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Sustaining farming amid Covid-19 threat

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BOMBA – We cannot assemble the farmers in one big group

Happiness filled 28-year-old Jenifer Butawo of Mtafu Village in the area of Group Village Head Mkoko, Traditional Authority Masumbankhunda in Lilongwe early this year when she received five goats under the Village Challenge Fund which is part of the Sustainable Agriculture Production Programme (Sapp).

The mother of four and a member of Kachenga Sapp Group could see herself saying goodbye to poverty within a short time.

“I used to live in abject poverty. Though I am married, our household lacked many things, including food and good shelter. In addition, we were struggling to send our children to school. The coming of the goats under Sapp helped to raise our hopes for a brighter future,” Butawo narrates.

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She says the picture has been blurred a bit with the coming of the Covid-19 pandemic which resulted in government urging people to stay at home and discouraging communities from converging in large groups for fear of fuelling the spread of the virus.

This, according to Butawo, has affected access to sharing of ideas on how to take care of the goats as all the 44 members of Kachenga Sapp Group cannot meet at once in the wake of the contagion.

“In addition, it has affected the way we used to access exten s ion services f rom government which is now posing a serious threat to my future. Just recently, one of my goats had a miscarriage because of lack of extension services,” Butawo says.

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Her story is just an example of how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting the farming community in the country.

Unfortunately, unlike other countries, Malawi is said to be an agro-based economy, meaning that for the country to move forward, agriculture must continue to be very vibrant even in the wake of a ravaging outbreak.

For Malawi, the first case of Covid-19 was reported In Lilongwe in early April and as of Tuesday, the country had registered a cumulative total of 3,738 cases with 103 deaths and 1,728 recoveries.

Laston Kwendanguwo is Chairperson of Mbila Sapp Group in the area of Traditional Authority Mwansambo in Nkhotakota.

Kwendanguwo concurs with Butawo that life has not been the same for farmers since the emergence of Covid-19.

“We can no longer meet regularly in our group. If we have to meet, then it’s just a few selected members. Although we have not had any confirmed cases in this area, we are just being extra careful to ensure that we adhere to the preventive measures,” Kwendanguwo said.

Mbila group is involved in irrigation farming and produces tomatoes, paprika and maize.

“Whenever a few of us are meeting, we make sure that we sit one meter apart and wash hands regularly with soap,” Kwendanguwo said.

Mabvuto Moyo is Chairperson of Matamula Sapp Group in Nkhotakota and also admits that Covid-19 has affected group meetings where they usually share ideas on how to improve farming.

Chief Agriculture Officer for Lilongwe, Chimwemwe Bomba, confirmed that agriculture extension services have been affected because of Covid-19.

Bomba said it has been a challenge for agriculture extension officers to meet the farmers in groups due to Covid-19 restrictions.

She observed that travelling to various areas has also been a challenge as it would mean huge costs for a few extension workers to travel to the areas while making sure that social distance is observed in the vehicles.

“The number of extension workers is very small as compared to farmers. But with Covid-19 we cannot assemble the growers in one big group to meet them for fear of fuelling the spread of the pandemic. This would require that we meet them in very small groups which is expensive,” Bomba said.

She underscored the need for agricultural activities to keep going despite the challenges posed by the virus, saying people still have to eat while observing the precautionary measures.

“Moving forward, we are thinking of passing the message through various radios so that farmers can listen to them from home. We are also considering mobile vans through which we can pass the message to the farmers,” Bomba said.

The Ministry of Agriculture with financial support from the International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad) started implementing the nine-year Sapp in 2012.

The programme was developed to support implementation of the sectoral investment framework prepared by the ministry to guide investments in the agriculture sector.

The total programme costs are estimated at $51.1 million of which $45.6 million is from Ifad resources.

Sapp is implemented in six districts of Blantyre, Chiradzulu, Balaka, Lilongwe, Nkhotakota and Chitipa. About 200,000 poor rural households comprising mainly productive men, women and youths are targeted to benefit from the programme which seeks to contribute to reduction of poverty and improved food security among rural populations.

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