It should be a million-dollar question: how much COVID-19 has affected the smallholder farmers who contribute 14.7 percent to Bangladesh's GDP. The sector employs nearly 41 percent people of the country's total workforce. Practical Action in Bangladesh, a UK-based charity, has recently conducted a study to find out the answer and to expose insightful statistics that can help policymakers generate strategies to sail through the situation.
Back in March 2020, like the rest of the world, Bangladesh imposed a nationwide lockdown which uninterruptedly continued for 66 days, resulting in an unprecedented disruption in the supply chain, transportation system and labour mobility. Some people, in general, also quarantined themselves from regular activities to be safe, some became sick with COVID-19 symptoms and some got panicked. What is more, since the government lifted the lockdown, life has not been still normal; the entire world is speaking about the second wave now! Overall, the agriculture sector faced more or fewer difficulties over the whole period in almost all stages from production to sale, reshaping the farmers' social and occupational life backwards.
To assess the impact of the pandemic, The study reached out to 150 smallholder farmers living in five districts (30 in each district), namely Rangpur, Lalmonirhat, Barguna, Gaibandha and Cox's Bazar based on a survey from late September 2020 to early October 2020. The study selected those farmers who were particularly from the crop (60), poultry (25), livestock (35) and fisheries (30) to dig out the situation since those are the main sectors of agriculture in Bangladesh.
Before exploring the impact on the crop, poultry, livestock and fisheries separately, let's have an overall look.
Farmers did not cautiously take the COVID-19 situation as much as it was supposed to although the vast majority claimed they used masks and half of them stated they maintained social distancing. The study found overall 82 percent of farmers experienced COVID-19 symptoms and most of them were suggested to take the COVID-19 test; however, out of every 10 individuals, nine did not go for the test for several reasons. As much as 33.3 percent did not think that taking the test was important and 55.6 percent stated they felt well, despite having the symptoms. Another additional fact might have contributed to low test rate: 84 percent farmers claimed they did not have healthcare facilities at the local level, particularly for COVID-19. Thus, instead of hospitals, local pharmacies treated 58.7 percent of the farmers.
During the COVID-19 spell, farmers experienced multiple financial difficulties, leaving them to rethink how to make ends meet. Everyone experienced lower income in the COVID-19 period, except for only 4.7 perent who said their income remained unchanged. This survey found the average monthly household income dropped by 45.5 percent. Also, 13 percent of individuals contributing to the household income prior to COVID-19 failed to add a single penny during the pandemic; in a sense, they became unemployed. At the same time, higher expenditure made their life much harder. They had to pay more for products or services with highest percentage of participants found when it comes to getting food (66.7 percent) and health service (52 percent). As a consequence of low income and higher expenditure, farmers suffered from food insecurity: 1.3 percent used to have meal only once a day and the number of those not having sufficient food thrice a day increased from 19.3 percent to 42.7 percent. In response to these difficulties, 14.6 percent of respondents made alternative plans to generate income within the agriculture sector; some farmers (10.7 percent) adopted plans to entirely shift their occupation from agriculture to the non-agriculture sector.
Now, let's explore the four sectors.
Cropping is the predominant sector in agriculture, making a significant contribution to the national economy. COVID-19 affected this sector in a way that the farmers faced multiple constraints from land preparation to selling products in markets.
Around 75 percent of the respondents faced travel restriction while about 20 percent experienced closed market. And labour shortage was reported by almost all respondents in several stages of cultivation (land preparation, sowing, fertilisation, irrigation, weeding, harvesting and processing). Farmers overall were unable to start agricultural activities at the proper time. Even though the family members gave their hand in cultivation mentioned by 25 percent of the farmers, they delayed in preparing land (about 25 percent), seedling (nearly 23 percent), harvesting (around 28 percent) along with plantation and purchasing inputs. Besides them, 15.55 percent of participants faced barriers when doing environment-friendly vermicomposting. As a consequence, 10 percent crop farmers reported less production, and 11.67 percent participants reported they had their crops damaged. What is more, nearly 78 percent of them faced constraints in selling the products in the market because of a shortage of customers, closed markets, and changed the time-table of markets.
In order to cope with the COVID-19 situation, a few farmers, mostly from Cox's Bazar and Barguna, changed their cropping pattern in terms of soil and water management.
As a part of the COVID-19 response, 47.7 percent of farmers got advisory support while only 8.3 percent of them received the information on a regular basis. They mostly got information from government extension agents (about 20 percent), followed by neighbours (around 17 pecrent). They also received support including cash (6.7 percent), input (6.6 percent), equipment (8.4 percent) and training (26.7 percent).
Farmers taking part in the study mostly reared chicken (76 percent) and duck (28 percent). As much as 60 percent of the participants reared poultry in farms with the help of their family members. The study revealed multiple adverse impacts on the poultry sector.
During the pandemic, the average number of poultry products decreased to a large extent, going down by 52.84 percent and all the farmers suffered. Among the five surveyed districts, participants living in Lalmonirhat had around eight times less number of poultry on average, compared to the pre-pandemic level. Farmers could have saved poultry from death by taking them to livestock hospitals if they had not faced movement restrictions. As much as 40 percent of the respondents complained about such problems. The same reason resulted in difficulties in getting inputs, reported by 28 percent of the farmers. Actually, getting input was hard because 52 percent of participants found the market or shop closed. Finally, sales and prices dropped, reported by 92 percent and 88 percennt farmers respectively. What is more shocking that as a result of the effects mentioned above, 79.6 percent of the farmers decided to stop poultry farming.
To deal with the situation, not enough initiatives were taken by the government and non-government organisations. The majority of farmers (92 percent) denied having advisory support from government extension workers. Only a few were able to collect information from extension workers and NGOs at 13 percent and 8.7 percent respectively. With regards to getting regular vaccination and deworming service from the livestock department, 36 percent stated they got the service.
Therefore, the farmers felt the need for several kinds of supports: mostly capital (88 percent), input (48 percent), veterinary-related support (32 percent) and training (32 percent).
Like poultry, livestock farmers experienced a drop in production, according to 57 percent of the participants; however, the rest of them defined their production rate as the same as earlier. The average number of livestock fell from 10.5 to 7 in number. Farmers mentioned multiple difficulties in gaining input, including high price (51.4 percent), lack of money (31.4 percent), and travel bans (28.6 percent). Labour shortage acted as another constraint, reported by 82.9 percent of the respondents. Moreover, sales and prices dropped, said 48.6 percent and 62.9 percent farmers, respectively. People pointed out two main reasons causing low sales and prices: panic among people (48.6 percent) and restrictions related to COVID-19 (40 percent).
Limited Livestock farmers got assistance from the government (11.4 percent), private organisations (2.9 percent) and community leaders (5.7 percent) and they mostly expected supports like capital (65.7 percent), input (34.3 percent), training (31.4 percent), and veterinary-related support (28.6 percent).
The majority of the farmers felt threatened because they went through several crucial problems in fishing, including getting fish feed (60.7 percent), attaining fish fingerlings (50 percent), collecting chemical or medicine (32.1 percent), and having fertiliser (25 percent). In addition, labour shortage problem resulted in a delay in all steps, from pond preparation to fingerling or fish marketing. Thus, the farmers saw an average 31.9 percent fall in sales and a 31.4 percent decrease in price. As a result, the overall income, compared with the last year, dropped by 34.6 percent. However, Cox's Bazar district experienced the opposite trend, increasing average income by 109.5 percent. When it comes to solely fish farming, framers from all districts, including Cox's Bazar, had a loss of an average of 34.2 percent.
Fortunately, the majority of the farmers (66.7 percent) more or less frequently received technological and marketing-related advice from government extension workers.
Engagement of women
This study also aimed to uncover insights about female engagement in agricultural activities in Bangladesh during the pandemic situation. The average mean of female participation in the agriculture sector was remained unchanged at 0.2, while for male, the mean dropped from 1.4 to 1.3.
As much as 19.3 percent of farmers admitted that women are more dedicated to work, compared to men; the most mentioned from the crop sector at 23.3 percent. In addition, 36 percent of the respondents stated women play an important role in improving agro-business.
To summarise, COVID-19 posed low income and worsening economic conditions to the smallholder farmers due to a number of reasons, leaving them relatively more close to the poverty circle. What is more important, the farmers already had experiences of difficulties triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Md Rajwanul Haque, a development practitioner, is currently managing MEL and Research Unit at Practical Action in Bangladesh. He has 18 years of professional experience in MEL and research and worked for 6 international NGOs after achieving PhD and MPhil from the University of Rajshahi.
Md Ahsan Habib, a development professional, is currently working for Practical Action in Bangladesh as MEL Officer. He has more than five years of working experience with a special focus on humanitarian areas. Currently, he is doing MSc in Disaster Management at the University of Dhaka.