liberia through the Health Ministry declared with immediate effect a national health emergency with several safety measures including “social distancing” put into place as an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus to other regions.
The pronouncement came after health authorities registered the country’s third case, though authorities have yet to say how the third case got infected.
The Government also banned gatherings of more than 10 people and has instructed people to stay “six feet” apart from each other. Moreover, non-essential businesses, schools, and all religious centers have been ordered closed in Montserrado and Margibi counties, the two designated infected zones so far.
COVID-19 impact on vegetable production
Besides the disruption of the sector’s workforce, staying in business has become fight for life for family-farmers with special niches.
In lower Margibi County, several groups of family farmers birthed from the former USAID-FED’s Farmer Empowerment Program are at the brink of closure.
According to one of the groups’ heads, Otis Mulbah, the departure of expatriate clientele has disrupted sales for them.
“We sell our vegetables directly to expats and they are all gone,” said Mulbah. “Imagine what it is like for us at the moment when we have just harvested our vegetables.”
Hard times ahead for vegetable sellers due to closure of neighboring borders.
The President of Liberia Vegetable Seller Association (LVSA), Sumo Mulbah, foresees cloudy days ahead for vegetable sellers in major cities.
He said: “With borders all closed and we have limited vegetable stock. I think we will experience a shortage of vegetables, especially the exotic ones in the coming months if this virus persists.”
Mulbah added that the shortage of vegetables could also impact the survivability of vegetable sellers’ families.
“Lack of goods could affect the livelihood of hundreds of vegetable sellers in major cities. I am worried because I do not know how long this thing [virus] will go for. But we continue to abide by the safety rules,” He said.
Closed borders impact on the poultry sector
Fatu Kiazulu, President of the Liberia Poultry Farmers Union has termed the Coronavirus pandemic a disaster for the poultry sector which she said relies on the importation of feed from neighboring Guinea and Ivory Coast.
Kiazulu said that the struggling sector could experience more birds’ mortality due to the absence of birds’ feed and other medication services during the crisis.
“Feed has been a major challenge for us before this pandemic. Imagine going through this crisis with no feed for our birds because borders are closed. So what becomes of our birds? Most of them will die.”
“This is a world crisis and we are constantly reminding our farmers to abide by the health rules, but what becomes of us during this time?” Kiazulu pondered.
Surviving amidst the Coronavirus pandemic crisis
The challenges faced by local food producers and the closure of borders despite encouragement from health authorities to stay safe have impacted the availability and equal distribution of food among Liberians.
Prices for major commodities have all skyrocketed since the emergence of the novel Coronavirus in Liberia.
Agricultural expert, Henry Tamba Nyuma, believes that the way forward is to ensure food security at the household level.
He said there must exist a food-emergency plan to complement the national health emergency plan.
“A national health state of emergency is timely but what emergency plans do we have [at hand] for food distribution just in case things get worse? Is there going to be a distribution of food to communities that are considered locked down or are they going to be left vulnerable?” Nyuma pondered over the situation.
Nyuma has urged both health and agriculture authorities to find out ways to prevent families from going out to fetch food, something he said could undermine the efforts of the Government in curbing the spread of the virus.
He said that ignoring the access to and affordability of food amid measures to cut down the spread of novel Coronavirus could be a difficult task, as a hungry nation will not be effective in overcoming the disease in a timely manner.
“If the lockdown is to be effective, MOH, MOA and relevant institutions need to start thinking about something to avoid people going into mass groupings in the name of fending for their families because the impact of COVID-19 goes far beyond the health sector. If you tell the cat not to eat the fish, you ought to tell the fish not to smell,” said Nyumba.