At the start of the lockdown in Illinois, I went to the grocery store. For the first time, I found myself anxious about food supply for my household and thinking through the ramifications of a crisis. For the first time, while walking through the aisles, I realized my fleeting feelings were just a fragment of the vulnerability and uncertainty that so many families around the world endure every day of their lives.
Unlike so many of the hungriest families in the world, I have access to a big grocery store. I benefit greatly from all the food businesses and truck drivers and manufacturers and quality control regulators that ensure all the products from farms can make it to my grocery store shelves safely—and at a reasonable price. Even in an unprecedented global crisis, these connections are still working, and still filling grocery store shelves. I continue to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs and meat, canned and frozen goods, even my favorite white cheddar popcorn.
For the hungriest families in the world—primarily, families living in extreme poverty—the ramifications of the global pandemic extend far beyond contracting the virus. In fact, many African leaders fear that casualties related to government shutdowns may exceed those from the virus itself. Opportunity’s Regional Director of Africa said it best: “Hunger is a bigger enemy to us than COVID-19.”
The hungriest families are most often small farmers themselves, who rely on their farms to grow food for themselves and to earn a small income by selling a portion of their crops to local traders. Small famers like Florence in Mchinji, Malawi, have limited knowledge of farming best practices, and limited earnings to invest in seed and fertilizer each season, which results in cycles of poor yields and poor earnings. In turn, local food supplies are continuously unpredictable and prices uncertain, causing constant food insecurity for families in less developed regions of the world.
The Lifeline of Africa
Several years ago, I traveled to Malawi to meet some of the people who make up Africa’s largest economic engine: smallholder farmers. At the time, Florence was on her second loan cycle with Opportunity. Over the 18 months or so she had been working with Opportunity—she participated in trainings on good farming practices and financial literacy and had opened her first bank account—she experienced unprecedented yields. She had learned to diversify her farm, so she was growing groundnuts and soybeans in addition to maize. She had learned about budgeting and saving and had begun making investments to improve her home. Her savings account, she said, was so important to her as a woman without a husband—because her home did not have a door, let alone one that locked, she had always feared any savings she accumulated would be stolen while she worked her fields.
Florence lives on a small plot of land with two other women, each of whom had built small mud structures for themselves and their children. When I visited, each of the women proudly showed me how they had updated their homes, fortifying them with brick, over the past year. Florence and her neighbor Bernadette excitedly posed next to large metal sheets, which they explained were for replacing their current straw-thatched roofs. One more season’s harvest, they said, and they should have enough cash to purchase the rest of the sheet metal they needed. Their pride was infectious, especially as they spoke about feeling empowered for the first time in their lives, and how they’ve been able to provide for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren.
Of course, I couldn’t help but notice a large silo of dried maize right outside of Florence’s door. After months of hard work, she was just about ready to start selling her maize harvest. It would be the bulk of her earnings for the year and would allow her to repay the remainder of her small loan in addition to providing for the rest of her household needs for the next several months.
What They Face
As the pandemic has spread around the world, shuttering U.S. businesses over the last few weeks, it is now just reaching Malawi. The government announced its first death there from COVID-19 on April 7 and confirmed cases have continued to grow over the last few weeks.
Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, in response to the pandemic, transportation has been broadly and significantly restricted, with few motorized vehicles allowed on roads. Group gatherings have been restricted as well, and though banks are considered essential businesses, many have ceased issuing new loans in the short-term.
As the ramifications have become clearer, I’ve been thinking of that silo of maize. It was in June that I took these photos of Florence and Bernadette.
For Florence, the pandemic may decimate months of work. Travel restrictions mean her entire silo of sellable maize could spoil before traders are able to travel to her community to purchase it. It also means the food will not make it to local markets, leaving small convenience stories poorly stocked as families face even more severe food shortages in their communities. It is a vicious, lose-lose situation: good food ready to sell and eat, with no way to sell it.
Without income from her harvest, Florence and her family will have only her small savings, about $40, to rely on for the next several months—certainly not enough for food for her family, let alone for purchasing seed for next season.
Meeting the challenges of this extraordinary crisis will undoubtedly require an extraordinary response. Florence is one of about 40,000 farmers served by Opportunity International and its partners, all of whom are facing unprecedented circumstances threatening the livelihoods they’ve worked so hard to build. Currently, Opportunity’s response is focused on three important goals:
1. Client Support
Reducing Food Insecurity and Protecting Livelihoods
This most urgent initiative includes:
- Providing cash grants, food, and other essentials for the most vulnerable
- Providing soap, handwashing stations, and personal protective equipment where possible
- Collaborating with local financial institutions to provide loan extensions for at-risk clients, so they can keep more cash in-hand for necessities now
- Sharing information from health ministries on preventative measures and best practices via WhatsApp and SMS messages
- Using technology to support clients remotely and continue offering training tools; where possible, continuing individual trainings or small-group trainings while practicing safe social distancing
- Investigating solutions to rapidly intervene in disrupted supply chains, transportation, and local market activity
2. Financial Institution Protection and Support
Ensuring Operations Can Outlast the Crisis
Opportunity is working quickly to support partners by:
- Advising on how to maintain effective operations through the crisis, including the development of business continuity and staff retention plans
- Supporting financial institutions in their communications with clients
- Launching and expanding agricultural loan guarantees to re-initiate lending when possible
3. Staff and Farmer Support
Ensuring the Safety and Well-Being of our Teams
- Significant reduction in staff travel where possible
- Provided field staff with personal protective equipment
- Purchasing technology to facilitate remote work, as well as increases in data and airtime allocations to ensure field staff can keep in close contact with clients to monitor their needs
- Continuously delivering up-to-date health information to field staff via digital platforms
- Allocating funds to use personal vehicles or taxis in lieu of public transportation
Food insecurity and hunger, everywhere, is an injustice, and solutions start with farmers like Florence—protecting her livelihood and her farming business helps supply the entire value chain with agricultural goods, which ensure stores can fill their empty shelves, and families can stay fed.
For clients like Florence, these measures can mean the difference between hunger and health, between financial security and impoverishment, and in some cases, between life and death. Facing these circumstances, her best safety net is responders like us—responders who know that the greatest victims of global crises are the most vulnerable; those who were already building livelihoods in the face of precarious circumstances and have the longest road to recovery in the aftermath.