What is the impact of Covid-19 on smallholder farmers in Bangladesh as the sector alone contributes to GDP at 14.7 percent and employs nearly 41.0 percent people of the total workforce? Practical Action in Bangladesh, a UK based charity, recently conducted a study to find out the answer and to generate insightful statistics that might be helpful for policymakers to generate coping strategies.
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 from late September 2020 to early October 2020. The study selected farmers involved in crop cultivation (60), poultry (25), livestock (35) and fisheries (30) as these are the main sectors of agriculture in Bangladesh.
During the Covid-19 spell, farmers experienced multiple financial difficulties, leaving them to worry about how to make ends meet. Everyone experienced lower income in the Covid-19 period, except for only 4.7 percent who said their income remained the same as earlier. 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. The highest percentage of participants found that when it comes to getting food (66.7 percent) and health service (52.0 percent), they had to pay more than usual. 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 in Covid-19 period and those not having meal sufficiently thrice a day before the Covid-19 period increased from 19.3 percent to 42.7 percent during the Covid-19. 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, it is time to explore the sector-specific impact.
Cropping is the predominant sector in agriculture, making a significant contribution to the national economy. Covid-19 affected this sector in a way that farmers faced multiple constraints from land preparation to selling products in markets.
Due to travel restriction faced by around 75 percent of respondents, closed market experienced by about 20 percent, and labour shortage in several stages of cultivation (land preparation, sowing, fertiliser application, irrigation, weeding, harvesting and processing) reported by almost all respondents, farmers generally disabled to start agricultural activities at the proper time. Even though the family members gave their hand in cultivation mentioned by 25 percent of farmers, they delayed in preparing land (about 25 percent), seedling (nearly 23 percent), harvesting (around 28 percent) along with plantation and purchasing inputs. Besides, 15.55 percent of participants faced barriers when doing environment-friendly vermicomposting.
As a consequence, crop farmers got less production, as claimed by 10 percent, and 11.67 percent of participants reported they had damaged crops as well. Also, nearly 78 percent of them faced constraints in selling the products in the market because of unavailable buyers, closed markets, and changed 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 percent). 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). 60 percent of the participants reared poultry in firms 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 decreased to a large extent, going down by 52.84 percent and all farmers turned into a victim. Among the five survey district, participants living at Lalmonirhat had around eight times less number of poultry on average, compared to before the Covid-19 spell.
Farmers could have saved poultry from dying by taking them to animal hospitals if they did not face movement restriction, mentioned by 40 percent of respondents. The same reason resulted in difficulties in getting inputs, reported by 28 percent of farmers. Actually, getting input was hard because 52 percent of participants found the market/shop closed.
Finally, selling quantity and selling price dropped, reported by 92 percent and 88 percent farmers respectively. What is more shocking is that as a result of the effects mentioned above, 79.6 percent of farmers decided to close poultry farming.
To deal with the situation, not enough initiatives were taken by the government and non-government organisations, revealed the study. The majority of farmers (92 percent) said they did not receive advisory support from government extension workers. Only a few were able to collect information from extension workers and NGOs at 13.0 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, farmers expected to get several kinds of support: mostly as capital (88.0 percent), input (48.0 percent), veterinary related support (32.0 percent) and training (32.0 percent).
Like the poultry, livestock farmers experienced a drop in production during Covid-19 according to 57.0 percent of participants; however, the rest of them (43.0 percent) defined their production rate as the same as earlier. The average number of livestock fell from 10.5 to 7.0 in number. Farmers mentioned multiple difficulties in gaining inputs, including high price (51.4 percent), lack of money (31.4 percent), and travel bans (28.6). Labour shortage acted as another constraint, reported by 82.9 percent of respondents.
Moreover, 48.6 percent and 62.9 percent stated that selling quantity and selling price decreased, respectively. People pointed out two main reasons causing low selling quantity and price: panic situation due to Covid-19 (48.6 percent) and marketing problem due to the same (40.0 percent).
Limited number of livestock farmers got assistance from the government (11.4 percent), private organisation (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).
Over the Covid-19 spell, the majority of farmers fell threatened because they went through several crucial problems in fishery, including getting fish feed (60.7 percent), fish fingerlings (50 percent), chemical/medicine (32.1 percent), and fertiliser (25.0 percent). In addition, labour shortage resulted in delay in all steps, from pond preparation to fingerling/fish marketing.
Thus, the farmers saw an average 31.9 percent fall in selling quality and a 31.4 percent decrease in selling price. As a result, the overall income, compared to 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, farmers from all districts including Cox's Bazar, had a loss at an average of 34.2 percent.
Fortunately, the majority of farmers (66.7 percent) frequently received technological and marketing-related advice from government extension workers.
To summarise, Covid-19 led to reduced income of smallholder farmers due to a number of reasons, leaving them closer to the poverty circle. However, farmers already know how the pandemic affects them. It is now all about coping with the situation based on that experience, as well as favourable government policies.
Dr Md Rajwanul Haque is Manager, MEL and Research Unit at Practical Action in Bangladesh. Email: email@example.com.
Md Ahsan Habib is MEL Officer, Practical Action in Bangladesh. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.