Gender dynamics, seed systems and COVID-19: there is a grace period, or is there?

A few of us as gender scientists working in the CGIAR and with National Partners have become the ‘gender dynamics in seed systems’ enthusiasts.  We love the topic, we feel seeds and the dynamics around access, choice, use is the language that connects us with the plant breeders on one hand and the small/medium scale farmers on the other hand.  What farmers  want in a seed is what we endeavor to offer and the challenges that they face in their production environments are the problems we contribute in getting solutions to.  We are in the drylands of Sub Saharan Africa, where rainfall amounts and distribution challenges dictate a lot of what we are able to do.  When rains are not enough, our breeders develop varieties that can give a reasonable yield with little rain (drought tolerant varieties) when the rains are too short, they breed varieties that can give a yield in fewer days (early maturing varieties).  Selected farmers participate in participatory varietal selection (PVS), a highly interactive process, so their opinions and preferences are voiced and integrated in the breeding process.   An important step is the delivery of these varieties from the ‘laboratory-like -farms’ in research centres to farmers in  rural areas through formal or informal seed value chains.  If farmers don’t know, can’t access and can’t use improved varieties, then the hoped for improved nutrition,  incomes and  environments can’t be realized.  One of the most important ways of ‘knowing’ about new types of seed and getting  seeds is through social networks – trusted social and cultural relations in the rural areas – especially for the women.  Close relations that lead to these social networks involve person to person interactions – meetings with women or mixed farmer groups, going to the trading centres in open air markets, funeral gatherings, weddings, church meetings among others.

Sneaky COVID-19 vis-à-vis social distancing.

We are in unprecedented times, since December 2019.  We are facing a global pandemic, COVID-19, that has challenged the norms of social interaction.  Among the recommendations given by health specialists on how to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection include thorough washing of hands, wearing masks and maintaining social distance.  Countries have responded with different graduated measures of effecting social distancing among members of the population – closing of dense population institutions (churches, schools, colleges and universities), imposing curfew hours of when the public can move out of home or not (like in Kenya), restricted movement from regions identified as hotspots to other regions; total lockdowns (like in Uganda, India).  The social distancing recommendation is sure to impact seed sourcing, access and use of high quality seeds in the short and medium term.  But how are farmers responding or working around this?

Since I am working from home in Nairobi in order to effect the social distancing requirement in my country, to answer this question, I made phone calls to a few farmers I know in Kenya, some in the peri-urban areas and some in the rural areas.  I wanted to know how they are adjusting to the social distancing as far as seed access and use is concerned.  I also sent an email request to seed systems specialists and collaborators in Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia to share insights from their own experiences.  I was hopeful that this approach would get me reliable insights about what people are experiencing.  Of course, they are not random samples or representative of all populations.

Social distancing in the rural and urban areas is different.

Social distancing in the urban areas means staying in one’s flat, on one’s compound, or in one’s room depending on their circumstances.  This results in reduced interactions with neighbours, friends and colleagues.  It means working from home and depending very much on the internet enabled process of interaction for social and official meetings.  From the phone calls I made though, social distancing in the rural areas means doing the things you do normally – planting, weeding, grazing your cows, taking care of your sheep – and not moving to the neighbours home or to the trading centres.  It also means one can’t attend mass ceremonies like weddings, funerals, church services.  For a while, COVID19 challenge was assumed to be an urban problem.

A colleague from Tanzania documented that:  “In rural areas farmers were proceeding with harvesting their groundnut ….Moreover, in villages of Sikonge District each of the household homes were ordered to have a bucket of water with a sanitizer or any liquid soap to minimize or avoid spread of the disease.”

Depending on context specific scenarios, if the crop were planted by the time the social distancing was declared, there will be no effect on the seed types/seed quality of the crop that is already in the field.  In the short term, there is some grace period in which the status of the seed access/seed quality would be as good as it would be without the effects of COVID-19.  What is affected mostly though, is the availability of farm labour – shared community labour events are not practical anymore- while these are especially important for women group members.  Hired daily waged casual laborers are not engaged as much as before – either they are not available or the hiring farmers are cautious not to risk exposing their families to infection.  The production realized by the already planted farmers may-be compromised by the margins that are attributable to overgrown weeds and effects of late weeding.  The losses may be very high.  There is a potential of post-harvest losses where family labour may not be enough for harvesting all that was planted before the start of the next rains.  Would this be an opportunity for small-scale threshers – if the owners can minimize infection?  Where urban members of the household have migrated to the rural areas and are available to contribute to farm labour, these challenges maybe mitigated and the effect minimized.

A young lady demonstrates how they access the inside of a granary

For rural areas where the rains started as the social distancing instructions were rolled out, and the farmers were just starting to plant, they are most likely depending on ‘home saved seeds’ and reducing the amount of land that is planted to certain crops.  In Uganda, given the role women play in ensuring food security in their households, proceeds from trading in grain is often used to facilitate farming activities (purchase seed, hire labour) to produce food crops as the men tend to produce cash crops.  The COVID-19 lockdown has occurred at the beginning of the rainy season when farmers should plan, prepare fields and plant. The women whose livelihoods were affected are having challenges in accessing and purchasing seed from recommended sources and are resorting to home saved seeds or borrowing from relatives, friends and neighbours.  Apart from the quality issues with such seed, one may not be able to borrow enough seed for the desired size of plots, as each farmer now wants to save what they have, they can’t share large quantities.  The consequence is reduced plot sizes of crops grown.  Moreover the uncertainty created by lack of finances also causes these women to reduce plots to manageable sizes which may not be enough to produce sufficient food for the household, thereby increasing the likelihood of food insecurity for such households.

Getting seed merchandise to farmers in this season is challenging for businesses (especially in the drylands where the sales are usually low).  In Kenya for example, when the curfews were declared and the movement of the population restricted for some counties, the government indicated that ‘anyone transporting food, with a special permit would be exempted’.  However, it was not indicated that ‘seed’ , as an essential precursor of the food production chain, would be considered an essential commodity that gets exemptions for transportation to the far flung areas/hotspot areas that are in lockdown.  There are therefore possibilities of dips in operations of seed companies, who ensuring ‘social distancing’ for their own staff, have minimized distribution of improved seeds

Migration from the urban areas to the rural, closing of schools/colleges: implications for household resource use, access, and control

When parents (in the rural areas, they are the farmers too) paid their first term school fees to schools and colleges, a significant portion of the schools fees would take care of the food needs for their children for a while (especially for the those attending boarding school).  For those attending day schools, parents knew that at least lunch would be taken care of, through a school feeding program, funded in one way or the other.  When a family member also worked in the cities, households did have an alternative source of income (remittance) and access to seed shops in the bigger cities.  When social distancing was declared, the children came home (without fees refunds) and the working relatives lost their wage earning opportunities in the cities and trooped back home – often without any compensatory funds/salaries.  Three things have happened: women’s time is now stretched.  They have to cook for more members of the household and they have to cook more meals per day (breakfast, lunch and supper).  Parents are converted to teachers as they attempt to support their children to keep up with school work and women are putting in a lot more time here.  For those that can access a radio or a TV, there are digital educational programs available to support them.  A lot of digital resources are through radio and TV, assets that are not usually available in women headed households in rural areas, which further stretches the gender-gaps witnessed in the rural areas.

Men and women in North and Eastern Uganda are traders of grains of legumes and cereals. Specifically, women are mostly involved in rural weekly markets where they purchase these grains and supply grain livestock farmers in urban centers who are mostly men.  To control and manage spread of COVID-19 in the country, most trading centres were temporarily closed down affecting especially women whose major source of income was trading in legumes and cereals grains at the rural weekly markets.  The implication is a loss of livelihood that is worsened by the fact that most of these women operated on small business loans.  On the other hand, the livestock farmers who are mostly men are not so hard hit at the initial stages of the lock down as they have some stock that they sell to urban buyers or traders who in response to the scarcity created by the closed supply end hiked prices to increase their gains.

The food reserves needed for sustaining families are much higher than families planned for and the options of raising money are shrunk.  What this means is that home saved seed reserves may actually be converted to immediate food needs, as families struggle to deal with basic essentials.  Dietary diversity may fall for households while the food portions may shrink.  The first persons to sacrifice a percentage of their portions would be the women as they serve the households.  As household resources shrink, and the daily needs of the household increase, tensions are heightened in negotiating for resources; cases of domestic violence and abuse start to emerge.  Husbands are back home, assuming some roles and taking charge, where women were in charge.  While income in women’s hands has a higher probability of being utilized in the family, in the men’s hands that probability shrinks to less than half sometimes.  Its documented that there is increased crime reported in Nigeria mainly perpetrated by young men due to increasing lack of jobs during the COVID 19 period.  There is a spike on mental health tensions (not seen a study disaggregating by gender) as rural communities deal with stresses from all fronts.  The demand for contraception has gone up by 122% in Kenya and there is a chance we may see baby booms by the end of the year 2020 beginning of 2021 which may stretch household resources more.

Is there hope?

Yes! Agricultural communities are resilient.  Health scientists are working hard to ensure a vaccine is found for COVID-19 and humanity can get to a level of control.  Hospital staff are working hard to ensure the sick are taken care of.  We celebrate them in a big way.  In the agricultural sector, we also celebrate those in the frontline that can’t work from home, despite the social distancing recommendations but go out as technicians, as breeders, as seed traders, as farmers and stand in the gap to ensure that when things get close to a new normal, we still have high quality seeds and farms planted that will help us bounce food provision upwards.

Photo credits: Ruth W.Njuguna, CBCC, Kenya and Feysal Anthony Nair, CBCC, Kenya

Special thanks for contributions from gender and seed systems partners in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia including Dr Emmanuel Monyo, Mr Romanus Mwakimata, Ms Hellen Opie, Dr Brenda Boonabaana, Ms Katindi Sivi-Njonjo, Dr Shambel Getachew, Ms Rachel Gitundu, Dr Essegbemon Akpo and Dr Chris Ojiewo and selected farmers in peri urban and rural Kenya.

Esther Njuguna-Mungai is a social scientist, currently working as the Gender Specialist in the CGIAR Research Program on Grain Legumes and Dryland Cereals that is led by the International Centre for Research in Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).  She is coordinating a portfolio of research that seeks to understand Gender dynamics in Seed systems, Gender Yield Gap in legume production, Women participation in agricultural capacity building; interface between gender research, women and crop breeding processes and capacity enhancement for gender research implementation in Sub Saharan Africa and South Asia. She has been working with male and female smallholder farmers since 1996.  She is a graduate of Wageningen University and Research Centre (Agricultural Development – Msc) and University of Nairobi-(Agricultural Development and Economics) – PhD.

Read the original version of that article here.


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